Rosemary Sutcliff The Eagle of the Ninth author on being a person and writer with disabilities

From the cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's autobiography The Blue Remembered HillsRosemary Sutcliff, a most able writer of children’s books and historical fiction (‘co-writer’ of film The Eagle (of the Ninth)), spoke of the ‘surprising loss of privacy’ when she wrote about living with her disability for the ‘Emotions in Focus’ exhibition at The Roundhouse (London) which celebrated the 1981 International Year of Disabled People.

Career-wise, I’m one of the lucky ones. My job, as a writer of books, is one of the few in which physical disability presents hardly any problems. I would claim that it presents no problems at all but my kind of book needs research, and research is more difficult for a disabled person. I am less able to see for myself or dig priceless information out of deeply hidden archives. I have to rely more on other people’s help and on libraries. And even libraries can present problems – like one which shall be nameless – which is very proud of its ramp to its entrance but keeps its entire reference department upstairs, with, of course, no lift. Still, I am one of the lucky ones – not for me the heart-breaking business of convincing employers that I am employable. I work at home and if I produce a book which the publisher considers worth publishing, it gets published.

But there are drawbacks. Writing is known, amongst writers, to be just about the loneliest way of making a living that there is – even for the able-bodied writer. It is a job done completely alone in a world inhabited only by oneself and the creatures of one’s own creation In the ‘Real world, one’s contact with other people tends to suffer. For the disabled writer, it suffers doubly. Because I am fairly badly disabled, I cannot go off and do things on my own. Unless I can find a friend who wants to see the play I want to see, or who is going to the gathering I want to go to, I don’t get there. This means, amongst other things, a surprising loss of privacy. I can never do anything that someone else doesn’t know about.

I am lucky in having good friends and of course my work brings me into contact with publishers, editors, librarians and the like. People intelligent enough to realise that I am simply another person who happens to have physical difficulties that they don’t. But of course, there are those, not friends but stray contacts of life who adopt the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude. It was one of these – a blue rinsed American lady in a hotel foyer in Athens, who asked my accompanying friend if she had brought me with her on her holiday.

“No,” said my friend, “She has brought me.”
“My, my, how nice!” said the blue rinsed lady, kindly but obviously not believing a word of it.
“And is she enjoying herself?”
“You’d better ask her,” said my friend.
“Sure,” crooned the blue rinsed lady, “and can she walk at all?” .

Now, I am not, I swear it, touchy or hypersensitive but, at that point, I heard a small clear voice that did not seem to be mine at all but to be hanging in the air about a foot in front of my nose, saying: “Yes, she can a little. As a matter of fact she can speak, if poked in the stomach, and even answer questions, if asked nicely.”

The blue rinsed lady’s mouth opened and remained open. My friend said hurriedly, “I think it’s time we went and changed for dinner,” and we trundled off, leaving that kind and well-meaning lady to recover herself.

In the privacy of our own room we laughed ourselves silly. After which I began to shiver with something that fell like shock, though it was probably only repressed fury. I went on shivering most of that evening and could certainly not enjoy my dinner, I felt too sick.

Dear (able-bodied) Reader, if ever in Athens or Tooting or Timbuktu, you find yourself about to take refuge in the ‘does he take sugar’ approach to someone disabled, do think again.

(Source: Exhibition Guide, 1981  – Repost from earlier on this blog)

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