In this transcript we visit the podcast interview with the winner of the 2019 Perito Prize, and author of the short story ‘Leg User’, Abby Crawford. Abby’s story can be found on the Perito website @ https://weareperito.com/perito-prize/winners or click here.
Perito: Welcome to the Perito Podcast – Our World. Without Boundaries. A Podcast all about creating an inclusive and accessible world for everyone, everywhere. In this episode we are pleased to be joined by Abby Crawford, the winner of the Perito Prize 2019: For Short Stories all about inclusivity and accessibility. Abby wrote the short story “Leg User” which can be found in the journal section of the Perito website and is a well-rounded tale chock-full of potent messages about the world, topped with a hint of dark humour.
(0m.24s) Hi Abby, and a very warm welcome to the Podcast and well what a great story. What’s it all about?
AC: Thanks. The story “Leg User” is essentially imagining a world where everything is in reverse so a world that is set up purely for people who use wheelchairs. So lots of nice smooth streets, steps don’t really exist, buildings have low ceilings, everything is represented by wheelchairs not people who are able to walk around freely so the main character in this story is herself in a wheelchair and she comes across someone who isn’t in a wheelchair whose the leg user which is the title of the story. It’s a story that’s not necessarily that dramatic in terms of its plot but just follows our wheelchair user main character through her life and her experience interacting with this leg user who experiences the world a little bit differently then she does.
Perito: (01m.20s) Sounds really innovative, what made you enter the prize for this and how did you find out about it in the first place?
AC: A few months ago I completed a creative writing course. I did an Introduction To Creative Writing at City Lit which is in London where I am based. At the end of that course there was quite a lot of inspiration in the room and the teacher advised us to take a look at some short stories and competitions that were out there and so I decided that I was gonna try and use my spare time to do some things kind of useful with it. Which is why I started writing some short stories and this is an area that I’m particularly interested in anyway, in terms of accessibility and equality.
When I saw the theme for this prize which was on a general website that was advertising short story competitions it just seemed to fit really well with kind of my own passions and my own interest and then the commitment that I’d made to start writing some short stories.
Perito: (02m.19s) So was the access and inclusivity thing the key inspiration for this about making you starting to write it in the first place?
AC: Yeah, yeah absolutely. I was drawn into the theme because I thought it provided quite a good opportunity to see the world through a different lens and to imagine what it would be like if it was accessible for the people who its usually inaccessible for if that makes sense. That was the main inspiration.
Perito: (2m.35s) The judges across the board were very impressed with that. As you started the story it wasn’t immediately clear how it was going to pan out and then as soon as you start hitting with the key the topic there, it made me laugh because I saw very clearly where you were going with it and I hesitate to use the topsy turvy because we’re not really turning this upside down but this is actually such a neat way of packaging up a very complicated topic. Did you find it difficult to write to accessibility because of the complexity of the topic, the language that is sometimes used and I suppose the confusion out there when people see a wheelchair user or someone with an impairment and have a bias or approach that they take?
AC: I think once I started writing the story and I knew where I was going with it, it was actually relatively easy because like you say it is a bit of a topsy turvy way of looking at things and its literally just thinking of the opposite of everything that I know so I thought of all the things that we’re able to do just on a daily basis. I’m not a wheelchair user but I have a family friend, an older family friend, who does use a wheelchair and who I grew up with knowing in my life and seeing her experience of just not necessarily being able to do the day to day things that I was able to do.
Things like change a lightbulb for example, or get on a train without assistance, or go to the toilet in a café and it really made me realise that you can only be as independent as the world lets you be and actually the barriers and the challenges around that possibility, they are made by us. They are the infrastructure that we put in place there, the paths we build and the office spaces that we create to work in. So it was quite difficult at first but once I started getting use to the thought of it I just realised how much of the world is set up for people that can just walk around it with ease. It was actually quite fun to write from that perspective, in terms of turning that on its head and, just like you say, being quite topsy-turvy with it.
Perito: (4m 33s) I’m just under 6’6” and I could relate to the male character in this because he’s struggling in a world which is you are meant to be shorter. I find it difficult to, sometimes, exist in the world we’ve got as well but in the other way. When he was cramped up on the bus and the idea of having these bungalows as the staple accommodation. He’s looking for this high roof bungalow. It was excellent and I could directly relate to that.
Did all these things come to you just as you were writing or kind of spontaneous creativity that gave you ideas or do you ever have conversations about this at work or with other people?
AC: My work is directly linked to this topic. I’m an Equality Manager at the London Fire Brigade so some of my work is definitely around accessibility and I’m definitely inspired by that every day, in terms of the people that I meet and learning about the kind of barriers and the challenges that people face.
I had this idea for a while, I actually saw a video quite a while ago now which was a short film. It was a French film so it had subtitles and it imagined the world if it was flipped from a gender perspective. Basically, imagined men as women, so the sign to the cross the road was a flashing green woman rather than a man for example, all the builders were women, they would, you know, wolf whistle at the men.
It was the men that you know were pushing the prams and dropping the kids off at nurseries predominantly staffed by mean and it really stuck in my head and it’s something that I thought about for quite a while, so when I was thinking about this theme and when I saw the competition, that’s when the penny started to drop and I thought, you know, I found that short video that I saw really inspiring and I thought it would be really interesting to try and do that from a different perspective. By focussing on accessibility for disabled people and not just on gender. The thought was there and has been there for quite for a while but then I started to develop it as I was writing the story.
Perito: 6m.27s) It is quite a serious topic but you’ve definitely brought out quite a lot of humour in the way you do it. It’s such a mundane day to day experience for this lady. it’s humorous, the way you finish it’s humorous. Is being funny a natural talent for you or how did you build the humour in?
AC: The French film actually wasn’t funny. It did have a bit of a darker side to it, so it actually examined women’s experiences of assault for example, there was quite a difficult to watch scene to watch in it where a man was actually assaulted by a woman within an alleyway and I actually want to steer away from that in the story.
I think, a lot of the headlines and the kind of reports and things that we see about disabled people’s experiences can be really quite negative and I wanted to stay away from doing something quite dramatic or something quite negative about a disabled person in a wheelchair whose having a really negative experience. I wanted to just explore that kind of mundane day to day – kind of what’s it like just to get out of bed, go to work, go to a concert and explore those day to day experiences. In terms of the humour I probably credit that family friend that I mentioned earlier. She’s been in a wheelchair since she was 14, she contracted Polio when she was a child, and she’s been a really longstanding friend of me and my mum’s and she always approached her accessibility issues that she faced with humour, I remember being on a train with her once where we got someone to assist her onto the train and the train guard was pushing her down the aisle of the train and he kept shouting “there’s a wheelchair coming through, please mind out, there’s a wheelchair coming through” and my mum’s friend kind of making a real joke of it and saying “oh gosh, they must have forgotten me it’s just the chair that’s coming through” down the aisle.
So she’s definitely been an inspiration for that, and it was actually her that had the experience of someone saying to her “oh my brother’s in a wheelchair, you know, it’s really great that you’re out and about” and that’s where I got the flip story and the kind of opening of the story which is when someone taps the leg user and says “oh my brother’s a leg user, you know, you’re a real inspiration” because I remember my mum’s friend just kind of giving a massive eye roll and you know, I understand where you’re coming from but come on you know I don’t need pity I’m just trying to go about my day to day business and that’s, yeah that’s where that came from.
Perito: (8m 37s) Did you feel like you grew your own understanding as you wrote it or was it more of a case of you just, sat down for half an hour and you popped a couple of drafts out or was it more that you developed the story as you changed your concepts and ideas?
AC: Oh, I definitely grew as I did it. The more I wrote and the more I edited, the more kind of just tiny nuances of things I realised are set up for people can walk around. The example of when she crosses the road and it’s a green flashing chair that tells her that she can cross, the kind of concept of having wheelchair lanes on pavements much like we, we expect a pavement to be a space that people walk on and that’s kind of what its broadly thought of and so all these things, all these small nuance things came as I was writing it and I had to try to imagine, for example, what an office building what that would look like. That it would have, perhaps, wheel pumps at the end of the corridors and that the canteen shelving would all knee height for someone who was walking. So yeah, it definitely came to me the more I wrote into the story, the more I started to understand.
Perito: (9m 36s) What was most valuable about going through this process do you think. They’ll be other people who will want to follow in your footsteps, who will be listening to this hopefully for many years to come?
AC: Most valuable for me, I think, was the opportunity to use the story to reflect on something that I’m passionate about on a general level, but actually to get a little more in depth. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to just stop and step back and look at the world and try and imagine it from a different point of view and start to understand other people’s experiences. Because my day job is to work with diversity and inclusion related issues it seemed like it’s a kind of my professional life, and I’m definitely interested in the topics that I cover but this was actually a nice opportunity to just get really stuck into it quite personally and to really attach my personality through writing about a character and inventing a person. That was a really nice way to do it, so I found that was really valuable.
Perito: (10m.38s) Right at the end without spoiling to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, the lead character has a moment I think we’ve seen on movies and TV’s many times where she has a, essentially a shrug of the shoulders moment. It came across as, not inhuman, but it’s just almost a matter of fact wasn’t it and it was a lovely way to finish the story in that it culminated the current opinion that a lot of people have, just in that moment. ‘Well, you know what it’s not my problem, I’m not going to worry about it, what’s for dinner’.
What led you that write that conclusion or what kind of process did you go through as you wrote that final line? Did you have extra lines and deleted it to just that? What was your thinking behind that final sentence?
AC: I think that was definitely the angle I was going for, so I think the main character is called Sam and I think Sam has the attitude of so many people that I’ve come across. So many people who are not impaired or are in a wheelchair, the attitude that they have about people with disabilities I think is actually summed up in the final attitude of Sam. In that she’s kind of interested, she’s always fascinated even because of, you know, the difference but actually she just really wants to just stick with what she knows and with what she’s comfortable with and I’ve seen that happen quite a lot actually. Just the other week on the way to the shop, and it made me think about the story that I’d written when I experienced this, I saw a man in a wheelchair who was trying to get up a kerb and he was looking around for someone to ask, if someone could help him, and I was about to get to him when a man who he’d kind of got his attention turned around and said to the man in the wheelchair, “sorry I don’t have any money” and it really felt because I thought the perception that this man has and that the only reason that, you know, this disabled person would be asking for help is because they want some money or because they’re begging. I found it really shocking that this man just walked on by and kept himself to himself, kind of shrugged his shoulders and said “No, sorry I don’t have any money” and it shocked me that people don’t necessarily want to break out of that comfort zone to acknowledge the struggles and the issues that people who are, not as fortunate as them in terms of being able bodied and able to navigate the world easily kind of have. That’s what I wanted to sum up with the final attitude with the character and I don’t think any of the story is particularly dramatic, it doesn’t take us on a huge narrative plot but I think it was quite a fitting ending I think. In terms of Sam and her attitude and just being almost nonchalant by the end that she’s just kind of going to get on with her own life and her own day. I think that’s what a lot of people do when it comes to kind of acknowledging other peoples issues.
Perito:(13m.00s) She did kind of fancy the male character though didn’t she? There was kind of a light romantic thing going on. What would have happened there if she’d continued, would she have gone back and seen him at work again and said, “oh hi”?
AC: I think she possibly would have. I think that’s what I kind of wanted to leave open because is it this unprofessional fascination actually? Is this a little problematic in that she’s getting a bit obsessed with him because he’s different and, you know she wants to stare at him and she wants to know how does that feel to be able to use legs, or is it that she fancies him a bit and then she’s almost troubled by that because he’s so different? I left that open on purpose but it’s interesting you took that from it.
Perito: (13m.40s) It was a good story and the fact that it’s about everyday existence was a really strong feature for it. A lot of the submissions we had for the prize were high quality, extremely good writing, very intense, very emotional pieces that drew out emotions in the judges. This was kind of the opposite, essentially that everyday experience and the thought processes that people have. It was a good decision to write about that. Well done and thank you for submitting it.
AC: Thank you very much.
Perito: (14m.16s) Do you have any recommendations or tips for people entering next year?
AC: I think one of the main things I did with this story which I’ve always been really reluctant to do, is to really seek some feedback from friends and family. Some of the feedback that I got from my friends and family really directed how I ended up writing it and writing the ending of it in particular.
I’d definitely reach out for feedback even if you’re not that comfortable doing that, find someone that you trust, and someone that will give you a bit of constructive feedback and perhaps suggest some edits because that was definitely really useful for me. Also some of the tips that I got from the writing course that I did, which was a really basic kind of introduction to creative writing.
The most helpful one that I got was about free writing. It’s about setting a timer and just putting your pen to paper or getting your notebook out and just writing, it doesn’t need to be good; it doesn’t need to be even about, you know, the topic that you want to write about. Just get words down on paper because then it’s much easier to edit what you’ve got, and to start to have a think about whether this makes sense? Is this something that I am actually enjoying writing rather than sitting, you know, with an empty notebook and desperately trying to think of ideas? I found it quite useful just to start the process, but yeah asking for feedback is something I find a bit excruciating personally but it definitely got the story to a standard where I felt like I could submit it for a competition and it’s the first competition that I’ve won so I’m really pleased.
Perito: (15m.36s) I think the feedback concept is a difficult one because you need to find someone who wants to do it as well. It can be very demoralising if you’ve got someone who you are asking for feedback and you’re open to share your creativity and what you do but you’re suddenly realising that actually that they’re not feeding back any useful constructive criticisms.
AC: Yes, yeah.
Perito: (15m.58s) It’s just, oh no it looks fine, or nothing at all which is worse than saying that it’s absolute rubbish.
AC: I would recommend asking specific questions. I tried to stay away from just, what did you think about this, or do you think this is any good? Perhaps ask for a specific bit of feedback on a particular paragraph for example – does this make sense? If I were to change the main character from male to female do you think that would be better? Really ask some specific feedback if you can and then they haven’t got an closed question just to tell you that it’s either good or not good.
Perito: (16m.28s) It’s been excellent finding out more about you and your winning story Abi but now it’s time to sign off until next time. Thanks again to our special guest, prize-winning writer Abby Crawford, thanks Abby.
AC: Thank you very much, cheers.
Perito: It’s been a pleasure. You’ve been tuning into the Perito Podcast, Our World without Boundaries, thanks for listening, everyone, everywhere.