I Went to Texas

I Went to Texas, Science Writers 2016, www.juliedevaney.com

At the beginning of May I got a very exciting email from science writer Lizzie Wade inviting me to join her panel Against Ableism at the Science Writers’ Conference in San Antonio, Texas. I immediately agreed (from my phone, frantically typing back as soon as I saw the message), and on Saturday October 29th I joined Lydia X. Z. Brown and Rose Eveleth  speaking to science writers, editors and academics from across North America.

Lydia’s talk provided an excellent primer to science journalists about typical ways of talking about disability as inspiration or tragedy, offering alternative narratives and practices. The audience was clearly riveted by Lydia’s challenges to drop the damaging disability tropes that too much health and science journalism still relies on.

Rose bravely provided headlines from her own writing about prosthetics and offered a critical and illuminating review of behind-the-scenes journalism practices as well as producing a list of disabled writers you should hire.

I had the opportunity to talk about my own experiences mediating between communities I’ve been responsible for representing and the institutional power of hospitals and publishers. In collaborative writing and educational projects there were times where my efforts fell flat, and times when community members called me to account after I made compromises and we reviewed and fixed things together. The fear of being wrong can be a terribly damaging inhibitor but if we can use it to doggedly check our representations of other peoples’ stories we are not only more respectful and ethical, we produce richer, more “real” material. When I sat back down after speaking I found this delightful tweet from Laura Helmuth, health and science editor at the Washington Post. To get a flavour of the full discussion, see the hashtag #NASWDisability on Twitter.

Having geographically looked down at the US election from Toronto, it was great to have discussions with Americans in Texas two weeks before the vote. In terms of health care discussions alone, it’s horrifying that the Canadian system is still being wielded as a rhetorical prop in debates. And whether the Canadian health care system is inspiring nationalistic pride in Canada or being used egregiously to provoke fear by people like Donald Trump this just isn’t the whole picture. Compared to the United States, it is true that Canadians are less likely to go bankrupt after a cancer diagnosis or stay in a job we hate just so we can access basic healthcare. But leaving the discussion here puts the bar for healthcare debates depressingly low. More writing to come on this. And that was just Saturday.

By Sunday morning I was ready to take an aimless ramble along the San Antonio Riverwalk with new friend, creative nonfiction writer Antonia Malchik  whose forthcoming book is all about walking. To get a sense of her writing (and how delightful a walking companion she is), read her beautiful essay “Who owns the earth?”.

After that I headed up to Austin for a few days to explore, relax, eat, and write. Since it was still 30 degrees Celsius, swimming in Austin felt absolutely necessary. So on Halloween, I found myself sunbathing among other tourists in the warm grass by the Barton Springs an all natural year-round outdoor swimming pool that every local told me would be “too cold!” And since I’ve happily swum in Ontario lakes as early as May before I could only laugh, and dive in.


Julie Devaney is a patient activist living in Toronto. She is the author of My Leaky Body (Goose Lane Editions: 2012) and co-editor of MESS: The Hospital Anthology (Tightrope Books: 2014). My Leaky Body was one of Quill and Quire’s Top Five Non-fiction books of 2012. Julie was named a Woman Health Hero by Best Health Magazine in 2011 and has been profiled on CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art and The Current, in Chatelaine and the Toronto Star. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and numerous anthologies. Julie has given hundreds of presentations at medical schools, nursing conferences and theatres throughout Canada and in the US and the UK using participatory techniques with patients and professionals to formulate strategies for change and innovation in healthcare. Her work at the University Health Network in Toronto has transformed real patient stories into staff training.
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