Mary Wilkinson

Thanks go out to Mary Wilkinson for talking to me as a random reader who got in touch out the blue! I heard about Defying Disability a year or so ago and I was so interested to read it that I requested the RNIB record it as part of their talking book library. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed when the accessible version became available and I got to read it!

Defying Disability reviews the lives of nine disabled leaders. Their backgrounds are diverse, as is their approach and their views on disability. They share significant successes which makes Defying Disability an interesting read.

I wanted to turn the table on Mary and ask her about her life and her legacies.

In 1983 Mary’s children were growing up and she wanted to return to journalism in a full time capacity. She was offered the job of editor of the then called, Spastics News, an unthinkable title these days.  The magazine has been renamed to Disability Now.

She recalls that it was an exciting time at the magazine and in the disability movement.

Mary revived the magazine by adding more areas of popular interest such as sports and arts. She had a vision to give disabled people more information so they could make their own informed decisions. She also had a strong desire to be more representative of the readers and enlisted more disabled people to contribute to the running of the magazine. Numbers increased from two full time staff and a part time member when she started to twelve when she left in 2005.

The magazine grew in popularity and recorded the current feeling of change at the time. Mary describes this period as exciting and inevitably the magazine became campaigning in the content.

At one point the magazine had seven campaigns on the go. These included winter fuel support for under 65s, legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes and a campaign called, Baywatch which increased disabled parking at supermarkets.

She speaks proudly of this period and says there was a feeling of moving forward and of disabled people coming together. In the same breath she recalls the wranglings she describes as, ‘wasted energy’ at the time between disabled people’s organisations. This topic comes up several times within some of the profiles in her book.

We talked about the disabled people’s movement having been quiet of late. However, Mary believes the current cuts in services provides an opportunity for disabled people to come together and show leadership and unity.

I also wanted to speak to Mary about her experience of writing a book and getting it published. She acknowledges her background helped her a great deal and the second publisher she approached said yes.

She sent the first chapter and the chapter headings to the publisher and was then left to get on with it. She expected it would take two years to write the book but it actually took three. Mary spoke to a total of eighty two people in order to write about her nine leaders. She says  she found the research and writing fascinating  but she laughingly gives this advice, ‘do it for the love as it will never make you rich’!

Mary sees the book as having mass appeal but the publishers did not share this view. The publishers decided it was a specialist title and proceeded to market it to care professionals. A sign, in my view, of the need for disabled people to show leadership and continue to challenge society’s assumptions and attitudes.

I would say that one of the reasons I enjoyed the book is that it covers disability in a way that is really accessible. It is therefore a shame that it was deemed ‘specialist’ and hence has not reached the wider audience it was written well for.

When I asked Mary about her future plans the last thing I was expecting her to say was ‘jam’! Mary admits she was worried she was getting too old to work for herself and take a totally different path. She is proving herself wrong by running a jam making business for individuals and delicatessens and is having great fun doing it.

Get your copy of Defying Disability here. Defying Disability: The Lives and Legacies of Nine Disabled Leaders I highly recommend Defying Disability as a positive read to disabled and non-disabled readers alike.

Defying Disability is available on audio if you are a user of the RNIB’s talking book service

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