I didn’t set out to be a freelance writer. From the age of about seven, I was determined to become an archaeologist. (Before that, it was a paleontologist, astronaut, architect, and before that, a WWI flying ace, just like my floppy-eared hero, Snoopy. I have a rather varied imaginary career trajectory.)
That plan lasted all the way through university and my first few experiences out in the field, when I realised that a life of staring at different shades of dirt was possibly not the best option for someone with achromatopsia – a rare genetic condition that means I’m legally blind and completely colour blind. Not to worry, I would eschew the outdoor career for the life of a museum curator. I’d hide in the back of a dusty archive, lost in books and shelves of artifacts, and hunt out the secret stories of the past.
I started a six-month volunteer stint as a curatorial intern at a local living history museum. Every week I’d travel 75 minutes each way on two different buses to get to the museum. I spent blissful days cataloguing boxes of old toys and tools stored in the attic, treating wooden artefacts for borer, arranging exhibits and sorting through beautiful paper ephemera from the early 20th century.
I loved every minute of it. I thought I’d found my calling in life.
My first experience of workforce discrimination
One day, I was eating my lunch in the museum library when I noticed an advertisement on their noticeboard saying they were looking for visitor guides. As my internship was drawing to the end, I thought it would be awesome to be able to continue to work at the museum, earn some money so I could actually afford to eat, and keep my foot in the door in case they wanted to take me on as a junior curator.
I ran down to the director’s office, knocked on the door, and politely mentioned that I’d be interested in the guide role. I expected him to be stoked. After all, I knew the history of the place and the collections. I’d need minimal training, and I’d already proved I was happy to work for peanuts.
Instead, he sighed. “Steff, I’m sorry. I can’t give you that job. Or any job.”
My heart plunged through my chest. “Oh. May I ask why not?”
“It’s just that with your eyesight, you’re a health and safety risk. You could hurt yourself, and that would get the museum in trouble. I mean, we have a well on site. What if you fall in the well?”
2017 Steff would probably have questioned his interpretation of the Health & Safety at Work Act. Or maybe kicked him in the shins. But 2006 Steff was speechless. Totally and utterly flabbergasted. I backed out of the office without a word and went through the rest of my day in a haze.
He was afraid I’d fall in the well.
A well that was sealed with a metal grate.
A well I’d walked past on my way to my unpaid curatorial internship once a week for the last six months.
Unfortunately, for people with disabilities, my experience is all-too-common. Despite the fact that research shows people with disabilities are more loyal, reliable, and productive than the general workforce, it’s tough to find a job. In the UK, only 46.5% of working-age people with a disability are in some kind of paid employment (as opposed to 84% for non-disabled workers). For those with a learning disability, the number in employment is 6%, despite more than 60% being willing and able to work.
When a person with a disability does find employment, they’re likely to be paid less than their able-bodied colleagues.
Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that, during the period 1997-2014, the disability pay gap was 13% for men and 7% for women.
The recruitment process itself can be a barrier, where applicants with disabilities are unable to attend or prepare for interviews. Negative stereotypes in the media and toxic workplace culture further isolates candidates with disabilities.
Things are changing. Organizations like Disability Rights UK are actively campaigning to raise awareness, educate employers, and create positive change. However, waiting for change to happen wasn’t an option for me, so I decided to go a different route – a route that offered freedom.
The making of a freelance writer
After that horrible conversation with the director, I went home in tears. It’s a hard thing to come face-to-face when you realise there are people who can’t see past a disability, and those people have the power to decide if you get a job or not. All the work I’d put in over the years – my top grades, my mountains of scholarships, my work and volunteer experience – none of it meant a thing. Because I was blind.
Because I might fall in the well.
My boyfriend (now husband) let me cry it out for an hour or so. Then he got sick of watching me feel sorry for myself, and told me that maybe I should look at this situation in another light.
He reminded me that things like that are always going to happen because there are always shitty people who won’t get it, who won’t get you. But I was lucky, because I was smart, and I never gave up. So I had two options: either find a method for putting up with it and succeeding anyway, or to find something else I was passionate about and do that instead. Find something that no one could say I couldn’t do.
“You’re always writing stories. What about being a writer? No one can tell you that you can’t do that.”
This writing idea had merit. I was always fiddling with novel ideas, and I’d written music reviews for my student magazine. My tutors at university praised my essays. I knew I had some skill, and I enjoyed sitting behind a computer making things up. But how could I translate that to a job that paid? I didn’t even know how writers earned money.
So, I did what any self-respecting millennial would do. I googled “How to make a living as a writer” and spent the next ten years attempting everything the first listicle suggested.
All the things I tried – flowery descriptions for paint samples, blog posts about dietary supplements, short stories for a fetish website – helped me hone my skills as a writer. The basics are pretty simple; figure out who your audience is (women renovating their homes, men wanting to buff up, people who really like feet), and write something that elicits an emotional response.
I discovered I had a knack for writing copy, especially for the growing digital market, so I moved into a career as a copywriter. I started out earning $25-50 for online magazine articles, while taking on clients for websites, product descriptions, and blog articles. I freelanced on the side while working my day job, and managed to pivot my freelance career into roles in content strategy and inbound marketing at awesome tech companies like Xero and Tradify. At the same time, I polished the novels I’d written at university, and wrote a couple more.
Through all the years I worked as a copywriter, I continued to write novels and submit them to publishers. In 2014, I decided I was done running on the hamster wheel of trying to find a publisher. The process was starting to feel dangerously close to trying to convince museum curators that I wouldn’t fall into a well. Instead, I started to self-publish.
My first two self-published novels floundered. I was earning around $10 a month, but the process of creating and publishing the books and figuring out how to market them invigorated my creative side. I took the lessons I’d learned from those first books, started a secret pen name in a new genre, and published the book Art of Cunning in April 2015. I sold thousands of copies in a month, and for the first time, I realised I could make a living from my own creativity beyond writing copy for other businesses.
To date, I’ve published more than 30 books. I quit my tech job to write full time, and I split my days between exciting freelance assignments and novel writing. I’ve sold tens of thousands of copies of my books, amassed a loyal group of fans, and make enough money to pay the bills and keep my husband and four cats in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed.
Freelance success with a disability
Being a successful freelancer when you live with a disability means you need to do all the same things any successful freelancer does – you need to be tenacious, to treat your writing as a business, and to be open to new opportunities.
Because you have the freedom to decide your own hours and build your own space, you can structure your business around your disability. If fatigue wipes you out for part of the day, you can schedule work for your most productive time. If you can’t read your computer screen, then you can use technology to help. If you can’t speak to a client over the phone or take notes during an interview, you’ve got email and transcription at your fingertips.
As you live with a disability, you have a unique set of experiences and a view of the world that you can translate into work. Consider introducing yourself to companies that provide services and products for people with your disability, or a particular interest area. Building a social media presence never hurts – you can establish yourself as a leader in your niche and become a hot commodity for brands.
There’s another advantage to freelancing some people with a disability find exhilarating – invisibility.
My recent book has 155 reviews on Amazon. Not a single one mentions my wonky eyes. Wonky eyes aren’t important to readers. What is important is my talent in storytelling.
The same is true for clients. They care that I have the writing chops to do the job on time and on budget. My disability doesn’t enter the equation and if it did, I have the choice not to work with that client. In my experience, neither readers nor clients care about my disability, and I’m grateful for it. Every day when I’m in public, I’m obviously disabled. I can’t escape it. I was a target for bullies in school because I was different. I stand on a corner looking at a map on my phone, and end up being dragged around the city by people who clearly failed geography. I squint at a takeaway menu in a restaurant, and end up ordering two scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with vindaloo (true story).
When I write, I get to be invisible. I get to be known by my work, and not my disability. Even though it may not seem like it (gestures to the ridiculous goth outfit I’m currently wearing, complete with orange-and-black-striped socks), I revel in that invisibility. It is welcome. Much more welcome than a vindaloo ice cream sundae.
Writing is the most glorious job I could ever imagine doing. The idea that I get paid to make stuff up still gives me a thrill every day. I write books about clockwork robots terrorising London and vampires falling in love. No one cares that I sit an inch away from the screen, or that I shut the curtains when the light gets too bright.
And, you’ll be glad to hear, I have never once fallen in a well.