This guest post is brought to you by Max Swinhoe, my sensitivity reader for my de Petras Saga series! Copywriter, Editor of withinReach Magazine and advocate of disability inclusion, Max is currently living nomadically; travelling and exploring the UK and Ireland with her husband in their van Gloria. 

When you read a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way.

This is a quote from ‘Stolen Focus’ by Johann Hari, in which he speaks about empathy that is formed in fiction. This struck a chord with me because not long before reading this, Emily had reached out to me about working with her on a book series. More specifically, she asked me to act as her ‘sensitivity reader’ with regards to her character Sapphire, who was going to have an upper limb difference.

I myself was born with an upper limb difference, I am a freelance copywriter but truly my heart is in the work I do for the charity Reach, a children’s charity for upper limb differences that work tirelessly to ensure that they ‘live a life without limits’.

As the editor of Reach’s magazine ‘withinReach’, we have in the last couple of years created a whole section about representation. Here we celebrate people with upper limb differences who are out there talking about difference, challenging expectations and breaking barriers across many industries and we talk a lot how important it is for children growing up today to see themselves in films, television, story books. But, when Emily got in touch, I realised this was a new opportunity.

This was a chance to reach adults, and in a very different way to a magazine. This was a chance to introduce upper limb difference to people at the beginning of a character’s life and allow them to step into that life and really get a sense of what it’s like to live with a difference. We hear about the character Sapphire’s congenital upper limb difference from the moment she’s born, and we live with her through the good and bad experiences that shape her.

I’ve grown to love Sapphire’s strength, feisty nature, sense of humour and resilience; for me this is the key because Emily’s portrayal of Sapphire or the situations she finds herself in never invoke pity but only compassion, humility and empathy.

The thing that struck me most though, was that as an author Emily needn’t have created Sapphire at all. She doesn’t have to introduce diverse casts into her literature, she doesn’t have to employ a sensitivity reader, because whilst being progressive and open-minded, it also costs her time, money and energy, but I am so grateful to her for it. It tells me, someone with a disability, that she is taking this representation seriously, that she cares about her character and how she is received.

If I’m honest I think Emily has had the hardest job here, but so far has tackled the topic of difference with respect and sensitivity. It cannot be an easy feat, introducing a character with a disability into an historical series whilst at the same time not making the story about disability. Not to mention how perceptions about have changed so dramatically over the centuries, so here I had to trust her judgement and knowledge when it came her choice of language or the kinds of situations Sapphire would be faced with, whilst she had to trust mine when I questioned elements of the text that I thought perhaps weren’t quite right.

On a personal level I had to step back too and really assess where my sensitivities were. I reminded Emily, and myself at times, that it was not my job to speak for all people with disabilities but rather to oversee and tell her how I felt and how I thought things might be misinterpreted or understood.

I remind you the reader of the same thing, that I do not speak for all on this, and ask that as you delve into Sapphire’s character that you really take on board that although this is a fictional interpretation, the scenarios that we find Sapphire in aren’t all that far away from the scenarios that many with differences might face today. Discrimination and prejudice still exist but perhaps these opportunities to represent difference in fiction will help move us to keep moving forward, allowing people to connect with a character in a whole new way and develop that all important transferrable empathy we could do with a little more of in real life.

Thank you Emily and I truly hope you all enjoy the journey with Sapphire.

Intrigued? Make sure you grab the de Petras Saga now, available in Kindle Unlimited and full of passionate (and contrary!) characters!

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