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Editing with a Disability

Written by Sarah Boon; copy edited by Karen Barry 

headshotI struggle with chronic mental health issues and have only recently accepted that this is a legitimate form of disability. Once I made the first step in acknowledging it, the next step was to decide how it defines me. Am I a “disabled editor” or an “editor with a disability?”

Reading Radical Copyeditor’s post “On ‘Person-First Language’: It’s Time to Actually Put the Person First” helped me make that choice.

Alex Kapitan writes that “person-first language” originated in the 1980s but since then, some editors have taken it as a firm directive. Kapitan argues that correct usage is actually “person-centred,” and focuses on what the person you’re referring to identifies as, rather than what an editorial rule defines that person as.

My disability pervades all aspects of my life and is, indeed, wholly responsible for how I structure my days. This means I have a disability first, and everything else comes second. While this suggests that I would call myself a disabled editor, I’m uncomfortable with this description, and instead, call myself an editor with a disability.

I started editing professionally four years ago, a few years after I first became disabled. I’d taken editing and writing courses previously, and done both as a side job while also working as an environmental science professor. But this was the first time that editing made up a large part of my (limited) workload.

For the past three years, I’ve had an excellent anchor client. I received scientific journal articles to copy edit on a predictable schedule, using a standard style guide and having a week to finish each job. This fit well with my disability, as I’m prone to cognitive overload, so I can only edit for about 1-2 hours a day. Having a week to finish a manuscript gave me plenty of time to apply my editing skills and do a good job.

This year, unfortunately, my anchor client has sent very little work my way. It may be because I raised my rates for the first time in three years, or because they just don’t require my services. What it means, however, is that I’m not getting the applied editing practice I need to continue to grow and develop as an editor.

I’ve tried to pick up the slack through professional development activities. I’ve taken some excellent editing workshops through Editors Canada and the Professional Editors Association of Vancouver Island. I’ve been perusing style guides: Scientific Style and Format (8th Edition), The Chicago Manual of Style (17th Edition), and Editing Canadian English (3rd Edition). I’ve also been reading a great book by Virginia Tufte: Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.

Online, I read the many questions that pop up on editing forums, and the advice people give on how to deal with them. And—as evidenced by my reference to Radical Copyeditor—I follow a variety of editing blogs.

But nothing can take the place of actually doing copy editing to maintain and improve your editing skills.

Given my disability, I’m limited in the types of work I can take on. I can’t do rush jobs, as they cause severe anxiety, and I need enough time to do my job well. I prefer to work on subjects in which I have some background knowledge since I don’t have the bandwidth to learn new subject matter. Mentally, I can only manage regular, steady work—something that I know is the holy grail of many freelancers.

Given what I’ve just written about my ideal copy editing workload, I wonder whether I can be an editor at all. I worry that clients who would meet my job needs don’t exist. In my toughest times, I wonder if my disability is incompatible with the demands of being an editor, and if I should perhaps abandon a career in editing altogether.

In pondering my situation, however, I’ve realized there’s a potential market that could provide steady, predictable work in a subject area I’m familiar with: working directly with academics to copy edit journal articles, book chapters, etc. The key question, however, is how to bring these new clients on board. Should I contact my old colleagues from when I was still a professor? Or perhaps connect with a university’s faculty of science and ask if they’ll spread the word about my services?

These are new, business-related challenges for me to tackle as an editor, but they represent concrete goals I can address to get back to editing.

I know there are many editors out there with chronic conditions, whether that’s tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, excruciating back problems, or the twin devils of depression and anxiety. How do you manage your illness and still maintain your editing work? What advice do you have for someone in my situation?

I look forward to your comments.


Sarah Boon holds a PhD and is a science writer and editor. Her articles about academic culture, women in science, and the environment have appeared in “Nature,” “Outpost,” “iPolitics,” Canadian Science Publishing, CBC’s “The Nature of Things,” and “Science Contours.” Sarah is a co-founder and serves on the board of Science Borealis, where she was formerly the editorial manager (2013–2015) and earth & environmental science editor (2013–2016). Find her at “Watershed Moments” or on Twitter: @SnowHydro.

Karen Barry is launching into freelance editing and is currently enrolled in SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She has a background in biology and over 15 years’ experience writing and editing research papers, technical reports, grant proposals, and promotional and educational materials.

Photo provided by Sarah Boon.

5 thoughts on “Editing with a Disability

  1. This is an important conversation to have – though sadly, many don’t feel comfortable disclosing because people with disabilities aren’t generally welcome by many if not most employers (and this is borne out with high rates of unemployment, underemployment and precarious employment). We need to see the benefits that neurodiversity brings to the workforce.

    I’m glad you raised the use of “person-first” – so many people in the non-disabled community are still hanging onto this old rule, when many in the autistic community really don’t like it. My practice is to ask people how they identify, when possible..

    Wishing you lots of meaningful work in 2018!

    Liked by 2 people

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