Susan Mockler is a disabled writer living in Kingston, Ontario. Her stories and essays have been published in magazines across Canada and the U.S. Fractured: A Memoir is her first book.
In Fractured: A Memoir, Susan Mockler’s physical and psychological journey after a car accident left her partially paralyzed is an illuminating look at healthcare, ableism, and Susan’s acceptance of the mantle of disability activist.
Interviewed by Nikki Hillman
Nikki Hillman (NH): Your memoir touches on changes you’d like to see for people living with disabilities. Your accident occurred in 1995, what changes have you seen since then?
Susan Mockler (SM): At a federal and provincial level (at least in Ontario, where I live), there has been legislation introduced addressing the need to accommodate and include people with disabilities in multiple spheres of daily life, such as access to the built environment, employment, education, etc.
I have experienced and benefitted from some of these changes in terms of the built environment, particularly where new construction provides barrier-free design for those with mobility accessibility needs. I think this is promising; however, there are still many gaps, not just in terms of the built environment, but also in terms of designing environments from a universal inclusivity perspective that would allow inherent flexibility to meet the needs of all people of all abilities at all stages of life.
I think there is increased awareness about the importance of accessibility and inclusivity, but I still experience stigmatization, marginalization, and discrimination as a disabled person.
Ableism seems so engrained in our society that I think it will take a long time and a lot of hard work through activism to change attitudes and behavior and move towards true inclusion.
NH: Many humans struggle with the possibilities of “what if”. In terms of your accident, how have you worked through this?
SM: I think that the human tendency to struggle with the possibilities of “what if” relates to a need to feel in control and the resulting anxiety of not feeling in control, which at times, at least for me, is almost an existential anxiety or dread.
Because no direct blame could be assigned to the fact that the car I was travelling in as a passenger hit a moose and resulted in my spinal cord injury and subsequent disability, this helped me accept that for the most part, I could not control my life and the things that happened to me. I came to recognize that the belief that I could was illusory.
Since my accident, I continue, of course, to grapple with this. For the most part, I try to focus on how I react to things, rather than trying to control them. I concentrate on moment-to-moment experience and staying grounded in the present. I am not always successful in this, but I am at my best when I am. For me, it’s a lifelong challenge.
NH: I was struck by a passage in your epilogue where you recount an incident at the pool which affected you and your self-agency. How did this incident help you to grow or improve this?
SM: This is an example of the types of interactions I have experienced since I became disabled. When treated as an object and infantilized, as in this situation, where this woman tried to dress me without my consent, the actual shock of the intrusion reduces my ability to respond. In this case, I didn’t protest, even though I wanted to because I felt powerless.
I would like to think that if this happened again or when other incidents occur where I am treated without respect or dignity, I would speak up. But sometimes in the moment, I can find it difficult to react.
What I have learned, though, is to not internalize these experiences. That any shame I might feel belongs to the other person and their behavior, not to me.
I look for opportunities to increase awareness and education, and to address the discrimination and marginalization faced by those with disabilities. This fosters and increases my sense of agency, even though daily interactions with certain individuals may challenge this from time to time.
NH: You discuss the role of the media, literature and the arts reinforcing the stereotypes that promote prejudice. In recent years, the arts have been focusing more on inclusion and diversity. Have you seen a significant change in these stereotypes recently?
SM: Disability is a broad term that encompasses individuals from multiple and diverse backgrounds who experience a range of situations, circumstances, and conditions. All these perspectives are important and are part of full inclusion and participation in the arts and elsewhere to address marginalization and discrimination.
I recently watched a British detective series where the coroner was deaf and importantly, she was played by a deaf actor. This was not a plot point, nor was it exploited or ignored. Like others in the show, she was conveyed as a multidimensional complex character, being deaf was part of that. These are the types of portrayals that I think are meaningful and I was encouraged by this when I watched this series.
NH: Writing a memoir can be an emotional process. How did you navigate the process of revising and recounting this personal experience to create an authentic narrative? And how did this process impact your relationship with yourself?
SM: I began this project as a novel. I think initially fictionalizing my story provided the distance I required to put this highly charged experience into words. Later, I received feedback to consider changing it to a memoir. After having written these experiences in the form of a novel, I felt ready to commit to writing the memoir. With each successive revision, I felt I came closer to the emotional truth of my story. The resulting memoir reflects the narrative and emotional experiences I had hoped to convey.
NH: What advice would you give to others who may be considering writing a memoir about their own experiences overcoming challenges in life?
SM: To the extent that these experiences may involve trauma, I would suggest that before they begin, they feel that they are in a safe space in their lives to process whatever emerges for them as they write their memoir.
I think having a strong social support network is important. I have found it highly valuable from an emotional and craft perspective to belong to a trusted group of writers where we share work and give each other support, encouragement, and constructive feedback throughout the ongoing process of creating and revising work.
NH: What do you envision for the broader impact of your memoir, both within the disability community and beyond?
SM: By sharing my story, I hope to increase awareness of the marginalization and prejudice disabled people often face in attitudes and the physical environment. Ultimately, I hope my book illustrates the need for change to facilitate inclusion and the full participation of people with disabilities in society.