Trial, Error and Success: a memoir of disability and adolescence


Interview with writer Rachael Hanakowski

Congratulations! Why did you write your book?

My main goal in writing the book is ultimately to transmit a message of hope and comfort to girls facing similar challenges as I did as a teenager with a prominent physical disability. Adolescence is wrought with contention and isolation so if you add a disability into the equation, which is a significant stray from the societal idea of "normal", you end up with millions of kids feeling extremely isolated and disempowered.

Although I haven't personally met any, I am sure there are many teens with disabilities who will extremely ostracized by their communities, especially in the stigmatized arena that is high school. In my book, I share my own personal battles with bullying, feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts, encountering cultural stigma/ableism and the process of going through extensive orthopaedic surgeries that are commonplace for kids with Cerebral Palsy.

It is my hope that it will serve as a source of information for parents and people who work with youth with disabilities, and as a source of external comfort to those in similar situations. I am a girl, and have faced gendered experiences of disability, and openly share those experiences in a way that most likely speaks directly to girls. I felt this was important in my writing process because girls with disabilities are at the highest risk of all people for sexual and domestic violence in their lifetime.

Many people see the disabled as "other", which leads to stigmatization and subsequent negative experiences for this group. It's so important to work toward inclusion of the disabled in a society that actively combats other types of discrimination, perhaps unintentionally under representing those with disability.

Why did you feel compelled to produce a short film where you address the camera directly?

To bring attention to the important matter of the stigma surrounding disability and the exceptional challenge of navigating adolescence as a disabled girl! 

Reading my book would supply an able-bodied individual with a very real account of the struggles of disability, bullying and the effects of these circumstances. Hopefully this reveal would allow you to have a better understanding of disability that is far different from the representations you may have encountered in the media. As such it should work to educate, inform and set a foundation of empathy for those who are different. It would supply a disabled individual with a true story of courage and determination, a source from which to draw strength.

My hope is that it would instill values of self-empowerment to pre-teens and teenaged girls. It's a long journey to get to a place where you love and value yourself as a human, especially when you have a disability. This book is an example of possibility.

Can you discuss the personal and universal themes in your work?

The themes include compassion for others, belief in the value of one's self, regardless of difference, and the importance of holding onto hope, even in the darkest of times. Finally I wrote this book to help other people, so I hope that in doing so, I have inspired others to do this in their own way, too. I believe in the idea of links in community, not ranks. We can all work to support one another, and no one is "cooler" or "better" than someone else. Ability is not the epitome of human perfection. It is simply a common, and rather fortunate occurance.

 How has your work evolved over the course of its development and publication?

When I first wrote this book at the age of 18, my writing was not super evolved. I have since completed much academic and personal literary work. It turns out a few years of university education in the Liberal Arts is quite useful in widening the scope of one's worldview and imparting a kind of wisdom that allows for critical reflection, in addition to the mastery of certain types of prose. I certainly have made a substantial amount of edits since my memoir's inception, 5 drafts in fact. I could edit it forever. 
What type of feedback have you received so far?

The feedback I have received so far varies according to audience. Friends and family have given praise liberally, all though some are skeptical of my ability to be published simply due the difficulty of this feat. The reaction to my memoir from strangers has ranged from positive to...a certain kind of perplexity. I think people wonder why I am focusing on disability and not writing fiction or something more mainstream. I think they think that maybe I am too young and inexperienced to be a professional advocate. I find this amusing because wisdom and drive has nothing to do with age.

Further, my championing of social justice is part and parcel of my character but the values of it have been strongly instilled in me as a Sociology major in college. I don't think you can concentrate in sociology or women's studies and not want to change the unequal fabric of society and its institutions. Additionally, people have been critical of my choice to market to girls with disabilities in particular. Many ask why my memoir's espoused message is to empower women. I see their point.

However, I choose to zone in on speaking in girls with challenges specifically, not to neglect males with disability but rather to pay homage to the many gendered obstacles faced by girls and women with disabilities; such as the epidemic of sexual assault. These types of issues are inextricably linked to the lived experience of a woman with a physical challenge. I hope men will enjoy my book! I hope they learn to believe in themselves too. I just see an opportunity here, and a NEED to speak up for a community of which I am part of both as a woman and as an individual with cerebral palsy.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?

I have certainly realized that very many people crusade for social justice like I do. I have seen a lot of apathy, sadly. Individuals don't think they themselves can make a difference. This belief is pervasive and I challenge it. Any apathy I encounter, is a part of a wider social problem. With this understanding, I continue to fight for what I think is important. 
What are you looking to achieve by having your work more visible on

I am hoping to gain more exposure for my memoir, but, more importantly, I want to raise awareness around the seriousness of discrimination and abuse against girls and women with disabilities and those who are marginalized, for various reasons. It's my goal to send the message that standing up for one's convictions is vastly important in a culture of narrow definitions and standards of normalcy, in the clasp of suffocating pressure to conform and what I perceive is a decline in compassion and awareness for those who aren't "like us".
Who do you need to come on board to amplify your work's message? Activists of all kinds! If you care about women's rights, disability rights and or the destruction of stigma, I could really use your support!
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this book and film to have?

Eventually I would like it to have a very wide reach - to be available in bookstores all over. My book is too short for commercial publication and the standards of the industry are by nature, extremely competitive and contingent on the possession of a highly developed platform, especially where memoirs are concerned.

So, I am aiming to co-publish through She Writes Press. Like thousands of university students and 20 somethings across the continent, I don't have a lot of money. I rely on student loans to pay for school. As such I am currently running a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the fees necessary for cooperative or self-publication. You can learn more at by clicking on "Support The Publication".

Any donation would be extremely appreciated, as would any sharing (via social media, with friends and family). Without reaching my funding goal of $7,000 CAD by September 23rd, I will not be able to publish my book. I so wish I was in a position to fund this on my own and had a long battle with my pride before taking the leap and creating this campaign. Please, help me spread a message of hope, empowerment and determination to those who could really use it.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about your work?

- Are girls with disabilities treated well in society?
- Have you encountered stigma in your life? Do you see the value in helping to dissolve harmful stigmas? What can you do to help?
- Do you know someone with a disability? What kind of life to you think they lead? Are they excluded or included within your community? Why or why not? What are some contributing factors to the exclusion of those with disabilities?
- Did you know that 3/4 of girls with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, many more than once?
Would you like to add anything else?

Be kind to one another. Spread love, not hate, and fight back when you face or see injustice occurring. If you have a disability, don't underestimate your ability to accomplish things. Despite popular belief, you are perfectly wonderful as you are. Finally, never give up on something you believe in. If you have a major challenge that leaves you feeling hopeless and worthless, know that the resilience you will develop throughout your lifetime is your biggest asset.

Cherish your accomplishments - they are unique, and wonderful feats to behold; especially because so few people can experience a joy like walking up a flight of stairs alone for the first time. Hold that joy in your heart and let it fuel your every awkward movement, allowing you to gracefully accept, not painfully reject your disability.
What are you developing or working on next?

I am working on expanding my memoir to include a second segment on the challenge of transition into disabled womanhood. I'm going to include more sophisticated language and references that speak to an adult audience. Finally I will infuse my personal experiences of my becoming a woman with sociological analysis. By the New Year, I'll have entered my forth year of my BA degree and will soon be working tireless toward entrance to the Honours program in Sociology. I'll also begin a minor concentration in Women and Gender Studies.

The very public, bold and brave advocacy efforts of actress Emma Watson with the UN in regard to gender equality have got me all tied up in understanding and examining women's history and experience as the inferior gender. I hope to work on being more confident in proclaiming myself a feminist. Finally, I'll be looking at Graduate programs in Creative Writing, and no doubt continuing to amass a personal plethora of diverse and enthused writing. You can view my writing on Rookie, Thought Catalog and at where I am currently an editorial board member. Ultimately I hope to have my own website where I will blog and share publications consistently. 

Thank you so much for visiting We Are Moving Stories and for reading this interview. I hope it has inspired you!!!

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 We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series and music video. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us?  More info: Carmela