The ‘old’ route of ageist and ableist agenda

Prodigious debuts and promising ingénues are celebrated, while those who bloom later or who are mid-career have fewer ways to visibilise their work.
Representational image.
Representational image.

The Speculative Literature Foundation recently announced a call for submissions for a USD$1000 grant for writers over the age of 50, called The Older Writers Grant, now in its tenth year.

The poster features an illustration of two people, both of whom appear to have white hair (and white skin, but no one’s mentioned that), and one of whom uses a cane.

The poster has gone viral because many commentators feel patronised by the illustration, and insulted by the cane. They are also offended by the category of “older”. These writers have taken umbrage because they don’t look like the characters on the poster. They don’t need walking sticks. They’re not that old. Their hair… Okay, never mind.

When I saw the poster, I recognised it as a good opportunity that thoughtfully reaches people who are regularly erased because youth is such a potent selling point, even in the arts. Prodigious debuts and promising ingénues are celebrated, while those who bloom later or who are mid-career have fewer ways to visibilise their work.

That some people in their 50s don’t see themselves in that poster or in the grant’s concept doesn’t mean that numerous other writers aren’t feeling supported and represented by the Older Writers Grant. Writers aren’t famous for our numerical skills, but above 50 could reasonably include five whole decades further.

More egregiously, the backlash to this poster is absolutely ableist. It’s the cane that’s most angered people, and all this shouting about being over 50 and still not needing one erases all disabled people who require one, of any age. This outrage is both unkind as well as foolish.

Take as a comparison how many consider eyeglasses to signify erudition. I’ve no doubt that a good number of the writers affronted by the cane rely with nary a second thought on this corrective instrument. One of the figures on this poster wears them, in fact, but no one is mad about it.

I’m presently wearing my own spectacles on my head because I’m at an age when my prescription power has decreased so much that it’s actually more comfortable to look at my screen without them. My optometrist told me it will rise again when I enter my next decade. Next year, I will turn 40, and I’ve been surprised to discover how young that really is (and how under-accomplished I feel, and how much fear, regret and personal power are all mixed up together).

The negative reaction to the Older Writers Grant and its poster — with all its disgusting ableism and thinly-veiled ageism — is also indicative of how the word “old” can feel hurtful. It is often used to insult, which is why some nerve has been touched. Still, the public response has been shameful.

To age is a privilege, and to still have cognitive and creative faculties — as well as opportunities — the older we get is to be celebrated. Today, one is just 50 perhaps — but tomorrow, if one is lucky, one will be 70, or 90 if luckier still. Surely one still wants to be seen and appreciated then, even if one can’t identify with that idea right now.

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