skip to main content
caption: Cover of Elsa Sjunneson's Being Seen 
    Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon
Cover of Elsa Sjunneson's Being Seen
Credit: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

The how and why of Elsa Sjunneson’s fight to end ableism

The admonition to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them derives from Native American wisdom and the 1895 poem Judge Softly by Mary T. Lathrap.

Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps, Or stumbles along the road. Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears, Or stumbled beneath the same load.

Often enough, many of us fail to display the empathy called for in Lathrap’s poem. When it comes to our treatment of people with disabilities, writer Elsa Sjunneson wants to address that. In her new book Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman's Fight to End Ableism, Sjunneson, known for her speculative fiction, takes a turn at memoir and cultural critique.

As the subtitle suggests, Sjunneson identifies as Deafblind. She has partial vision in one eye, needs a cane or guide dog to walk, and uses bilateral hearing aids.

In Being Seen, she describes how her parents thought it best to raise her as nondisabled. In school, she attended classes without accommodations or services for the disabled. In effect, she was made to conform to an abled world that stigmatized her disabilities. Sjunneson writes that her parents’ good intentions backfired, ultimately leading to abusive experiences.

I have become an expert at lying for abled comfort, and it is exhausting. I’ve been trying to unlearn it.

Ableism is defined as “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled.” Sjunneson writes that “If you are inspired to do anything by this book, it should be the work of dismantling the ableist system we live in.”

Elsa Sjunneson is a Hugo, Aurora, and British Fantasy Award-winner. In this episode, she talks about Being Seen with writer Annalee Newitz. Newitz is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning novels The Future of Another Timeline and Autonomous, and the non-fiction work Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.

The Seattle Public Library and The Elliott Bay Book Company presented their conversation on November 4, 2021.

Please note: This recording contains unedited language of an adult nature.

If you have any feedback on this episode, you can email me at

Or you can just fill out the feedback form below