Meet Author Andrew Gurza: Shining a Bright Light on Sex and Disability

By Caitlin Hernandez

Oleb Books author Andrew Gurza is sitting in his wheelchair, wearing a grey dress shirt, smiling at the camera.

Oleb Books author Andrew Gurza, a self-identified “queer cripple,” not only writes, speaks, and tweets about his experiences, but also hosts a podcast about disability and has become well-known for his ability to spread awareness about the intersection between the queer and disabled communities.

Having earned his masters degree in legal studies from Carleton University in 2013, Gurza, who has cerebral palsy, switched from writing stories and imitative newspaper articles as a child to writing about his experiences as a man who is both queer and disabled. He views himself as a “Cripple Content Creator” and encourages both his readers and podcast audiences to think outside the box and attempt to examine disability and sexuality through the lens of those living the experience. “I love bringing people into (my) world and sharing perspectives around disability that we don’t often talk about,” he says.

Growing up, Gurza felt supported by his family, who ensured he was able to participate in any and all activities that interested him. His mother was his strongest and most steadfast supporter and advocate. “She’s been my rock,” Gurza says.

Though his childhood was fairly typical, Gurza stated his disability did pose its own unique challenges. “It was hard for me to make friends as a disabled kid and teen, and, ironically, as a queer, disabled man, that feeling hasn’t necessarily changed.”

In addition to making and listening to podcasts, Gurza is a True Crime fan who also enjoys traveling and exploring.

In his essay for Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities, “Baring It All,” Gurza takes us back to college life. He shows the reader the ins and outs of navigating gay culture with a disability.

To learn more about author Andrew Gurza, check out his podcast, DisabilityAfterDark, follow him on Twitter at @andrewgurza, and visit his website at www.andrewgurza.com.

A northern California native, Caitlin Hernandez writes novels for teens and tweens, as well as nonfiction prose pieces. Occasionally, she writes songs, plays, and poems. She was a Lambda Literary fellow in 2015, and recently received mentorships through Writing In The Margins and We Need Diverse Books.
Caitlin lives in San Francisco and teaches fifth and sixth graders with disabilities.

Meet Attorney and Award-Winning Writer Heidi Johnson-Wright

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Photo of author Heidi Johnson-Wright, wearing a red, short-sleeved top, a colorful scarf and hoop earrings. She's sitting in a wheelchair, smiling.

Heidi Johnson-Wright, author of the leading story in the collection Firsts: Coming Of Age Stories By People With Disabilities, has lived with the complicated effects of rheumatoid arthritis since around the age of 9. The condition made it necessary for her to use a wheelchair and curtailed her ability to perform simple, everyday tasks. When she began college in the 1980s, she needed a caregiver to help her dress and get to class on time. Johnson-Wright quietly accepted her situation, excelling in her studies. She even had a boyfriend.

In “Life with Lexie,” her Firsts contribution, Johnson-Wright recalls her friendship with Lexie, her college caregiver. She also recalls the abuse she withstood at the hands of her own mother, who was unable to deal with the harsh realities of Johnson-Wright’s disability. Johnson-Wright now speaks to us about how this abuse affected her rheumatoid arthritis.

“As is true of many other medical conditions, stress can exacerbate rheumatoid arthritis, making one prone to flairs,” she said. “The more the disease acts up, the faster permanent joint damage occurs. And if you have a condition with chronic pain, anxiety makes the physical sensations of the pain worse. I didn’t learn that until I was in my 30s. No one bothered to tell me that when I was a kid.”

Johnson-Wright noted that when she was a child — in the worst throes of her disease — kids were not treated as full-fledged humans. “The pain of kids was not taken as seriously as that of adult patients,” she said. “It seems incredible now when I think about it, but all the years that I received treatment at what was considered a cutting edge pediatric rheumatology clinic, no one ever asked me how I was managing the pain.”

And because of the nature of their relationship, Johnson-Wright was never able to discuss these issues with her mother. “I don’t remember ever truly having a constructive conversation with my mother,” she recalls. “Not in the sense of two people communicating, truly listening to each other, and respecting each other’s feelings and opinions. Part of that was due to her having what I believe to be borderline personality disorder, and never being able to get beyond being a narcissistic bully. But part of it was due to the generation my parents came from. Children were devalued and were expected to be seen but not heard.”

Johnson-Wright has also faced obstacles in her adult life, such as disability discrimination. “Every time a building, a transit station, or a streetscape is designed with an end user in mind that is the mythical 5-foot, 9-inches, 175-pound, white, non-disabled male, disability discrimination is there,” she pointed out.

She added that she recently saw a statistic which said that less than one percent of housing units in the United States are move-in ready for wheelchair users.

“The other 99 percent require renovations before someone like me could live there,” she said. “Imagine going apartment hunting and knowing that 99 percent of what’s out there will automatically be off limits to you, simply because you have a disability.”

Ride service providers such as Uber and Lyft also do not accommodate people with disabilities, according to Johnson-Wright. “Yet we don’t hear the outrage and disgust,” she said. “That is disability discrimination.”

Johnson-Wright’s disability did not play a role in her becoming an attorney. It’s what her father wanted her to do, and it’s what he was willing to pay for.

“I would love to have been an Egyptologist, or perhaps an art historian,” she said. “I also think it would be amazing to work with animals, perhaps for an animal conservation organization. But on a more practical level, I could see myself as a college literature professor.”

She explains why she chose to share the story of Lexie, her college caregiver.

“It was a profound relationship that took place at a critical juncture in my life,” she said. “We all enjoy reminiscing about our college days, and I simply can’t separate that experience from the relationship I had with Lexie. I also wanted to write about a rite of passage that was perhaps a little less obvious than something like first love or losing one’s virginity.”

And what advice does Johnson-Wright offer to other disabled people?

“Don’t hide, don’t try to pass for non-disabled,” she says. “If someone makes you feel inferior for having a disability, get the hell away from them. Hang out with kind, good hearted, nurturing people. Stay away from manipulators and abusers. Find out what you’re good at, discover your passion, and follow it. Find your disability identity and be proud.”

The anthology Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities is available now on Amazon, and other retailers.


David-Elijah Nahmod is an award-winning film critic and celebrity interviewer. You can find him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Photo: Carl Kerridge

Meet Author Nigel David Kelly: The Belfast Champion

by Christina Pires

A black and white profile photo of Oleb Books author Nigel David Kelly, a man in his mid-50s with a full, well-trimmed beard.

Before his mid-40s, Oleb Books author Nigel David Kelly — a contributor to Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities lived by the old Greek saying, “A healthy mind, a healthy body.” Born in Belfast, Ireland, Nigel was a National Champion powerlifter and took pride in maintaining his physical health. He also enjoyed engaging and maintaining a healthy mind, which is why, in 1987, he began his college undergrad studies in computer programming. When asked if that field of study was his first choice, Nigel replied, “I sat a college aptitude test, which showed a high level of analytical ability. This suggested computers, which I’d never touched. I lapped it up, studying for the next 14 years.”

During those 14 years, Nigel said he felt different from those around him, yet could not identify why. That is, until he took the MENSA exam in 1991. “It wasn’t until I passed […] and discovered I have a genius IQ that I knew why I felt different. Talking to others with high IQs, I discovered it is a common feeling.” By 1994, Nigel had met and married Karen, who also worked at the college: she was in the art department, and he was in the computer office. “Dozens of people came in every day. When I heard her voice, something made me turn around. It took weeks to pluck up the courage to ask her out.”

After 26 years of marriage, Karen is, understandably, Nigel’s biggest influence and inspiration. However, following right behind her is Quentin Crisp: a gay writer/actor born and raised in Sutton, England, who died in 1999. Crisp would dye his hair bright red, wore make up and women’s clothes, and was perceived as outlandish in the 1930s. He was not allowed to serve in World War II, because he was deemed unstable by the British military. Quentin was a source of reassurance during a time in Nigel’s life when he struggled with being different from his peers. Nigel recalls, “[…] I saw The Naked Civil Servant, based on Quentin’s autobiography. He taught me it is okay to be different. Don’t worry about what society thinks. Being yourself is the only life worth living. Quentin is my hero.”

In mid-2013, Nigel received a letter from his physician requesting to see him. Once there, the doctor told him, “We found something,” leading Nigel to believe it was cancer. It wasn’t much to his relief, but that relief was short lived as the doctor diagnosed him with an acoustic neuroma, “a form of brain tumor […] that is uncommon, unusual, difficult to explain and understand.” After receiving this news he recalls that, “[…] like an ostrich I buried my head in the sand. I ignored it! Karen was much more freaked out. But she knew how I was dealing with it and went along.” Since then, life has been a constant struggle for Nigel, who only 4 years ago was in prime, physical condition.

There is no form of treatment for acoustic neuroma, so his physicians have placed him on strong antidepressants, painkillers, and sleeping pills. Together, these pills mask the symptoms and attempt to give Nigel some form of comfort in spite of his pain. Since contributing his essay “Dark Clouds” for Oleb Books’ debut title, Firsts, his condition has deteriorated, after having surgery in April 2018. “I used to be able to do anything I wanted, physically and mentally. Now I can’t cut my own lawn!” Nigel cites energy as his key issue, stating that after only two hours of being awake in the morning he quickly becomes tired.

He uses a walking stick to maintain his balance, but to look at him you would never believe anything was amiss. So, Nigel says he understands why those who see him (but don’t know him) believe he is, “[…] just putting it on or exaggerating. Once people get to know me they understand, especially if they witness me falling down or having a seizure!” His employer was another hurdle that Nigel had to clear on top of dealing with his disability. He recalled that they, “[…] just wanted to sack me. They kept telling me my situation was ‘unsustainable.’ Fortunately, a third party went to battle for me and I am now retired on ill health. So I have a pension and we can keep our home.”

Nigel still resides in Belfast with his wife Karen. He will turn 55 years old in October of 2018.

The anthology Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities is available now on Amazon, and other retailers.

Christina Pires is an essayist who enjoys the simple things in life, like eating candy corn by pumpkin light on a cool Hallow’s Eve. She also loves reading, writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, and singing. You can follow her Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/TheCreativeBrewery/