Radio Silence: More on the Ethics of Pay and Publication in Disability Writing

This post ran on the original blog in November 2016.  To date, Dale Reardon has neither apologized for plagiarizing my work, nor compensated me for his use of it, nor removed it from his Web site.  Instead, he implied I should be grateful for the “exposure” and then stated that MyDisabilityMatters barely makes enough in ad revenue to break even – effectively admitting his “exposure” reach is even smaller than my own.  Perhaps he should be grateful for the exposure he’s getting from me?

I would like to point to the existence of this blog network as an example of how disabled writers can be compensated for their work.

A couple times a month, I get unsolicited* correspondence from someone who wants one of two things:

  • for me to guest post on their blog or Web site, or
  • to republish something I’ve already posted here on their blog or Web site.

I have never responded to these requests, but not because I have any policy against responding to cold calls.  Rather, I have never responded to any of them because every single one has left out a vital component: compensation.

Sometimes they fail to mention compensation altogether.  More often, they offer me “exposure” instead.

I’ve written before about the serious ethical problem involved in not paying writers, particularly when those writers are disabled and particularly when the non-paying outlet claims to champion disability-related causes.  At that second link, I specifically addressed problems with The Mighty’s model of soliciting unpaid labor from disabled writers, making money on ad revenues generated from that content and from investors using the site’s presence and reach supported by that content, and offering to donate any writer’s compensation to charity rather than simply paying the writer.

This was enough for me to speak up against The Mighty.  But The Mighty, at least, stops at asking for free labor.  The Mighty does not, as far as I know, go around copying other writers’ work without their knowledge or permission, posting that work to its own site, and making money off it.

Some outlets do.

Late last night, I got a Facebook message from a friend asking whether I had ever given permission to an Australian site called My Disability Matters or its adminstrator, Dale Reardon, to republish any of my work.

The answer is no.  Except for a handful of outlets I personally selected and approached about guest posting or sharing content, including Misandry Angie and The Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Lending Library, I’ve never authorized anyone to republish my work.  When I do reach out to others about republishing my work, I choose them carefully: either these platforms can afford to pay me, or they understand that I’m offering them something of value, and they’re willing to offer their professional assistance in return.

The name of the site, its admin, and the fact that it was based in Australia caught my attention, though.  It did all sound familiar.  So I went looking in my messages.

Turns out Dale Reardon did contact me about publishing on My Disability Matters, by leaving a comment on my March 2016 post on eye contact.  In it, he states that he “was wondering if it might be okay to republish this article and any other relevant ones on our website, with appropriate credit and a link back of course.”  In exchange, I would get the site’s “help [to] spread your work and gain a wider audience for you.”

In other words, exposure.  In other words, nothing.**

Not only did I not respond to this comment, I never let it out of the moderation queue.  I view all requests for my unpaid labor as demands for unpaid emotional labor, so I treat them exactly the same way I treat all other demands for emotional labor I deem unreasonable: I ignore them.

I never said yes or anything that could have been reasonably understood to be a yes.  To put it in contract-law terms, Mr. Reardon made an offer; I did not accept; there was no meeting of the minds, and thus no deal to put my work on My Disability Matters.

Usually, when I don’t respond to unsolicited demands for my unpaid labor, that’s the end of it.  Most people understand that radio silence is a “no,” not a “yes.”

So imagine my surprise when, after my friend’s query, I searched the My Disability Matters site to find that well over half of my piece on identity-first versus person-first language had been excerpted there [pdf], either the same day or the day after I had posted it here.

My Disability Matters makes money off the work it publishes, as is explained on its About page.  The About page does mention a long-term goal of employing disabled people (other than the site’s founder, one presumes) and of reinvesting some of the profits back into the disability community.

It does not, however, mention paying writers.

In other words, the site was using work I had not given permission to be used, and keeping the money it generated, without ever mentioning to me either that my work was being used or that the site intended to keep the money my work generated.

Oh, and it got the name of this blog wrong.

My search for “autistic academic” on the My Disability Matters site turned up two entries.  One was for the aforementioned post.  The other was for a listing on the site map.

The site map, as it turned out, lists every “source” of the site’s articles, including several dozen I recognized – and several that are written by people whom I know share my (dim) view of exploiting writers in general and disabled writers in particular.  When I asked the ones I know personally about their involvement in or knowledge of My Disability Matters, they were as baffled as I was when my friend first asked me last night.

In other words, it’s not just me.  My Disability Matters is exploiting several of us.

I’ve written before, in my comments on The Mighty***, how traditional excuses like “but startup costs!” or “but business model!” don’t fly as reasons not to pay writers.  I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly a decade now.  I’m currently the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press and the editor of the forthcoming anthology Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber from NeuroQueer Books – an anthology series that pays its writers.

I understand the costs of the writing and publishing professions.  I face those costs every time I try to publish my own work, every time I negotiate with my clients to be paid what my own work is worth, and every time I negotiate with potential AutPress writers to ensure we pay them what their work is worth.  I started blogging for pay back when Merriam-Webster was still debating whether “blog” should be added to their dictionary.  I’m a partner in a company that has compensated every one of its writers to date (with cash, copies of anthologies, or both).  “But startup!” is never an excuse for not compensating writers – at the very least, with a share of the ad revenue generated by their work.

And even if it was, it’s no excuse to copy-paste substantial portions of their writing onto your own site without their knowledge or permission in order to generate that ad revenue.

This is exploitation of disabled writers, and it needs to stop.  We get exploited enough by the rest of the world.  Don’t do it to one another.


*by definition, because I don’t solicit them

 

**The rule of thumb for measuring the value of “exposure” is this:  Any site with a sufficently high profile to offer you worthwhile exposure can afford to pay you.  That kind of high profile is worth money.  If The Huffington Post were to go up for sale tomorrow, its price tag would be in the millions, and a substantial chunk of that price would be based on its name recognition alone.

If the site claims they can’t afford to pay you?  They’re not big enough to give you worthwhile exposure.  You can get the same exposure by hustling your own brand.

That is, if you care about exposure at all.  What every one of these unsolicted requests for my unpaid labor has failed to understand is that I don’t.  I’m a professional writer.  Have been for years.  I’m exposed.  Offering me “exposure” instead of pay just tells me you haven’t bothered to learn who you’re talking to.

 

***published three months before Dale Reardon first contacted me, so it’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity to understand my position

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About Autistic Academic 29 Articles
Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press, a freelance writer, and human to two spoiled cats.  Her first novel, Nantais, will be released by NeuroQueer Books in 2017.  She's already busy writing its sequel.