Dianne-Dominique Theakstone on accessible housing, creative writing and her new short story ‘Peer Support’

Dr. Dianne-Dominique Theakstone graduated, along with her four-year-old guide dog Merlin, with a PhD in Applied Social Sciences from the University of Stirling in 2018. Her passion is in co-production research, involving disabled people on the issues of social care and accessible housing. This inspired her enrolment on the MLitt. Creative Writing course, so that disabled peoples’ voices could be bolstered through the mediums of prose and drama performance. Her short story, ‘Peer Support’, features in Stryvling Press’ upcoming anthology, Time and Tide. Inspired by her PhD research of accessible housing, the story interrogates the challenges faced by a wheelchair user through the perspective of her assistance dog. Dianne’s expert use of creative prose to illuminate the complexities of these issues make for an engaging and thought-provoking read. We caught up with her to find out more about her journey from academic research to creative writing.

How did you get into creative writing?

I’ve always been an avid reader since I was a little girl. I remember snuggling up in my Nanna’s house in front of the fire with bulky braille books of Jane EyreWatership Down and Anne of Green Gables. Trying my hand at creative writing was something I wanted to do and, not to be too morbid, was on my bucket list! I experienced several bereavements in 2019 involving very close friends and friends of the family. And that got me thinking—if you want to do something you should grab it by the horns!

What made you want to be an author?

For me, being an author is about the sense of fun and facilitating people to engage with specific subjects. I’ve really enjoyed the peer feedback provided during the creative writing workshops and learning how others respond to my writing. I like to challenge societal assumptions surrounding gender, disablism etc.

Tell us more about the issues ‘Peer Support’ addresses?

In ‘Peer Support’ I aimed to highlight that bricks and mortar can often play a small role in many disabled house seekers’ difficult decisions not to move to an accessible property. These decisions potentially prolong harm to themselves and are based upon social and family life factors. The story is about the main character Lizzy who’s a wheelchair user. She lives in a property with steps at the entrance and inside which means she’s struggling to live independently and participate in everyday family life. Her Housing Officer has offered an accessible property, but it’s located outside the local community and Lizzy takes the difficult decision not to accept because it would impact upon her children’s’ schooling, their contact with relatives and social networks. We also learn that Lizzy’s had a bad fall and she tries to hide the extent of her challenges from others.

Where did the inspiration for ‘Peer Support’ come from?

The inspiration for ‘Peer Support’ came from my PhD studies and work as a researcher for a number of years. My background is in disabled peoples’ access to accessible/adapted housing. I uncovered lived experiences of physical and mental harm experienced by disabled people through projects, such as ‘Match Me’ (2019) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission housing enquiry into the experiences of disabled house seekers (2017). I was inspired to try and convey some of the important messages about how we’re treating disabled people in society but in an accessible medium where humour can be used as a vehicle to transmit often unpalatable facts. I’m hoping ‘Peer Support’ will form part of a collection of short stories dealing with both the negative impacts of inaccessible housing for disabled people, as well as the transformational effect of suitable housing upon disabled peoples’ lives.

Two of the main characters in ‘Peer Support’ are dogs, why did you decide to bring in the perspective of animals?

I’d need to dedicate inspiration for writing from the dogs’ perspective to my handsome 4-year-old black lab Guide dog Merlin. As many in my creative writing cohort can attest, he’s a character! He definitely lets me know his thoughts on walking in the rain or going past the pet shop without a visit. I know Guide dogs and Assistance dogs play such an important role in many disabled peoples’ lives and I thought, I wondered how an Assistance dog would feel if they witnessed their owner in distress or being hurt every day? I based the character of Frankie on my first Guide dog Ulay who was a horizontal, vain yet soft-hearted golden retriever. I often meet a little terrier while running Merlin called Pickles who provides support to a boy who has autism and he came to my mind when describing Charlie. ‘Peer Support’ was fun to write!

Why did you want to submit this story to the Time and Tide anthology?

I felt that the Time and Tide anthology gives new writers a tremendous confidence boost. Us creative writing students know how tough it will be to get published and for some, including myself, this was the first time I had the opportunity to receive feedback from an editor and experience a positive outcome.

Do you usually write short stories or are there any other styles/genres you like experimenting with?

My main goal embarking upon the creative writing course was to produce a stage-play script. For one of my assignments, I achieved a distinction with ‘Am I Disabled Enough?’ which I’m hoping to develop with a drama group called Nae Bother, led by disabled people. While teaching social work students at Stirling University, I invited Nae Bother to perform a short sketch on the impact of Universal Credit on disabled people. A six-minute play sparked greater engagement and debate among the students over two hours than if I had stood and talked at them. I’m hoping that ‘Am I Disabled Enough’ can use forum theatre to produce a similar effect on audiences concerning the chronic lack of accessible/adapted housing and how we decide who has the greatest need.

Are there any authors you’re particularly inspired by?

While writing ‘Peer Support’ it’s probably unsurprising that I was inspired by War Horse by Michael Murpurgo, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Animals take centre stage in the narrations. I’m also drawn to social realism. A big influence for me is Ken Loach’s work, in particular Cathy Come Home which never fails to have me in floods of tears by the end. However, the original film had a tremendous impact in raising public awareness surrounding homelessness and lead to a change in societal attitudes, policy and practice. I’m a huge fan of Cardboard Citizens and their recent stage-play of Cathy Come Home highlighted that even after half a century, society needs to address the same issues. The UK government’s response to Covid-19 by providing accommodation to everybody experiencing homelessness has me quietly hopeful for the future.

What are your future ambitions as a writer?

My future ambitions are to complete my collection of short stories and producing scripts for stage or radio. I’ve definitely been bitten by the creative writing bug and with Merlin by my side, watch this space!

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