Zoe Simmons is an award-winning SEO copywriter, editor, journalist and soon-to-be published author. Like 4 million other Australians (1 in 5), Zoe lives with disability but, despite setbacks including mental illness, has carved out a successful writing career. Mavens corresponded with Zoe to learn more about her work and understand how agencies and organisations can better support talent with disabilities.
Tell us about your earlier years. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes! I’ve always loved words. I remember writing creative stories as early as kindergarten. I did also want to be a scientist and a rockstar, but when I reached high school, I just fell in love with the power and beauty of words. At 16, I proudly proclaimed to my class that I’d one day be an author. Shortly after, I actually did my Year 10 work experience at my then-local newspaper, The Bay Post.
I found that I really loved journalism – and I was rather good at it! The world of storytelling just felt so exciting to me. Plus, I figured journalism might be a little better for job prospects. So, after high school, I jumped straight into a Bachelor of Journalism at the University of Wollongong.
Ten years later, it’s pretty cool that I now actually am an author. I love that I’ve been lucky enough to dabble in so many different kinds of writing. Young Zoe would be so proud.
You’ve been diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety and fibromyalgia. What sort of professional setbacks have you overcome as a result?
I don’t know if I’d say I’ve had professional setbacks from my mental illnesses, but it has certainly been hard at times to cope with bipolar and anxiety – especially when working in a workplace where I just wasn’t happy.
My darkness would so often drag me down, and convince me I’m awful and worthless. I’d beat myself up for feeling this way, too. And I felt guilty so guilty for it.
I tried to talk to managers, but I felt like they didn’t understand. One manager even told me to just get on with it, and refused to do anything to support me. I quit shortly after. My mental illnesses probably have stopped me from being myself. My anxiety, especially, meant I’d often have difficulty with socialising, or speaking up. I’d often sell myself short, or I wouldn’t apply for things because I didn’t think I’d have a chance. There have been some opportunities I just haven’t been able to do because I’ve been too unwell.
But on the other hand, I’ve also experiences a lot of opportunities as a direct result of my lived experiences. And I’ve been able to do a lot of good by speaking up and sharing my experiences.
Some workplaces have even seen my lived experience of mental illness as an asset – which is awesome, because it absolutely is! It gives me a level of understanding and compassion that makes me well-suited to work in the disability and advocacy space.
While my fibromyalgia diagnosis is relatively new, it has certainly caused professional setbacks. I’ve been experiencing chronic pain and fatigue for about five years now, and it’s had a huge impact on my life and career. I am always in pain. I am always tired. It makes it rather difficult to work sometimes, and I found I was unable to continue working full-time.
Again, there’s a lot of opportunities I’ve missed as a result. But it also taught me a lot too. And it led to me jumping into my business full-time so I could focus on my health, pace myself and rest. I have had such unbelievable opportunities since doing this. I’ve spoken on TV and radio, I’ve spoken at national events, I’ve won awards, and I’ve even had work published in a few books. I’m not sure I would have done this had fibromyalgia not shaken up my life like it did. I am also now often sought out by clients and journalists, specifically because of my lived experience. So yes, it sucks to experience these things and the barriers you have to battle as a result. But it’s also brought a lot of really good things into my life, too, so I’m grateful.
Mavens is a staunch advocate for inclusion because people with disabilities bring diverse thinking and fresh perspectives that businesses would otherwise miss out on. In your experience, what can (and should) workplaces be doing, to attract talent with disabilities?
I think the most important thing workplaces can do to attract disabled staff members is to make their workplaces accessible, and to embrace the flexibility disability so often requires.
There is this expectation that work should be a 9 to 5 thing, where you attend a physical location. But the truth is that this doesn’t work for so many people – especially disabled people.
Now, I obviously can’t speak for every single disabled person.
But a few things to improve accessibility could include very basic things, like making sure your workplace is wheelchair accessible, and that you have toilets that are suitable for wheelchair users.
I’ve heard of people being unable to accept a job or attend an interview because they literally couldn’t enter the building. As a part-time wheelchair user, this infuriates me. Especially when the disabled person often isn’t even told the location isn’t accessible. We shouldn’t have to hunt for this information. Another way you can make your workplace accessible is by offering the option to work-from-home – or even to choose your own hours.
For me, commuting into a physical workplace requires a lot of energy – and living with chronic fatigue, I don’t have a lot in the first place. The commute can often also worsen my pain. Whereas at home, I can manage my pain levels, use less energy, and focus on my comfort and well-being. I know work from home is often looked down on, but it makes the workplace so much more accessible for so many people!
Something else that’s been particularly important for me is allowing part-time work, and to be able to take leave at half pay (or no pay) if you need a little longer to rest.
Because being disabled, you do typically need to rest and recover more than non-disabled folk. With all the medical admin and management, you also have to do a lot more than non-disabled folk. So please be open, understanding, and cut us some slack. Doing these things will also mean that we produce even better work – so it’s a win-win!
Accessibility and flexibility benefits literally everybody, but it is vital for the inclusion of disabled people.
Everyone has their own access needs. Employers need to make sure disabled staff are considered and consulted. Asking for these things should not have to be a battle!
Please do not make us feel like a burden or a hassle for needing to work a little differently. And remember: many invisibilities are invisible, so chances are, you probably already have disabled people amongst your staff.
Make them feel comfortable, and don’t just assume based on someone’s appearance. Make your processes supportive, and clearly communicate them.
Disabled people have so much to offer your workplace. Please include us.
You made your speaker debut last year at the National Young Writers’ Festival, and you’re currently working on your first book. Can you tell us about it?
Speaking at the 2021 National Young Writers’ Festival was SUCH a highlight of my year – a highlight of my career, really! I spoke at two events during the festival, one on journalism and trauma, and another about cringey teenage experiences. I honestly wasn’t expecting my application to be accepted, so I was thrilled when I was invited to be a part of the festival. It absolutely blew my mind that someone was paying me to talk, not once, but TWICE. It was such an incredible experience. I learnt a lot, and I think it really helped me grow. I can’t wait to speak at other events and keep improving my skills! Watch this space.
And yes! I am writing my first book. It’s a topic very close to my heart – and it’s certainly not the book I ever expected to write.
I returned to my hometown of Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast just before New Year’s Eve 2019, only to watch it burn in the Black Summer Bushfires. We drove through flames to reach the evacuation centre, where the roaring firefront was less than a kilometre away. Spot fires also popped up right next to the evacuation centre, less than 50 metres away. I felt so helpless. I couldn’t fight fires – but I could write stories. So that’s what I did. There was no power and limited reception, and all the information was really out of date – which is exceptionally dangerous in a bushfire. I shared what I saw, what I heard from firefighters nearby, and where was safe. And afterwards, I began writing stories about our gut-wrenching experiences.
I remember hearing the story of a 72-year-old man who survived fireballs the size of semi-trailors by hiding in a cool room. He eventually saved his home with BUCKETS, all the while his daughters thought he was dead.
And there are so many stories like this. I couldn’t let our grief be for nothing. I wanted the world to know what it was really like. I wanted to capture our histories, in our own words, without sensationalist media twisting them. And I wanted to share the beautiful stories too – the stories of my community coming together and supporting each other with love, even in the middle of a natural disaster.
I just felt so much emotion, and so much trauma. And then the idea of writing a book hit me! I do feel really bad it’s taken me so long, but since the fires, I’ve become even more disabled. I am the sickest I’ve ever been. So I’m trying to cut myself some slack. I’m pitching it to literary agents, and I’m hoping to pitch to publishers soon.
So if you’re reading this and you know someone, or if you want to support me in any way, I would be most grateful! Every little bit counts. This is my dream, and this book WILL be published. Even if I have to self-publish it (in which case, I’ll need all the promotional support I can get).
I just can’t let my community down.
You’ve been published hundreds of times around the globe as a freelance journalist, and have written for Daily Mail, POPSUGAR, Kidspot, Mamamia, Daily Telegraph, New York Post, That’s Life, New Idea magazines and more. What advice do you have for other writers wanting to break into the world of freelance journalism?
Ah, I have so much to say about this! I actually want to write a series of articles and develop some workshops – whenever I have the capacity.
My best advice for newbie writers is to give it a go. Journalism is so competitive, so it’s really hard to get an in-house role. But don’t be disheartened by this!
The first step is to think about what you want to write, and what publication this might appeal to. Find out who the editor is, or what the submissions process is, and send a short pitch about your idea. Make sure it’s relevant and will actually appeal to the editor. It’s a good idea to have a portfolio to link back to, if you can, but this is not a requirement. Some editors just like to see that you can write well before commissioning you.
Finding contacts can be hard, but you learn! Connect with other journalists. Join writers groups online. Follow editors on social media (they often post call-outs there). The Young Australian Writers group on Facebook is an awesome resource, with a VERY HANDY spreadsheet that has the contact details of a bunch of editors around the globe.
You will face a lot of rejection. I have been rejected more times than I can count. But the trick is to keep going. You keep believing in yourself, and in your dream, even when it seems impossible.
You’ve got this.
But remember: even if you’re new, you still deserve to be paid for your work. Please don’t accept super low rates!
If any aspiring writers are reading this, you’re also welcome to reach out. I know how scary and nerve-wracking it can be to start out in this field!
Lastly, who are your favourite female role models?
I have so many female role models who have impacted my life. Firstly, I have to mention my incredible Mum. She’s a single parent who raised me while working three jobs and doing a degree at uni. She is my strength, and my inspiration. She believes in me, even when I don’t believe in myself. Thank you, Mum – I wouldn’t be where I am without you.
I’d also like to mention my beautiful Nan. She read every single piece I ever wrote, even ones about gaming and topics she had zero interest in. And she was always so thrilled to do it. I wish she could see me now. I hope she would be proud.
Outside of my family though, I’d have to absolutely say Carly Findlay and Tara Moss. They’re both incredible disabled authors and activists who have been so supportive of me, and so many other young disabled writers. They make me believe that I can do this, and that my disability is an asset.
And I would have never taken the leap into my copywriting business had it not been for Kate Toon and her wonderful Clever Copywriting School. Thanks for showing that it’s cool to be a bit weird!
Zoe Simmons has worked with Women With Disabilities Australia, Endometriosis Australia, the Cancer Council, the Youth Disability Advocacy Service, Women’s Health Victoria, Jean Hailes, and more. She offers freelance professional writing services and is available for podcasts and media appearances remotely or in Melbourne. To hire Zoe for your next project, click here.