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journalism

Being a disabled journalist is lonely: Let’s change that together

Image caption: Isabelle Ulfsdotter and Áine Kelly-Costello presenting at Gothenburg University. Photo/Patrick Jowett

Update: response from book launch organisers Hostwriter follows this post.

One night in Hamburg

As I clambered up the wobbly boat stairs, across a connecting bridge and down similar, steep steps, a blurry montage of words followed me: hierarchy, subaltern, inclusion, power, “leave no one behind”…

***

My friend Ariadna and I had arrived slightly late to a side event to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg, Germany. It was one of several conference events to take place on the  M.S. Stubnitz, a boat cabin event organisers described as rustic. You could also call it cozy, if, that is, you were able to get in. Featuring steep, wobbly, narrow stairs, and similarly shaky narrow gangways connecting different sections of the boat, it was completely inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with mobility impairments. 

This particular event celebrated the launch of the book Unbias the News, where some authors read and commented on thought-provoking excerpts from their chapters before taking questions. It’s an important and timely book, about the myriad ways media representations reproduce existing power structures. But I couldn’t help noticing those same structures at work while, during question time, I asked Ariadna if we could exchange our current vantage point, from which we could hear the discussion but not be seen, for somewhere visible. Why? So far as I had heard, no one had yet mentioned anything about disability during the event, nor practically all conference, to my knowledge. I couldn’t take the silence any longer. 

Ariadna agreed to try and find us a better position. We made it back up the rickety staircase we were sitting on, down some more similar steps, and negotiated a cramped backstage area crawling with cables. We perched on a spare segment of bench, and I put my hand up. I felt self-conscious holding the microphone. I told the other participants that I was blind and had worked as a journalist, that I had been hired through informal affirmative action, and that I thought newsrooms should be more creative and flexible about finding ways to give disabled people a foot in the door. I said that having disabled people in the room was a step towards more authentic and nuanced journalistic representations of disability that didn’t buy into inspiration or pity stereotypes. If memory serves, I highlighted that media providers should also pay attention to the accessibility of both their physical premises and the software they use.

Narrow metallic steps leading to the gangway
Gangway to the boat venue

Narrow and steep metallic stairs on the boat
Stairs on the boat

Being a disabled journalist is lonely

In preparing for a presentation on disability and journalism last month, I started brainstorming about what it’s like to be a disabled journalist. This list has come from my own experience, conversations with friends and reading. 

  • You battle inaccessible or otherwise challenging aspects of your job regularly (usually which could have been designed differently).
  • You may then need to ask for assistance often, and explain the same problems regularly to multiple people.
  • You often have to work harder than your non-disabled colleagues to prove yourself or compensate for the ways in which your disability makes things slower. You feel this pressure.
  • You are afraid of disclosing non-visible impairments, for which flexible working arrangements or other accommodations would be beneficial, in case you are then treated as fragile or less capable.
  • You may face (usually unintentional) discriminatory or ableist assumptions or beliefs from your colleagues or from the people you are reporting on.

It shouldn’t be this way

The thing is, with accessible systems, and adaptable, inclusive practices, being a disabled journalist would be a whole lot like being a non-disabled journalist, all else being equal, and when fortunate to work in countries valuing freedom of the press. I’m talking, for instance, about the challenge of pinning down angles, the humility in being able to ask questions of an enormous variety of people, the inadequacy the first time someone yells at you for doing your job, or the satisfaction when you find out something you wrote has made a difference in someone’s life. 

We’re not there yet

The recent presentation I was brainstorming for was part of a student-organised series on media and power at Gothenburg University. Another blind journalism student, Isabelle Ulfsdotter, co-presented with me, and we endeavoured to cover a lot of ground in an hour.

We discussed terms like disability, ableism and inspiration porn. We introduced some complexities around disability identity, language and choice of images. We highlighted some disability-related frames and angles that merited reporting on, and others which can be harmful. We explored how to make news content more accessible. Finally, we delved into what being a disabled journalist can be like, and constructive suggestions towards levelling the playing field.

Here’s where you come in 

Isabelle and I have chosen to share our presentation with anyone who wants to read it, along with the recording (apologies for the lack of transcript, and let me know if you have any problems accessing either). Naturally, they are only intended as an entry point into the topic, not a definitive guide. Also, fair warning that, being a product of a Kiwi (me) presenting with a Swedish person (Isabelle) in Sweden, the presentation has a few country- and language-specific references in it, but I think it is largely applicable at least across the English-speaking Western world.

If you happen to be a (non-disabled) journalist reading this, I’d really appreciate if you could check the presentation out. Listen to it while you commute or cook dinner or something. If your newsroom has a messaging channel for general resources and you think it’s useful, paste the powerpoint link in there maybe?

The upshot

The only way we’ll create more authentic disability-related reporting, along with accessibility and inclusion in the field of journalism, is if non-disabled journalists also champion those goals. The other day, one of my (sighted) lecturers told my investigative journalism class that everyone’s data visualisations must include the information in a screen-reader accessible format. This gave me real hope. I need it, because I’m not sure how much more talk about diversity–with no mention of disability–on a rustic, cozy, inaccessible boat I can take.

Update: I got in touch with Hostwriter, who organised the Unbias the News book-launch, to share this post. I received a prompt and thoughtful response, published below:

You have definitely brought up a very good point about our venue in your post. Our book actually has an article about the difficulties journalists in wheelchairs face, yet it was not something we ourselves thought to ask about the M.S. Stubnitz venue before booking our event there. The journalist who wrote the article about journalists with disabilities for our book was from Brazil and we could not afford to bring him to the event in Hamburg, so we featured the journalists that were going to be at the event. We are thankful that you did bring up the topic in your question afterwards.

Because we think that this is a very important issue – and because your post really calls out something that we and all conference and event organizers need to do a better job at – we would like to offer that we could republish your blog post at our own Unbias the News website. To acknowledge that we can all do a better job of inclusivity in event organizing.

I would like to let you know that our Hostwriter office is actually situated so that we can host events that are easily accessible to journalists with mobility issues. In fact, we have had journalists who use wheelchairs attend past events we hosted at our office. It is something that is important to us, and we acknowledge that we could have done better at the GIJC in Hamburg.

By ainekc

Blind freelance writer/journalist and campaigner from aotearoa NZ.

4 replies on “Being a disabled journalist is lonely: Let’s change that together”

Well said Aine. I have done a lot of writing and still find that people see me as less capable to use your words. I have been sidelined, looked upon as ‘dumb’, yet have had two books and many articles published.

I totally understand your frustration with the boat, happens far too frequently. I love your blogs, they are making me so envious of your opportunities. Susan

Sent from my iPad

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Yes. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences of being looked down upon and sidelined. There’s a lot more that educators, news rooms and publishers can do to welcome and encourage more disabled people into the industry.

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