Jones, Chelsea Temple, Saujani, Sheyfali, & Zbitnew, Anne. Journalism and Disability in Canada: Blind and Visually Impaired Journalists Weigh In. Canadian Journal of Communication 46(1), 99–113.  doi:10.22230/cjc.2021v46n1a3897
© 2021 Chelsea Temple Jones, Sheyfali Saujani, & Anne Zbitnew. CC BY-NC-ND


Roundtable

Journalism and Disability in Canada: Blind and Visually Impaired Journalists Weigh In

Chelsea Temple Jones, Brock University 

Sheyfali Saujani, University of Toronto

Anne Zbitnew, Humber College


Abstract

This roundtable dialogue foregrounds the pragmatic experiences of five disabled journalists, four of whom are blind or visually impaired. The journalists speak to the politics of disability identity in the newsroom, their career trajectories amid ableist environments, and the ways in which they grapple with the longstanding traditions of disability representation. They engage in larger theoretical conversations about the relationship between disability and media in the fields of communication, journalism, and critical disability studies.

Keywords: broadcasting; co-production; disability; representation; blindness

Résumé

Cette table ronde met au premier plan les expériences pragmatiques de cinq journalistes handicapés, dont quatre sont aveugles ou malvoyants. Les journalistes discutent la politique autour l’identité du handicap dans la salle de presse, de leurs trajectoires de carrière dans des environnements capacitistes et comment ils affrontent les grandes traditions des représentations du handicap. Ils s’engagent dans des conversations théoriques au sujet des relations entre l’handicap et les médias dans les domaines de la communication, du journalisme et des études d’incapacité critique. 

Mots clés: radiodiffusion; coproduction; invalidité; représentation; cécité


Introduction 

Rooted in journalist Sheyfali Saujani’s experience as a blind radio producer in a Canadian newsroom, the March 2020 “Disabled Journalists Roundtable” focused on disabled journalists’ experiences navigating communication professions. Notably, the lived experiences of these journalists reflect disability, race, class, and gender among other intersecting identity markers. In addition, four of the journalists identified as blind or visually impaired, making this the first public dialogue about how visually impaired journalists engage with the field. This conversation adds experiential commentary and reflection to the gradually expanding scholarly bridge between critical disability studies and communication in Canada—two notoriously disconnected interdisciplinary fields for disability communities that continue to resist traditional and ongoing media representations of themselves through stereotypical tropes (Dolmage, 2014; Haller, 1993; Jones, 2017; Powers & Haller, 2017; Samuels, 2017). Drawing on the perspectives of professionals currently working in the field, this public-facing dialogue sought to ground theoretical critiques of disability representation by focusing on the pragmatic politics of being a disabled journalist and, in some cases, undertaking disability journalism with impaired vision. Covering topics such as the politics of identity, mixed-career trajectories (based on social barriers such as transportation), and what it means to grapple with stereotypical tropes about oneself and other disabled people, this exchange grounds and adds context to larger, long-winding conversations about the relationship between disability and journalism in Canada. 

Background 

Disabled people’s involvement in the fields of journalism and communication in Canada includes a legacy of advocacy toward equitable representation (Boyer, 1988; Jones, 2020). This advocacy includes the historic and contemporary push for the presence of disabled folks in newsrooms, as well as the cultural disrupting of stereotypical tropes that often frame disability-related stories (Jones, 2014). For example, currently disabled scholars writing in the emergent field of disability media studies often find themselves responding to “inspiration porn” and “supercrip” stories that position disabled sources as inspirational (Howe, 2011; Schalk, 2016). Communication technology scholars also warn against emerging paternalistic tropes that view technology as the saviour of impairment while overlooking disabled people’s own creative, embodied, and often critical approaches to technoscience activism and critical design practices (Alper, 2018; Haller, Jones, Naidoo, & Blaser, 2016; Hamraie & Fritsch, 2019). Concern over such tropes is being addressed through critiques of journalistic normativity and professionalization, including its “shallowly-theorized and technocentric conception of journalism’s social objectives” (Thomas, 2019, p. 364). Reparations arguably emerge when journalists work in consultation with disabled people for their stories. David M. Perry’s (2020) recent New York Times article “Disabled Do-It-Yourselfers Lead Way to Technology Gains,” which emphasizes disabled people’s active participation in transforming access on their own terms, is one example of journalistic resistance to harmful tropes around technology. Amid this push and pull over representation, both in theory and practice, disability media studies pose an overarching question: “How do we make sense of the relationships between disability and media?” (Ellcessor, Hagwood, & Kirkpatrick, 2017, p. 3).

Disability and media 

Making sense of the relationship between disability and media is difficult. There are few conversations among disabled journalists circulating in the public sphere and crossover scholarship between communication studies and critical disability studies is uncommon. Notably, the first study of journalism’s praxis around disability representation in Canada was a 1988 content analysis of interviews published by the federal government’s Standing Committee on the Status of Disabled Persons. Drawing on interviews with disabled people and journalists, the study revealed unevenness and imbalance in the relationship between disability and the media in Canada. The study’s author, J. Patrick Boyer (1988), argued that this disjuncture led to the misrepresentation of disabled people by journalists based on culturally held liberal ideologies of press freedom. These findings were a precursor to what is still the most comprehensive survey of journalists’ attitudes toward physical disability to date, written by American John Clogston in 1991. Clogston (1991) offered binary results, splitting responses into “traditional” or “progressive” (p. 450). He noted that although print journalists’ attitudes more often fell on the “progressive” side of this divide for their openness toward difference, this openness was rarely reflected in published stories, demonstrating a distinction between the ways in which journalists personally think about disability and the news value and consequential editorial framing of disability (Clogston, 1991). In the years following these early studies, a handful of scholars have explored the representation of disability in news media (Burns, 2016; Ellis & Goggin, 2017; Goggin, 2016; Haller, 1993, 1999). In Canada, such scholarship reveals a pervasive gap between disabled people and media practitioners covering disability, except in cases where disabled journalists—who inherently weigh in from both spheres—are centred in the analysis (Jones, 2014; Jones, Collins, & Zbitnew, in press).

Notably, there remain holes in the literature, which is primarily focused on White people in the West. This fledgling canon is rarely intersectional and does not reconcile disabled people’s relationships with media and vice versa elsewhere (Bendukurthi & Raman, 2016; Shek-Noble & Jones, 2020). Notably, recent discussions around communication and disability politics in Canada have taken place in public forums rather than on the page through traditional, published academic debate. It is, therefore, pertinent to include these public-facing conversations in this schema. 

Public conversations 

Between 2019 and 2020, two significant public conversations on the relationship between disability and media took place in Canada. The first, which was part of the three-day national Cripping the Arts event held in Toronto, Ontario, in 2019, focused on representations of disability, Deaf, and mad arts in this country. The artists, journalists, and scholars on this panel, titled “Representation,” argued for the importance of “cripping” representations of themselves, calling on disabled, Deaf, and mad people to write their own stories and reject journalism’s traditional approaches. In this context, the verb “cripping” stems from the term “crip,” a word reclaimed by many disability communities that describes “the non-compliant, anti-assimilationist position that disability is a desirable part of the world” (Hamraie & Fritsch, 2019, p. 2). Cripping also refers to a theoretical framework in critical disability studies that, according to the event’s access guide, emphasizes a “desire for the ways that disability disrupts” (Cripping the Arts, 2019, p. 2; see also Fritsch, 2016; McRuer, 2018). For panelists, reclaiming stories in a “cripped” fashion was especially pertinent given journalism’s economic decline in Canada and elsewhere. “As journalists become increasingly disempowered in their attempts to do social justice work, disabled artists and their communities are left with the task of representing themselves” (Jones, Changfoot, & Johnston, in press), panel organizers later wrote.

The second public conversation, held and recorded at Humber College’s broadcast media studio in Toronto, Ontario, in March 2020, was the “Disabled Journalists Roundtable.” This publicly available conversation was conducted between disabled journalists whose fieldwork is grounded by the barriers and opportunities they encounter as they navigate journalism with blindness, vision impairment, and other identity markers, including race, gender, and disability. The participants tried not to theorize in attempt to make the conversation more accessible to audiences. Given the paucity of literature about blind and visually impaired journalists in particular, the speakers’ stories illustrate an otherwise hidden dimension of disability and journalism that posits disability as a creative subjectivity and a political category to be negotiated by actually living through the relationship between disability and journalism. 

Introduction to the roundtable 

The “Disabled Journalists Roundtable” was part of a 2019 public pedagogy project co-produced by Humber College’s Faculty of Media & Creative Arts and funded by the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund. Called “Aesthetic as Accessibility: Three Films and a Podcast,” the project paired senior-level Broadcast Radio and Television (BRTV) program students with disabled media makers with the aim of developing intellectual partnerships between industry leaders in access and students. Three films and a podcast were produced through the program (Zanchetta, Bailey, Kolisnyk, et al., 2017). Each broadcast media project was co-created with accessibility in mind, offering students the opportunity to become involved with disability communities advocating for new forms of representation. Instead of treating accessibility as an obligatory add-on to their projects, students learned about disability culture, crip theory, and representation in order to broaden their own radical access praxis (Jones, Collins, & Zbitnew, in press).

One of the project leaders, Saujani, is a partially blind journalist recently retired from a 30-year career at CBC. In pitching this roundtable, Saujani explained that for most of her career she was, to her knowledge, the only disabled person in her workplace. “It’s likely there were people with invisible disabilities around me, but no one talked about it back then,” she explained to project organizers. Between September 2019 and March 2020, Saujani and two students from the BRTV program, Yhasmina Garcia and Diana Baharian, pre-interviewed a list of disabled journalists. “Since identifying and talking to some of this newly found generations of young professional disabled journalists about their experience as disabled reporters, I have found myself nodding in recognition over and over again,” Saujani explained. “And I wonder what my life and career would’ve been like if I’d had a chance to meet other people like me, facing similar issues to the ones I faced, which I’d never articulated in my time.” Part of the purpose of the roundtable, then, was to surface insider perspectives, especially those of blind or visually impaired people, on the relationship between journalism and disability.  

An insider’s conversation 

This panel discussion is rooted in Saujani’s story. In her early days as a journalist, Saujani did not ask for accommodations from her employer, other than explaining that she could not drive. She could see standard computer screens, though she eventually experienced chronic neck and back pain from constantly leaning forward. She also used powerful magnifying glasses to read, which contributed to a build-up of physical and mental stress. And she often worked longer hours to “keep up with the competition.” In the last three years of her career, Saujani’s workplace started an employee resource group for people with disabilities. The group also focused on race and Indigeneity. However, Saujani points out that such corporate attempts at intersectionality come with a confusing politic. “As a person of colour, and the disabled person, it was never clear to me whether the occasional workplace issues I experienced were a result of my race or my disability,” Saujani said. “Both identities carry loads, [which are] only now being recognized by institutions.”

With these “loads” in mind, Saujani pitched a co-created “Disabled Journalists Roundtable” to connect disabled media makers in an unprecedented way. This event, recorded on March 12, 2020, sought to gather disabled journalists currently working in the field. Saujani and her team opted to focus the conversation on disabled journalists’ career experiences, knowing that they represent a small, emergent community whose stories are often underexplored. The team invited working reporters and disability activists engaged with media representation to participate in the panel, rather than scholars and commentators, whose analysis has not always captured the constant negotiation, compromise, and contingency that shapes the work of daily content production. The event was made as accessible as possible; guides led interviewees to the studio and food was provided. Even so, the panel was cancelled once due to snowy weather that created barriers to accessible travel, and the discussion below reflects a second attempt to host this event. On later reflection, Saujani recalled that the panel came together much like a news event: “We were rushing to book the most diverse range of guests available in the time available, so there were compromises and absences that might not be reflected in a situation where our deadlines had not been so restricted.” Notably, Saujani and her team struggled to find journalists who identified as intellectually disabled, neurodivergent, or as people of colour, which speaks to such absences in the wider conversations on disability and Canadian media. 

The conversation below has been edited for length. 

Introduction to journalists 

Sheyfali Saujani (SS): The word “journalist” conjures many images. Hollywood stereotypes tend to favour heroic war correspondents or investigative reporters uncovering corruption. Those images do not reflect the group gathered here today. We are disabled journalists. After a 30-year career in current affairs at CBC, I retired. For most of that time, I hardly met any other disabled journalists. That’s why I’m so pleased to be here with these four journalists to talk about how disability affects our work and our careers.

Aaron Broverman (AB) is a freelance reporter based in Waterloo, Ontario. He writes for several digital and print publications, including Yahoo! Canada, New Mobility magazine, and CBC Radio.

Dave Brown (DB) is the host of NOW with Dave Brown and AMI Radio and TV.

Michelle McQuigge (MM) is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Ontario. She has worked with news organizations across Canada and covers disability legislation for AMI.

And Meagan Gillmore (MG). Meagan Gillmore is a staff reporter with the Canadian Press here in Toronto.

Welcome everyone

SS: How do you describe your disability?

AB: I just say I’m a person with cerebral palsy. I guess I like to emphasize person-first language because I like to see that when I’m reading articles featuring people with disabilities.

DB: My starting point is I tell people that I’m an albino, and what comes along with that is being legally blind. That’s about 10 percent vision, which is super hard to describe to people, because I can’t tell them what 10 percent of their vision looks like.

MM: I’m legally blind, so I’ll usually use language like either “visually impaired” or “registered as legally blind.”

MG: Mine is very straightforward. I am totally blind, full stop.

Navigating disability identity 

SS: Why is it important to talk about that disability identification? As journalists, why do we feel it’s necessary to identify ourselves, or for our sources to be identified, when we’re covering any particular story?

MG: Well, to me, those are slightly different questions. In terms of identifying your sources, I do think it’s important to ask what they prefer in terms of how they like to be identified, [much in] the way you would verify the spelling of their name or the title they hold in an official capacity. So, Aaron, for instance, prefers person-first language [e.g., “person with a disability”]. Many disabled interview subjects that I speak to prefer identity-first language [e.g., “disabled person”], so I try to reflect that in stories as a show of respect. But in terms of my own identification, it is a lot more complicated for me. I often wind up [not] mentioning my disability at all, except in specific contexts, and I need to give some thought to when I do that, even. It’s something I use when I take on disability coverage as a way of not only establishing rapport but also sometimes some credibility. That isn’t always an appropriate thing to do … my disability is totally incidental to the work I’m doing. But it’s not incidental to the career track I’ve had or to the work that I want to do.

MM: I think one of the things I would love to see in the media somewhere is somebody with a disability to be a source, like a prominent source, for a story that is not about disability issues. And you see somebody who uses a wheelchair talking about, like, the federal budget or something like that, and not talking about it necessarily just through a disability lens, but just as a budget.

AB: When I’m identifying my disability, sometimes, because I cover disability
issues for places like New Mobility, and that’s primarily a lifestyle magazine for people with spinal cord injury, sometimes my sources assume that I have a spinal cord injury. But I don’t identify with everything my sources are going through because I don’t, and then they have to sort of … they go from, like, wondering why they have to explain a very specific disability issue that pertains to them to opening up and realizing that I don’t know everything about them.

DB: I think audience matters. In the case of AMI, especially on our TV side, we’re broadcasting, in theory, to make TV accessible for blind and low-vision users, so it’s sometimes inherent to do some identification just to clue the audience in as to what’s what. That said, I don’t come on the air and start every segment with going, “Hi, I’m Dave. I’m your legally blind host, and therefore we can build camaraderie through this together. Listen to me. I have credibility.”

Early career experiences 

SS: Michelle, you started to talk about how having a disability and being identified as a disabled person can also be a challenge when you’re getting into this career as a journalist. Do you want to talk about that?

MG: It absolutely can. There’s no sense denying it. I am, in many ways, in a very fortunate position that when I walk into a room, my cards are on the table instantly. Usually, I have a cute guide dog with me. There’s a lot of awkward conversations I don’t have to have, which people with less visible disabilities do have to contend with. But when I was interviewing to try and break into the field, I would run into questions all the time . . . But what I would try to do there is emphasize the fundamentals of the job that I felt I could bring to the table. So no, quite evidently, I can’t be your videographer, but I can write. I can write your headlines. I can write for print or for broadcast. I can conduct a cogent interview and parlay that into something you want to read. And that was what I would try to emphasize when I was breaking through. Eventually, I got lucky, but there absolutely was an element of good fortune involved.

SS: Meagan, how did you get your first job?

MM: I graduated in 2011 with an undergrad degree in journalism. And then I saw a job posting for a community reporter, a newspaper position that did not say [I] needed a driver’s license. And it also said it was in Whitehorse, Yukon … and I went for it.

SS: And what was it like in Whitehorse for somebody who is legally blind and is not a driver?

MM: Whitehorse is an incredibly beautiful city. It can be very isolating when you don’t drive. Public transit would … at least when I was there, it would stop at 7 p.m., except on Fridays, when it went until 9 p.m., and there was no bus on Sunday. And, like, rivers and mountains are beautiful, and they’re lovely to explore and write poems about, but they’re just really hard to get around when you don’t have a car and you’re new and you don’t know people and when it’s your first job and you’re trying to prove yourself and you’re at a community newspaper that’s living the financial and personal challenges of community news—when the examples that you are given of a good reporter is a male colleague who could drive four hours, five hours, six hours, or more to interview sources … and you’re a 23-year-old woman.

MG: Can I offer Meagan some unsolicited kudos for doing something that I had set for myself as a non-negotiable no?

AB: Yeah, totally.

MG: This is the advice you hear all the time throughout your journalism training. You go to a small town and you earn your stripes attending ribbon cuttings and staffing city council meetings and whatnot, and that was one that I was not prepared to do.

AB: I never applied for those jobs. I applied for the big internships, the National Post and Toronto Star, and didn’t get them. So, I decided that I would exploit the things that are unique about me. I started writing for disability publications. I started pitching disability stories. I’m Jewish, so my first actual internship-slash-paid gig was with the Jewish Tribune. So I found that exploiting both my disability in my pitches and working for Abilities magazine and recognizing that that’s a unique thing and a voice that didn’t really exist but that editors were looking for, like, what’s the disability angle on this? Or, in the case of the Jewish Tribune, how do Jews feel about this? 

DB: I started down more of the broadcaster path, I always knew that broadcasting was my path. And I had the privilege to be able to leverage a lot of free labour while I was in my last year of college. I mean by free labour that I had the support of my family to go do an internship in Vancouver, to go do an internship in Toronto, to do an internship at CBC in Ottawa and, while in those spaces, use the education that I’ve gotten at Algonquin College, which was a lot of technical training … . So, I was an intern who could walk in the first day and start cutting a radio documentary. So I actually was able to turn a few heads in the places where I gave that free labour away… . But what I encountered, and I don’t mean for this to be a shot at people who gave me my first really incredible break in this industry, I did bump into a glass ceiling. As far as they were concerned, I was a perfectly satisfactory traffic guy, and that’s where I should have stayed, and that’s not what I wanted.

SS: How frustrating was that for you?

DB: It was pretty irritating. I’m not going to lie to you. It was pretty irritating. I got the similar speech. Well, you know, if you really want to cut your chops and grow, you’ve got to move to smaller markets. But then it goes right back into that public transportation conversation where I’d really be in a difficult situation. That said, I did need to cut my chops, I did need more experience, and that’s where going to take on the job that I took with AMI as a TV reporter and essentially a feature producer and eventually a documentary maker gave me the experience that I needed.  

Disability in a changing market 

SS:  Aaron, as a freelancer, what kinds of conversations are you having with your editors about the barriers that you face, about what you might need to do differently because of your disability?

AB:  Part of the reason I’m a freelancer is so that I don’t have to get on a bus and be at the shooting or the crime scene in, like, 15 minutes. I can just pick up the phone and interview people and do things at my own pace. But when things come up, usually … I have to tell people, okay, it might take longer for me to get there. And usually editors are pretty understanding. When I did work in newsrooms for internships and stuff, all I required was a place to plug in my scooter during the day so that it would charge on my way home, and people were very accommodating with that. I think they couldn’t believe how little they had to do for me. 

MG: For me, the Canadian Press was wonderfully accommodating from the get-go. I was initially hired for a four-month internship program, and, as an example, they have keypads that scramble, and everyone’s given a code, and you have to sort of look at the re-scrambled keypad every time and enter your code. When I showed up my very first day of an internship, they had installed card readers everywhere. I could have flamed out and been completely awful, and they would have put all this money into card readers that were only necessary, truly, for four months. They were great about stuff like that. They got me a screen reader, no questions asked. The difficulty comes from explaining how you use the technology because, very often, when I’m trying to look at a web page with a screen reader, it’s very, very different from the way a sighted person interacts with the same page, so it can be difficult to explain how I navigate. It can be difficult to explain the exact ways in which the in-house content management system simply isn’t compatible with the screen reader, so unfortunately, I’m going to have to file my story to you through Notepad and email rather than the system that makes a lot more sense, and sorry if that’s going to add 10 minutes of work to everyone’s editing when they look at my stuff. So that kind of thing can be difficult, and I’m eternally grateful for the ongoing support that I did receive. Now, I feel like my coworkers … I’ve been there now for … almost 14 years, I’ve been there long enough that I feel like they get me, and there’s a comfort level in terms of asking me, “Are you cool to handle X or Y task?”  In my case, that’s a pretty open field. 

Passing versus inclusion

SS: Dave, as someone who is visually impaired and not totally blind like Michelle, there is a difference. Also, there can be that moment when you can sort of pass, right?

DB: I think “pass” is kind of the exact word there, that, more often than not, instead of asking for an accommodation, I’ll find my own workarounds just because I can. And I know that sounds like really terrible leadership from a disability front, but this comes down to a little bit of privilege. Because of the vision that I have, I can kind of live my life in two camps, with a foot on either side, and I’ll only really lean on my disability when I absolutely have to, when there’s no workaround to be found, because those are the moments where I find it’s really important to speak up.

SS: Within the disability community, there’s a wide range of people, and a big issue in the community is that activism and lobbying and demand for inclusion. Dave, you’ve said that can sometimes create a bit of a challenge for disability journalism because there’s a border between advocacy and objectivity. How do you feel about that?

DB: Oof. It’s such …  it’s such a million-dollar question, right? Because one of the things that’s become really great about modern media is a democratization of voices. And that’s cool that a lot of people who didn’t get platformed before have a platform. But sometimes, the way in which [the] disability story is told is so individualistic … that it’s harder to understand where it fits into the bigger systemic issues.  

MM: Like many people of my generation who have disabilities, my original position on this was: I will never write a story about anything related to disabilities ever. That has changed over time, and it changed because I had a source call me out on this in Whitehorse. I was interviewing a man who was involved in human rights in the Yukon. He used a wheelchair and I probably mentioned my visual impairment. And he could tell I was really hesitant to do more because he was talking about systemic issues, and this was just supposed to be a nice little profile of this person. And he called me out on it, like, “You are in a position of influence and power, and it behooves you in your position to use that knowledge and advocate for change. And I know you’re scared of being pigeonholed as the disability reporter who can only write about disabilities, but you’re in Whitehorse, so by definition you will have to write about everything. And if you’re good at your job, people will see that you’re good at your job.”

AB: I sort of, I guess, exercise that position in a variety of ways. As a freelancer, you have a freedom to sort of jump between your disability identity and then do other things. Like, I’m also a credit card reporter and it has nothing to do with my disability. But every so often, when disability comes up or when I’m working for New Mobility or … for example, you know, I wrote a parenting opinion piece for Huffington Post (Broverman, 2020) about how scared I am about being able to carry my child and learning how to use a baby carrier so that I don’t fall and kill them. You know, like, those are the times when it’s valuable, when you can give your personal experience and sort of put yourself into things. But when I’m covering disability and I’m covering an issue, I sort of let the sources speak for themselves.

MG: I am part of a general news team so, by definition, I have to cover a huge spectrum of topics all the time. And for years and years and years, I resisted being the disabled person writing about disability journalism. … But it occurred to me eventually that I really was uniquely positioned to try and change what I see as a major, persistent issue in the media when it comes to disability coverage, and that’s the amazing uniformity of the coverage. If we talk about, you know, the inspirational story of the kid who walked for the first time or … look at the fact that this person has a job, isn’t that amazing?

DB: Ugh.

AB: Yeah.

MG: Yeah. Like, collective eye-rolls across the board. There is just so much hot nonsense that is not journalistically sound, in my estimation. I realized, over time … I guess I had to grow up a little bit, too, and put my pride aside. But I realized that I was better positioned to try and bring a little more nuance to the table.

Inspiration porn 

DB: Can I backtrack into the inspiration porn thing for a second with our collective eye-roll about it?

MG: Always. 

DB: And I think it is something that’s interesting because sometimes it is about representation. But maybe instead of profiling that individual with the severe disability who got the job, it’s almost more important to profile the organization that created that opportunity. … That’s when it becomes kind of less condescending and more about the actual act of offering public information as a journalism entity.

MG: Are you challenging a fundamental maxim of journalism that “if it bleeds, it leads”?

DB: Yeah, if there’s a kid involved in the story, it’s going to be a more interesting story, right?

MG: But that’s so cool. Like, this is exactly why it’s great to have these conversations and look at the ways in which perhaps there is … a need to revisit some of these conversations.

SS: I want to thank everyone for coming in to talk about your experience as disabled journalists and to share your stories and your insights.

Conclusion 

This conversation is a reminder of the disparate experiences of doing journalism with disability, primarily visual impairment. The panelists in this conversation represent working reporters whose professional and personal lives are informed by disability. When it came time to reflect on their words, Saujani asked, “What would my career have been like if I had known these people?” And, recalling her time spent advocating in a major Canadian newsroom, she asked again, “What if I hadn’t been so alone?”

This conversation is offered as a reminder of disability’s presence in journalism: disabled journalists are out there, and they are not alone. This roundtable tells us about how some individuals with disabilities have navigated journalism, but these individual hacks do not represent a guide for more equitable journalism for disabled reporters, nor are they a solution from chronic disability-based stereotyping in journalism. The four panelists’ experiences as disabled journalists are diverse and, at times, irreconcilable. This panel also reminds us that journalists’ experiences are far from homogenous. Therefore, the work of disrupting common disability tropes and bringing disabled community members into professionalized media-creation will be different in different contexts. For this reason, there is a need to continually revisit these conversations, as Meagan Gillmore points out. The growing presence of disabled journalists in media production spaces can embolden and carry forward these conversations.

For now, this conversation serves as a push to think more flexibly about career paths for mainstream journalists and the need for a public commitment to ensuring accessible workplaces. For example, disabled reporters need opportunities to gain work experience in ways that are not restricted by the availability of accessible transportation, which may not be available in smaller regional or rural markets. Media organizations must ensure that disabled reporters know they will be provided with accommodations, such as the accessible technologies and physical environments they need to perform their work successfully. Large media companies entering into contracts with digital content management providers must press developers to ensure their platforms are accessible as they are updated. Media managers need to educate themselves and their staff about disability and its intersections in order to better understand disability identity, thereby facilitating newsroom collegiality and teamwork. While deadlines remain crucial in the news industry, and to the journalists on this panel, recognizing that time for accessibility can be built into many deadlines will be a crucial step forward to supporting disabled people’s representations in newsrooms.

Ultimately, to adequately participate in knowledge production around bridging disability and communication studies, the conversations of people who are living out this work must be heeded. Indeed, supporting equitable representation in media creation means no longer accepting journalism that fails to count in the experiences of disabled journalists.


Chelsea Temple Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University. Email: jones@brocku.ca 

Sheyfali Saujani is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Brock University. Email: sheyfali@icloud.com

Anne Zbitnew is a Professor in the Faculty of Media & Creative Arts at Humber College. Email: anne.zbitnew@humber.ca


Websites 

Abilities, https://www.abilities.ca

AMI, https://www.ami.ca/new_ami

Canadian Press, https://www.thecanadianpress.com

CBC Radio, https://www.cbc.ca/radio

Jewish Tribune, http://www.jewishtribune.ca

National Post, https://nationalpost.com

New Mobility, https://www.newmobility.com

Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com

Yahoo! Canada, https://ca.yahoo.com

References 

Alper, Meryl. (2017). Giving voice: Mobile communication, disability, and inequality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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