“We have an absolute responsibility to ensure our media represents everyone. Right now, there’s a long way to go, but we shall start here today.”
My name is James Buckley and I’m one of 14.1 million people in the UK who have a disability. I am also a disabled journalist – or maybe, I’m a journalist who just happens to be disabled.
I’ve been interested in Journalism from an early age, but I never considered just how hard breaking into the industry could be. Journalism is already a difficult career and having disabilities often exacerbates that.
Those figures are likely to increase with the long-term effects of the Coronavirus, of which two million are reportedly affected. And research by the disability equality charity, Scope found that 78 percent of disabled people believe better media representation is important when tackling negative attitudes.
We have a responsibility to ensure that our media represents everyone.
It’s undeniable that the media has come far in the last decade, but there is such a long way to go.
Journalist, Melanie Reid, was the first speaker at Disability and Journalism Forum. She broke her neck and back in a riding accident in 2010. Her weekly Times article, Spinal Column, started at a time when “there were no other disabled voices in newspapers, certainly not in such a high-profile slot.”
People still write to Reid today, telling her how much the column helps put their world into perspective. Those with chronic health problems feel engaged, delighted that someone is giving them a voice so that they don’t have to feel so invisible anymore.
This is an area the media has neglected.
Things are tougher in life for disabled people
By and large, things are tougher in life for disabled people than for non-disabled people. We’re resilient, empathetic, simply because we have to be. As reporters, we understand diversity, understand that it isn’t just a box to be ticked and a quota to be met.
What’s more, interviewees may find it easier to talk to us, rather than our able-bodied counterparts, which makes it all the more straightforward to get the scoop.
“Soft power,” Melanie said, “keeps working long after an edition has been put to bed.”
Georgia Lambert broke into the journalism industry at the beginning of the pandemic, starting by reporting in regional papers and working her way up to nationals. She had the opportunity to do her course remotely, and was able to manage her commissions as well as studying.
Georgia took her NCTJ course in January 2021, but was hampered by her shorthand. It wasn’t that she didn’t like shorthand, she was unable to do it because of essential tremors in both hands. Instead of going to University, Georgia had brain surgery to stop her brain from herniating further into her spinal column, and a further operation to drain her spinal cord of a build up of fluid, which severely damaged her nervous system.
“There was,” she said, “no alternative to the course material. I had a media law book, and I recorded myself reading the material.” This took her five weeks. At the end of the course, she was exhausted but received a gold standard qualification.
If a fifth of an audience has a disability, why would you want to exclude them?
Catherine Grinyer is the co-founder and Director of Attenable, an inclusive events agency delivering accessible events. She said: “If a fifth of an audience have a disability, why would you want to exclude them? “If you want to do the best you possibly can, you need to embrace digital accessibility and inclusive practices.”
A few cases come to mind when talking about this. Tesco was an early adopter of digital accessibility twenty years ago, in 2001 – 2002. Who else? Scope, The Big Hack, Legal & General. An interesting anecdote is that within the first day of launching their new website, Legal & General’s SEO increased by 25%.
Put digital accessibility at the forefront of everything. Make it inclusive.
Catherine says that if you have a platform, website or social media presence, then it’s important to get it tested for accessibility. For once, put digital accessibility at the forefront of everything. Make it inclusive. If you’ve got a video, caption it. If you’ve got a livestream, use software that adds accessibility to the video output. Describe anything visual on screen. If you really want to go the extra mile, why not build it into the script?
“And what about social media?”, Catherine asks. All major social media platforms have improved accessibility in recent years. You can create posts that link to websites, captions for videos, even descriptions for images that can be read out by a screen-reader. Facebook. Twitter, LinkedIn. Tiktok- the latter has been, from the start, one of the most accessibility friendly ones. “It’s all there, you just have to find the tools!”
“12 million people have hearing loss. Many are dissatisfied with their experiences consuming media.”
Aside from all this, one of my disabilities is my deafness. I was born deaf and have worn hearing aids since 2005 to correct this. That’s why this next speaker resonated so much with me. Even though my hearing loss is not severe, I still see the effects. Watching television without subtitles makes the sound come out – for want of a better word – blurry. I sometimes find myself unable to understand what my friends say to me, especially if their back is turned. That’s why I was very happy to hear from Roger Wicks, the Director of Policy & Campaigns at Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID), London.
“12 million people have hearing loss. Many are dissatisfied with their experiences consuming media.”
Don’t leave deaf people out of the conversation.
With a BSL interpreter in his shadow, Mr Wicks talked about how content needs to be subtitled. Videos, social media. Don’t leave deaf people out of the conversation. There are about 80,000 people who use British Sign Language. That’s a potential audience of 80,000 people who are being excluded from your programme/film/show simply because of their deafness. “And RNID”, he said, “can advise.”
Matt Pierri is the founder of Sociability, a mobile app helping disabled people to find accessible places. He is also an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropy founded by former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt.
Matt started off his discussion with a bold, but true statement. He said: “Disabled people have to fight for things that non-disabled people take for granted.” He spoke of a building that only had one accessible toilet, meaning he had to take a lift down 47 floors.
“They [disabled people] are not just struggling to get the same start. They’re struggling to even get to the starting line.”
“So, shift the onus. Don’t expect people to raise their hand and ask for things to be changed but be as proactive as possible to meet their needs.”
Nancy Doyle is an Occupational Psychologist and the Chief Research Officer at Genius Within, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating neurodiversity inclusion in the workplace.
We all have natural variations in our creative thinking. Lots of us are generalists, some of us are specialists.
She went back to neurodiversity’s original concept to define what it is. Australian Sociologist, Judy Singer, said that we are all neurodiverse, that it’s a spectrum. We all have natural variations in our creative thinking. Lots of us are generalists, some of us are specialists. But the term “neurodiverse” gets bandied around for so many different conditions, like Autism, ADHD or Dyspraxia.
I do not want to be known by the names of my conditions
A great thing about language is that it is constantly evolving. And a new term that Nancy mentioned – that I’d never come across before – was “neuro-distinct”, a term so new that my word processor doesn’t recognise it…yet. I have ADD and Dyspraxia, and the word “neuro-distinct” sounds more appealing than “neurodivergent.” I do not want to be known by the names of my conditions, and this is an enticing prospect as a result of this.
I asked them: “Where do you feel we will be in twenty years time?”
Twenty years ago, this disability agenda was unheard of. I wanted to know their thoughts on what this new generation of journalists will experience and what life will be like for them.
Katy said that she hoped there would be more inclusivity in 2042 and that organisations would be able to accommodate everyone. “We’ve got work to do to change perceptions,” she said, as she continued to explain that disabled reporters would be able to have the same standing as abled people in newsrooms.
“those at the top don’t get diversity, and they don’t want to get it.”
Jordan “didn’t want to be grim” in his answer. He didn’t want to be anywhere as optimistic. “I think it will be better than it is now, but I feel that “those at the top don’t get diversity, and they don’t want to get it.”
He said: “The spark of change has to come from people like me.” “Many people like sports, not just old, white men. Therefore, having a platform that is there for all audiences creates a very diverse workforce.”
Change is never easy, and it’s also never simple. The Stonewall Uprising in June 1969 is considered a watershed event, a defining moment that transformed the homosexual liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights. Perhaps with the introduction of the first ever Journalism and Disability conference, we can start to make positive, genuine, lasting change. Maybe it’s happening as I type this, as you read this.
The conversation isn’t happening. Yet. But I’m sure it will. The world of media is always changing, so what if we all tried to change it for the better?
James is on Instagram at @jbuckers
Registered as legally blind, Caroline Casey hid her disability from colleagues until she came out as blind at the age of 28. At the time she was working as a global management consultant at Accenture.
In 2000, Caroline rode an elephant 1,000 kms across India to raise funds for Sight Savers. No surprise that she is also a TED speaker.
If you would like to comment on anything you’ve read in this article by James, we’d be happy to hear your thoughts, opinions, feedback. Thank you for reading.