“It’s not going to happen by closing your laptop and praying.”
“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.”
These were the words that resonated with me, and they were said by Shelley Bishton, the Head of Creative Diversity at NewsUK, in the first opening statement at the first Disability and Journalism Forum in the world. And it only got better from there.
My name is James Buckley. I’m a disabled freelance journalist. Or maybe I’m a freelance 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 is. Journalism is already a very difficult career, with the long hours, constant pressure, and stress of deadlines, and having disabilities sometimes exacerbates that.
Shelley used raw statistics and facts to get to the brutal point. 8.3 million disabled people. 4.42 million in work. One in ten children are born with a disability. It’s estimated that nine million people have a hidden disability. Those figures are likely to increase with the long-term effects of the Coronavirus, of which two million are reportedly affected by. And research by the disability equality charity Scope in June 2021 found that 78% of disabled people believe better media representation is important in tackling negative attitudes.
We have a responsibility to ensure that our media represents everyone. And it’s come so far in the last decade, but there is such a long way to go.
The first speaker, The Times’s Melanie Reid, knows that there are many forms of disability. She writes weekly, in The Times’s “Spinal Column.” In April 2010, she broke her neck and back, during an accident while horse riding. In her own words, this “propelled her into darker career opportunities.” Her immediate worry was her job, and she joked about “being ahead of the curve” with remote working. The situation was, at the time, unique. “There were no other disabled voices in newspapers, certainly not in such a high-profile slot.”
People still write to her today, saying how her column helps put their world into perspective. Those with chronic health problems, they feel engaged with-and this is an area which the media previously neglected. These people, then, are delighted that someone is giving them a voice, and they don’t have to feel so invisible anymore.
By and large, things are tougher in life for disabled people than for non-disabled people. We’re tough, 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.
And then there’s the fact that people we interview will find us easier to talk to, more trustworthy. And then we can use this to our advantage to get a scoop.
“Soft power,” Melanie says, “keeps working long after an edition has been put to bed.”
Georgia Lambert, a journalist for The Times, broke into the journalism industry “a few years ago”, starting in regionals 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. Instead of going to University, Georgia was undergoing brain and spinal surgery.
She took her NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) 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 the shaking in her hands.
She said “there was 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.
Catherine Grinyer is the co-founder and Director of Attenable, an inclusive events agency delivering accessible events. She started with this: “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 practise.”
A few cases come to mind when talking about this. Tesco was an early adopter of digital accessibility twenty years ago, in 2001/2. 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 (search engine optimisation) increased by 25%.
Catherine says that if you have a platform (website or asocial media presence), them 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!”
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 (hear?) 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 RNID (Royal National Institute for the Deaf), London.
“12 million people have hearing loss. Many are dissatisfied with their experiences consuming media,” says Roger.
He talks 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 (and there was an interpreter at the conference!). 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 says, “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. That “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.
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 word “neurodiverse”, it gets bandied around for so many different conditions. Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia.
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 “neurodistinct.”, a term so new, that my laptop doesn’t recognise it (yet), instead of drawing a red line under it, as if to say the mere existence of this term is untrue. Maybe it is, for now. But what will the future hold?
And this is a question I asked to a panel consisting of Jordan Jarrett-Bryan, Channel 4 Sports Reporter, Head of TalkSPORT, and Katy Docherty, a feature writer for The Sun.
I asked them: “Where do you feel we will be in twenty years’ time?”
“We’ve got work to do to change perceptions,” Katy answered first. She hopes that there will be a lot more inclusivity by 2042. That organisations would be able to accommodate everyone. That disabled people would be able to have the same standing as abled people in newsrooms.
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. “The spark of change has to come from people like me”, he said. “Many people like sport, 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.
I’m currently completing the NCTJ Qualification at City of Portsmouth College. I know that I have what it takes to be a good journalist, and I want to prove it.
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?
This forum was in the middle of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, and it’s important for people who are disabled to be given a voice.
#neurodiversity #disability #journalism #disabilityjournalismforum
Alt text: A photo of james outside the NewsUK Building.