Journalists with disabilities: aiming for inclusion

The journalism job hunt can be tough for people with disabilities.

By Emily Kitagawa

 

Retired journalist Jack Nelson poses with his son, Jed, their two dogs, and a deer he shot. Photo: Nelson’s own.

By Emily Kitagawa

Twenty-two-year old Jack A. Nelson was hiding in a grassy valley when he spotted a deer. To make the shot, he had to pull himself up in his wheelchair. He took aim, touched his finger to the trigger and pulled.

Nelson was delighted, thinking he had killed “a nice doe.” But it wasn’t a doe. One of his hunting partners hurried over, saying, “You killed a nice buck.”

Nelson, now 82 years old, lives in Provo, Utah. He still hunts and fishes using a wheelchair specially designed with large wheels in the front. “You can go over logs; you can do anything.”

For 14 years, he was the Utah editor for Western Outdoors magazine. When the magazine’s assistant editor was visiting Utah and arrived at a lake to go fishing, he said to Nelson, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in a wheelchair.”

Nelson chuckles as he recounts the editor’s remark. He had been writing regularly for the magazine for two or three years and, until then, his disability had gone unnoticed.

“One thing I learned very early on is that people react to you the same way you react to your disability,” he said. “If it doesn’t bother you…it doesn’t bother them.” He said his disability wasn’t a problem when he was trying to get into college; his main concern was with accessibility. In junior college in the early ’50s there were no elevators. When his classes were upstairs, his football buddies would carry him. “Some of them would just grab onto me, haul me up. It wasn’t a big deal.”

Nelson is a writer, and formerly worked as a reporter, television news scriptwriter and professor. He has published several novels and edited a compilation of essays called The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age. It was published two decades ago, and Nelson suggests someone should redo it. “I seriously can’t find any others.”

Defining Disability

“There is no common definition of ‘disability’ in Canada,” states the Canadian Pension Plan disability benefit website. The most relevant definition for Canadian journalists with disabilities comes from the Employment Equity Act:

“‘persons with disabilities’ means persons who have a long-term or recurring physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric or learning impairment and who

  • (a) consider themselves to be disadvantaged in employment by reason of that impairment, or
  • (b) believe that a employer or potential employer is likely to consider them to be disadvantaged in employment by reason of that impairment.”

Dr. Eddy Ng, a professor of business administration at Dalhousie University, says that in Canada if you report to an employer that you have a disability, “the employer must take your word for it.”

Not all journalists with disabilities have had such positive experiences. Some say they have been stigmatized and discriminated against. Journalism often encourages fairness for the underdog. But are journalism employers fair to underdogs trying to get into the industry?

Nelson knows what other journalists with disabilities know—their situation is determined not only by the physical or social effects of their disability, but by how those effects are perceived by others. In a sense disability, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

It took Kelly MacDonald five years after broadcast school to land a job. Why? He believes it’s because he’s visually impaired. He wanted a job in commercial radio. After a long hunt, MacDonald made his way to Accessible Media Incorporated(AMI) in Toronto. This national organization makes media accessible to all through closed captioning, described TV and a newspaper reading service broadcast on TV and online. It also creates original programming for TV and radio with a focus on disability issues.

MacDonald had helped many of his friends get jobs by assisting them with their audition reels, but they couldn’t help him in return. They didn’t know how. “I think opportunity given to people is just a tremendous thing,” he says. And he believes the job should go to the person who is most qualified.

Kelly MacDonald. (Photo: AMI)

Why was MacDonald’s disability such a problem for prospective employers? “I don’t want to call it prejudice,” said MacDonald, “I want to call it…uncertainty.” Uncertainty about how that person is going to be able to do the job. He says he’s been in a lot of interviews where he could tell the employer was thinking, “Okay, I’ve got a vision-impaired person sitting in front of me…I don’t know how he could do the job because I couldn’t if I were blind.”

MacDonald suggests employers be upfront and ask: “How are you going to do it? Can you explain it to me? Forgive my ignorance.” He says most people would rather be asked about their disability than turned away. “I tell people, what business do you have knowing how my shoes feel walking in them? You don’t. So you ask…But don’t close the door on my feet.”

People may think those with disabilities make for a lousy hire. But as Dr. Eddy Ng, a professor of business management at Dalhousie University, says, people with disabilities “end up being a much better hire.” He says, “It is important for employers to know that workers with disabilities have lower absenteeism (and) lower turnover.” He also says they are more productive because they feel they have to prove themselves.

Still, if you live in Canada and have a disability, you might not have a job. The national unemployment rate for working-age adults without disabilities is 6.8 per cent. For working-age people with disabilities, it’s 10.4 per cent. (Granted, not all people with disabilities can work. But this statistic, taken from the 2006 census, reflects those who can.)

 

The Employment Equity Act

Since 1986, this federal legislation has aimed to “achieve equality in the workplace.” It applies to 30 Crown corporations, parts of the federal public service, and more than 500 private sector employees, including some television and radio broadcast companies.

It states that people shouldn’t be denied “employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability.”

The Act protects four minority groups: women, aboriginal peoples, members of visible minorities and persons with disabilities.

Employment equity means that people are not just treated in the same way, but that special measures are made to accommodate differences.

One of the Act’s mandatory programs works to increase representation of the four minority groups in the workplace. But Dalhousie’s Dr. Ng says there is no penalty for not meeting the requirements of the Act.

Suburban Toronto, 1983. Eighteen-year-old Barbara Turnbull stacks cigarettes behind the counter of a Becker’s convenience store. It’s an average night shift. Average, at least, until three men enter—and they’re not looking to buy. She can’t see their faces, just their balaclavas. They rob the store, and blast a bullet through her spine.

Barbara Turnbull. (Photo: her own.)

Turnbull was in hospital for more than a year. She left in a wheelchair, irreversibly quadriplegic. She received a lot of media attention following the shooting, and after a year of journalism school in Arizona the Toronto Star called and offered her an internship. After finishing her degree, she was hired at the Star.

“I don’t kid myself that they were hiring me out of the goodness of their heart.” She says her hire was good PR for the newspaper, but she has kept her job based on merit. Turnbull has worked there her entire career and is a reporter for the Life section.

Turnbull says she has been well accommodated at work. A couple of electric doors were installed and a washroom was modified. Equipment like a hands-free phone was also purchased, along with voice recognition software for her computer.

Since the shooting, Turnbull has encountered little discrimination. In university, however, her academic advisor tried to convince her to stop studying journalism. She thought Turnbull’s lack of mobility in her hands would keep her from meeting deadlines. Turnbull said the encounter was “extremely discouraging.” The advisor left her office and returned with the dean of journalism. The mood lightened. The dean had seen another person with a disability go through the program, and was not concerned about Turnbull’s ability to succeed.

 How many people in Canada have a disability? Millions more than you may think. More than 4.4 million Canadians reported on the 2006 census that they have a disability. That’s one in seven people. The problem with this statistic is that it relies entirely on self-reporting. There could be many other Canadians who have a disability but choose not to disclose it.

 

Tova Sherman, a Halifax advocate for individuals with disabilities, says many people are afraid to self-identify “because their boss will shred their résumé faster than you can say disability.”

This is the case for one Halifax journalist who says she would never disclose her disability to an employer for fear of being turned away. She considers disclosure an invasion of privacy. “It’s embarrassing. It becomes gossip. And there’s no need to know.” This journalist did not want her name used because she is afraid of losing work. We’ll call her Andrea Davis.

Davis has schizophrenia. She has trouble in social situations and was bullied in broadcast school. “My behaviour and social skills were not equivalent to (other students’), and they saw that as cause to attack.” She says she was followed, shouted at and called insulting names.

Despite the bullying, Davis graduated and didn’t have trouble getting a job. She says she gives a good interview and does well in the first few weeks of work. “It’s sustaining interpersonal relationships over time where things fall apart.” Davis has experienced negativity in the newsroom because, she thinks, some of her symptoms come across as deliberate.

She has never disclosed her disability to her employer because that would be “providing ammunition to the socially adept who seem to practice some kind of bullying that is not only tolerated but sanctioned in the workplace.”

Davis says, “It’s so frustrating that people continue to believe that, if you have a disability, you are inherently not as good at whatever it is. And in a competitive field of work like journalism, that’s just the kind of snake pit where you really don’t want to disclose.” She says in newsroom culture telling people about your differences is “the kiss of death.”

 

For Tova Sherman, the stigma surrounding disabilities doesn’t make sense. “Everybody will have had, has, or will have a disability…So who are we stigmatizing?…We stigmatize ourselves.”

Sherman has lived with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mental health issues all of her life. At home with her family, having a disability was “no big deal.” She thought it was the norm. But when Sherman “came into the big world,” she realized disability was hugely stigmatized.

Twelve years ago, Sherman founded reachAbility, an agency that provides legal services, summer camps and free skills training for individuals with disabilities. She believes in “equalizing the playing field”— making accommodations in the workplace for those who need it, not treating everyone the same. She advocates for a paradigm shift that will move society away from the “you’re broken, let’s fix you” medical view of disability to a human rights paradigm, where everyone has a right to be part of society. “You’re not broken, you’re just one of the many unique characters that are human.”

Jack Nelson. (Submitted photo.)

Nelson in Utah says his wheelchair is not disabling—it’s liberating.  He has written many articles from his wheelchair—and shot many deer. But he knows that for people with disabilities getting a job can be tough. “You better have super credentials. Prepare yourself so you’ve done some extra so that you are valuable.”

Nelson treats a disability as “no big deal.” He hopes others do the same.