Disabled journalist Tamara Marshall highlights the difficulties of pursuing a career in the industry, and offers words of advice for those in a similar situation…
Graduates worry about future job prospects, but those with disabilities will fear the competition of the journalistic market more than most.
I should know – living with a hearing impairment, I suffer these fears constantly.
I am studying for an NCTJ diploma in Magazine Journalism, but sometimes I am doubtful about my chances of success in the industry.
Daily tasks such as using a telephone and communicating in loud, busy environments are a constant struggle – yet these are considered central tasks to the role of a journalist.
My pessimism is compounded by the overwhelming lack of advice and information available to aspiring journalists with disabilities.
Often there is a preconception that a disability – whether a disfigurement, mobility issue or problematic condition – presents an obstacle to employment.
It’s a harsh reality that disabled journalists are conditioned by social stigmas and swamped with fears of labelling in the workplace.
Yet ultimately, journalists, disabled or not, should be recognised and valued for what they can do, rather than what they cannot.
Negative perceptions and lack of representation
A main problem with journalism today is the small number of disabled people working in the industry. Think about it – how many disabled journalists can you name?
Back in 2003, Disability Now published a report to expose this absence, highlighting the lack of research conducted on the issue.
It raised concern about the limited aids provided for disabled journalists, particularly for those working in radio and television, and the small number of disabled students applying to study journalism at higher education.
Essentially, it identified that many students were deterred from entering the industry due to a fear of being labelled.
Journalists with disabilities face daily social stigmas and discriminatory attitudes. Among these is the idea that disabled journalists are unable to perform in the workplace as efficiently and competently as an employee without disabilities.
There is also the deep-seated perception that disabled journalists should, and would, prefer to be assigned to cover disability issues. This is not the case.
Certainly we could report with great understanding and insight, but quite frankly I feel that living with my disability is enough as it is, let alone allowing it to dominate my career.
I cannot deny that I have found great comfort and confidence from engaging with my hearing loss by expressing it in my writing, but I would never aim to become a one-subject disability journalist.
Principally, in order for disabled journalists to gain more presence in the media industry, there needs to be a major cultural shift in the media’s attitude towards them.
Finding your niche and working with your disabilities
The rise of online media has been a huge asset to disabled journalists. Today many of us are able to pursue our passion for writing by building a presence online as freelancers.
Freelancing has propelled disabled journalists into the writing world, enabling us to avoid the pressures of the workplace, where our skills and value as employees may be questioned.
I caught up with Richard MacEachran, a disabled journalist who writes for the The Guardian.
He told me that freelancing provides him with an escape from the judgemental attitudes and negativity he has experienced as a result of his facial disfigurement.
He said: “This field of journalism offers a chance for me to work in an environment where my disfigurement becomes irrelevant. I feel I have more to offer and am more likely to be valued, whereas in the corporate sector I might be fighting against the desire to conform to an image.”
Other disabled journalists may choose to use their experiences to help represent the variations in modern society.
Just take a look at the Hampshire based radio station, Radio Enham.
Launched in 2011, it communicates with the disabled community, particularly those of the Enham Trust, a charity offering specialist support services to the disabled.
Aptly describing itself as “a radio station for disabled people by disabled people,” Radio Enham gives disabled clients the chance to become involved in journalism.
I spoke with Hannah Cave, a media and journalism graduate currently interning there.
She explained: “Radio Enham has given clients responsibility and independence to run projects with minimal support. It effectively demonstrates how disabled people can be journalists, overcoming stereotypes and expectations by pushing themselves to overcome their difficulties when they are put in front of a microphone.”
My advice is that graduates and students, disabled or not, should make the most of what they CAN do. If you have passion and determination to be a journalist, fight for your place. Strive to overcome negative attitudes and remember – it’s your ABILITY that matters.
Tamara Marshall is a Swansea University Media Studies graduate studying for an NTCJ diploma in Magazine Journalism. She has recently started a blog documenting her experiences as an aspiring disabled journalist