How Disabled Journalists Have to Fight to Get in the Newsroom

"How could I possibly feel like I belong in an industry where I can’t even get in the door?"

When I showed up at my student paper’s newsroom for the first time, I couldn’t get in the door. There was a large step leading up to a narrow doorway my wobbly legs and clunky walker could not get through. It was suggested I sit in the hallway and listen to meetings from there. 

In another major newsroom, I showed up on my first day to find all the accessibility buttons in the building turned off due to COVID-19 protocols (as they were not deemed essential) or just left broken and not repaired. 

How could I possibly feel like I belong in an industry where I can’t even get in the door? 

According to Stats Canada, nearly 25 percent of Canadians are disabled, yet there are only a handful of openly disabled journalists scattered across the country. Meeting disabled journalists happens by chance: a shy DM on Twitter or someone spotted at a conference. There is no formal organization, pipeline, or even a group chat. Instead, we are left to navigate an often inaccessible industry alone. 

Graham Isador is frustrated. He is a contributing editor at GQ with previous stints at Vice and The Beaverton. Isador also has keratoconus, a progressive eye disease.

“People assume I am an asshole, not that I am going blind,” said Isador. 

Isador has no physical indicators that he is low-vision. He does not use a cane, have a guide dog, or wear sunglasses like most assume someone with low-vision would. But Isador sometimes misses small copy errors and struggles to recognize faces or see text on computer screens. 

“A lot of the time, things that have been misattributed to me as laziness or forgetfulness or sloppiness in my work are actually just indicative of the fact that I don’t really see all that well,” said Isador. 

Over the course of the pandemic, things have only become more difficult as a result of increased video calls. He said he is often asked why he has his camera off or why he looks fatigued or disengaged. He said it is a revolving door of explaining his disability only to have some colleagues “forget” he needs those accommodations after a few weeks. Then, he is left to re-explain his accommodation requests all over again. He points to high turnover rates in newsrooms making this particularly difficult, as his disability is questioned with every new co-worker or manager.

“It’s difficult to have to constantly remind people that you need certain things in order to be able to be treated equitably,” he said.

In Canada, employers are not allowed to discriminate based on disability and have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations. The problem is that it is up to the employer to decide what is reasonable. 

For Lenny, who requested their real name not be used due to concerns over future employment, that conversation is terrifying, despite their being a well-respected editor. Lenny has bipolar II and generalized anxiety disorder.

“I don’t really want that strike against my application, which is so sad,” they said. 

“What it boils down to for me is that I can meet every single deadline, and I can do my work, but I just sort of need to do it in a slightly different way than other people,” Lenny said. 

Lenny opts to wait a few months until they feel it is safe to disclose and that they have proven their worth. 

They now have a stable job that pays a liveable wage but said it has been a long road to get there. Being a longtime freelancer allowed Lenny to give themselves the accommodations they needed — like flexible hours and the ability to work from home — without fear of retribution.

But the precarious nature of freelancing often leaves those who most need health insurance without it. 

According to the Disability Policy Alliance, disabled Canadians spent a quarter to half of their income on disability-related expenses. This is an estimated lifetime value of $300,000 to three million dollars. With inconsistent freelance checks, lack of insurance alone can push disabled journalists out of the industry. 

Even with a staff position, insurance that covers the massive price that comes with being disabled is not a guarantee. Nearly every newsroom I have worked for was unable to provide me with information on what medical equipment they cover or didn’t cover — crucial equipment such as wheelchairs, shower chairs, or walkers.

And if a journalist is required to move for a job, those with mobility issues may require accommodations to get there. 

This summer, I was offered my first full-time reporting job. During the interview phase and negotiations, I explained that I would need a remote start until I could find wheelchair-accessible housing in the new city. 

That was not deemed an acceptable accommodation request, despite the entire newsroom still working from home. 

“Frankly, it’s hard for everyone to move,” said the hiring manager. 

Losing out on a job as a green reporter is terrifying. Even more so with the weight of frequently being told by my peers that I will never “make it.” 

I cannot count how many times I have been approached by my peers and journalistic heroes and told there is not room for me. At my first student journalism conference, a speaker told a room of 250 of my peers that I should “quit now” because I was too big of a liability and nobody would ever hire me. 

This year, I was a finalist for Student Journalist of the Year at the same conference. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility, but thinking critically about what internal ableism industry professionals hold is a good place to start. Why do journalists so often believe that reporters need to be able-bodied to be successful? Why is it okay that some reporters can’t get into their own newsrooms? Why are disabled journalists being pushed out over health insurance and equitable accommodations? 

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on as a mass disabling event, having disabled voices in newsrooms has never been more important.

Top photo: Bailey Martens, supplied 

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