In April 2006, Michelle McQuigge walked through the transparent glass door at the Canadian Press office in Toronto to interview for a summer internship position that just opened up.
“I had been completing interviews along with all my other fellow students as we wrapped up our final year of journalism school and it was becoming increasingly frustrating,” says the Ryerson alumna. “School was due to wrap up in a few weeks [and] internships were going to be getting underway in May.”
Her only companion that day was McClure, a golden retriever and her guide dog. McQuigge is blind. When she was nine months old, she had her eyes surgically removed to prevent the cancer she’d developed in her retina from spreading. In their place, she wears prosthetics.
Other reporters in Canada work with disabilities. CTV’s Craig Oliver is now legally blind. Tara Weber, the Western correspondent at Business News Network, uses a wheelchair. And until she died in 2015, Barbara Turnbull—who became quadriplegic after her throat was hit by a bullet—reported for the Toronto Star. While conversations about diversity are starting to take place in newsrooms, they rarely extend beyond race and gender.
By the time of her interview, McQuigge worked as a co-news editor at the school newspaper the Ryersonian and wrote freelance articles for the Financial Post. But she also received a number of rejections for internships. (In one interview, when asked if she could drive, McQuigge responded, “Well, you’d have a really great story if I did.” She didn’t get the job.)
The question of how she would navigate work at CP quickly came up. “They were asking me very candid and very fair questions about the degree of accommodation I would require, the technology that I used,” McQuigge says. It ended with one of the interviewers on the floor petting McClure. “This went about as well as it could possibly go,” she later confided to a family member, adding, “If I don’t get this, I don’t think I’m going to get anything.” Luckily, she heard back only two hours later, and got the job. Twelve years later, she’s still at CP as a full-time reporter and editor on the Ontario news desk.
After hiring McQuigge, CP installed a screen-reader on her computer and got her a braille printer. But both McQuigge and her bosses knew from the beginning that there would be some barriers, including fieldwork. “This was somebody who we would not simply be able to send out the door on an assignment,” says James McCarten, her initial supervisor.
McQuigge does most of her reporting from her desk. Her work has appeared in multiple outlets, covering everything from Canadian responses to the Pyeongchang Olympics to human trafficking through Airbnb rentals in the GTA to issues faced by members of the Indigenous community. Over the past year, McQuigge has been bringing accessibility to the forefront of the national newswire’s coverage, including a recent story on the economic benefits of hiring people with physical disabilities. “I can definitely think of multiple times when she has pitched a story which other people might not have noticed,” says Diana Mehta, the Ontario news editor and one of McQuigge’s current supervisors. “We at CP, specifically at the Ontario bureau, I feel have improved our coverage and our frequency of coverage of accessibility-related issues because of Michelle.”
McQuigge says her experiences with disability help inform her reporting. “I do feel that my own lived experience with disability has helped with some interview subjects to put them at ease and make them recognize that I’m not approaching this subject from a theoretical perspective, that I have some understanding of the issues that they’re trying to elaborate on,” she says.
In the past, McQuigge and McCarten worked together at the national desk where they oversaw copy for publication. McQuigge copy-edited stories on the wire by listening to them at accelerated speeds, which sound unintelligible to the average person. McQuigge sent emails to writers, pointing out spelling and grammar errors. Eventually, McCarten and McQuigge began producing a weekly email for the newsroom called “The Copy Cops.” One of McQuigge’s sections in the email was about grammar and other copyediting errors in stories. The section was, tellingly, called “Blind Spot,” with the tagline, “If she can see it, so should you!”
“Michelle has always been very frank about [her blindness] and very upfront. She talks about it openly and it’s not a ‘thing,’” McCarten says. “I had a couple people even point out to me much later that it took them months and months to even realize the joke because they didn’t know she was blind.”
It wasn’t the first time McQuigge caused others to rethink their perceptions of people who are blind. As a journalism student, McQuigge wanted to work as a news editor at the Ryersonian and her professor didn’t hide his skepticism. “Can I give it a shot?” McQuigge asked. He agreed on the condition that he could re-assign her if he wasn’t satisfied.
It was all she needed. McQuigge and another student worked as co-news editors, with McQuigge taking over editing duties while the other student did layout. “We fell into a rhythm that really worked and the professor was very pleased,” she says. McQuigge received the Dick Lunn Memorial Award that year for her contribution to the paper. When she later told the professor about her trouble getting internships, he called CP and encouraged her to apply. “All people need to do is give you a chance!” he exclaimed.
McCarten says that while newsrooms may have previously had “a fairly narrow-minded attitude” toward hiring people with disabilities, that may change as the industry evolves. “The last 10 years have really been a shakeup for everyone in this business, and if that leads us down the road of being able to say, ‘We don’t have to think about these things in the way we used to anymore,’ then hopefully that would lift those barriers.”
As for McQuigge, she’s glad to be with CP. “I’ve been remarkably fortunate to work for somewhere this supportive and inclusive,” she says. “I really hope that other media outlets will adopt a similar attitude.”
Update: This post was updated to further clarify McQuigge’s role as a reporter at CP.