When Catherine Frazee applied to study journalism at Carleton University in the 1970s, a senior official at the school told her she would not be able to “elbow her way into the scrum on Parliament Hill” and shouldn’t pursue a career in journalism because she was disabled. She then gave up her scholarship and her place in the program—a decision she says is regrettable.
That was during “the dark ages of disability,” says Frazee, who later served as Ontario’s Human Rights Chief Commissioner and co-founded Ryerson University’s Institute of Disability Studies. Fortunately, much has changed with legislation, education and greater awareness as people with disabilities have become increasingly visible in society. In fact, Frazee now says that if she were starting over, she might become a journalist.
Nevertheless, journalists with disabilities still face daily accessibility obstacles and social stigmas, and have to prove themselves as “competent” and “useful.” And, too often, they cover disability issues—whether they want to or not. Many aren’t happy about that and do their best to avoid those assignments, but others worry that if they don’t report on this community, no one will.
In 1993, Barbara Turnbull launched a human rights case against the Famous Players movie theatre chain, which then operated 10 theatres in downtown Toronto—none of them accessible. But the Toronto Star reporter has chosen to keep her disability separate from her career. “I thought living with a disability was enough,” she says, “and didn’t want to have to be writing about it too.”
Tara Weber also tries to steer clear of the subject. A television and radio reporter for CBC in Calgary, she has used a wheelchair since a car accident broke her back at age 17. For much of her career, she’s had to fight to not cover stories about people with disabilities. But she was unwillingly thrust into the role of advocate after receiving media attention when she criticized Toronto’s lack of accessibility in a letter to outgoing mayor David Miller and the candidates running to replace him in the fall of 2010. The letter explained that she was heading out west to live in a more accessible city. She refused to comment for this story, saying in a facebook message that she didn’t plan on making herself an advocate.
Still, the pigeonholing is hard to escape. CBC Radio’s Ing Wong-Ward has worked on a radio series about her experiences as a mother with a disability. She wrote stories for Abilities magazine and accepted public speaking invitations. But she also declined to be interviewed, saying in an email, “I’ve worked at CBC for 17 [now 18] years. Most of the programming I’ve done has little to do with disability, yet the only time I’m asked by Ryerson to do any commenting or discussions around journalism is when a disability issue comes up.” She’d rather be asked to comment about general journalism topics, such as how to program for a local audience or how to be an effective chase producer—the kinds of questions people would ask a non-disabled journalist. She added, “I also find it disheartening that it’s always the students with disabilities who end up doing these types of stories. I’ve only had one non-disabled student tackle this subject.”