Even if you don’t remember Jeff Adams’s name, you probably remember what he did last fall. On September 26, 2002, he climbed the 1,760 steps of the CN Tower staircase – in a modified wheelchair. What you probably never knew was why he did it.
Media coverage of the Toronto event came close to saturation level, with local and national television, radio and newspaper outlets out in force. Like most of the coverage, the Toronto Star‘s article focused heavily on the heroics involved. In the page A3 colour picture it ran of Adams climbing the tower, he stares intently at his hands, one gripping the railing, the other gripping a cane to propel him backward and upward. His lips are pursed in determination. The story’s lead begins breathlessly: “When Jeff Adams emerged, flush-faced and still sweating from his climb to the top of the stairwell at the CN Tower, the crowd was already clapping.”
Buried near the end of the piece is the answer to the question why: a few years earlier, Adams had been ejected from a downtown Toronto bar with one flight of stairs – he had been told he was a fire hazard. In response, he decided to climb the tower for charity, donating the money raised to educate schoolchildren about the importance of normalcy for everyone and a barrier-free society. Key information. Yet the why of the story reads tacked on, an afterthought. In the inverted pyramid style of newspaper writing, this was clearly the dispensable part of the article.
Despite the attention Adams garnered, media coverage of disabled issues is paltry at best. When it does appear, misguided emphasis and glorification of the individual are the norm. Maybe that’s not surprising, considering the matter of representation in the media itself. At a time when visible minorities and women have established themselves in the profession, the number of disabled journalists remains very low.
Just how paltry is the coverage? Even with a ready-made news hook it can be virtually non-existent. Last year, in the eight days preceding December 3 – the United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons – there wasn’t a single story in the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail or the National Post that mentioned the event. On November 29, the Star ran a 140-word story about illegal parking in disabled spots. The next day, the regular disabilities column appeared in the Star‘s Saturday Life section; the Post had an A-section 386-word story on the same day about a fatal scalding of a disabled man.
On December 3 itself, the Globe carried a 236-word story about a Special Olympics breakfast and numerous activities to take place the next day. The Star ran a 335-word statistics story entitled “3.4 Million Adult Canadians Report Some Disability,” with the deck “Problems Range from Aching Back to Arthritis.” The Postcarried a 1,250-word, page-one article on an accident that might leave former British Columbia premier Mike Harcourt disabled.
So why is the coverage of issues that directly affect almost 13 per cent of Canadians (more than 3.5 million people) so abysmal? “It’s just not a sexy topic,” sighs David Onley. Onley is best known as an anchor for CablePulse24 and Citytv in Toronto. He also happens to be a survivor of polio and is the only prominent Canadian anchor with a physical disability – he walks with a cane. Onley points out the ongoing problems with transportation, unemployment, discrimination and abuse. “They are serious problems that are completely ignored. Alleged racial profiling at the Toronto Police was a sexy topic. Princess Diana’s butler was a sexy, sexy story. And that’s the way the media works.”
But do all stories have to be sexy? “We are storytellers,” says Ing Wong-Ward, a producer at CBC Radio’sMetro Morning in Toronto, and a wheelchair user. “It can be interesting and provocative without being sexy. The media put limits on themselves and cut out sections of their audience by approaching it that way.” She cites coverage of actor Christopher Reeve as a clear example of how journalists approach disability all wrong. “When he said, ‘I’m going to walk again,’ that was all they paid attention to. Why are we so obsessed with curing? It sets up the false notion that disabled persons have to be fixed and want to be fixed.” Wong-Ward questions why there isn’t more analysis. Why didn’t reporters ask Reeve about accessibility, for instance, or unemployment?
Stereotypes are common. “The hero stereotype is extremely dangerous. It means, as a disabled person, you have to be a super-high achiever to get noticed,” she explains. “Journalists buy into the medical assumption that there is something wrong with disabled persons, and that we need to be fixed. The assumption that journalists are neutral is a crock. We are a reflection of society. In society, there’s a lack of awareness about disability. It’s not tragic to be a disabled person. It’s simply a part of my life.”
Stereotypes of persons with disabilities emerge again and again in the media, and the coverage generally presents it two ways: you’re either a hero – consider Terry Fox – or you deserve pity or charity. While no article would dare make pity a central theme, many stories are flavoured with it.
For instance, when hydro prices in Ontario soared this past fall, the Star ran a story on October 29 about a Hamilton single mother who could not pay the bills. The piece emphasized that she had a disabled child who required a ventilator to breathe. The child’s grandfather was described as sending “a desperate plea” to the Ontario legislature. Language, too, reveals pity: “confined to a wheelchair” is still everyday terminology. As Wong-Ward puts it, “It’s just as easy for the disabled to accept the stereotypes when we are presented with them again and again.”
It’s Wednesday afternoon and David Onley is hosting CP24’s weekly hour-long technology show Homepage. He and his guests sit across the table from each other in Citytv’s open-environment set. Within an hour they’ll cover topics as varied as tablet computers and budgeting software. They face a screen that shows the software being discussed.
Like any good anchor, Onley is a skilled interviewer. He asks the important questions and absorbs the answers. With his guests he is relaxed and amiable, as if he’s talking to old friends. Unless you caught him in the ’80s as City’s main weatherman, you might not know he has a disability. Back then, the cameraman would include Onley’s entire body in its frame, showing him holding onto his cane with one hand for balance. Nowadays, the camera frames his face and upper body, focusing not on his disability, but on his abilities to keep viewers tuned in.
The shortcomings in how disability issues are covered appear closely linked to the dearth of disabled journalists, who would be more likely to handle the subject in a relevant manner. This is where “normalization,” as Jeff Adams called it, enters the media landscape. If it’s not normal to see disabled journalists on TV or to know of them working in radio or print, disabled youths won’t readily view journalism as a viable employment option.
“I know the traditional answer is that there aren’t enough qualified people enrolling in radio and television arts or journalism courses,” says Onley, “but is that an excuse? Or is it that there are not enough people applying to these positions because they don’t see any on TV? I always knew I wanted to be a broadcaster on television since I was 11, but I turned first to radio because I didn’t see anyone with a disability on TV.”
Finding the root of the shortage isn’t easy. Across the nation, on paper, prospects for employment appear to be fair.
Quebecor World is an equal opportunity employer. We welcome and encourage diversity.
Bell Globemedia is dedicated to equity in the workplace.
The Employment Equity Office exists to facilitate recruiting, integration and promotion of women, members of visible minority groups, aboriginal people and people with disabilities, so that the CBC can achieve a workforce which reflects the diversity of Canadian society.
At a dozen different media outlets across the country, the answer is much the same: “We are an equal opportunity employer.”
Ron Nowell, executive editor at the Calgary Herald, says, “We hire consistently with what the universal standards are. We look at every application, and it makes no difference to us whether a person is handicapped or not.” Explaining that the Herald does not currently employ any disabled staff in the newsroom, Nowell says the Herald has not received an application from a person with a disability – as far as he knows.
At the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, one of the few independent papers left in Canada, human resources assistant Gina Gallant says, “An applicant’s disabilities wouldn’t matter. There is a woman here with a walking impairment and another staff member with a heart problem.” Jenny Pruegger at Canadian Living‘s human resources department says that affirmative action is not incorporated into the publisher’s policy, but it is something the magazine practices. “It’s a matter of the best person for the job.” At the National Post, Sharlene Kanhai, recruitment development specialist says, “My hiring practice is to hire the best candidate. We have a couple of people in wheelchairs in editorial.” Roy Wood, executive editor of the Edmonton Journal, says, “It’s not an issue if a person has a disability. The issue is his or her abilities. We don’t have a policy seeking to hire those with disabilities or an affirmative action program, but we don’t dismiss people from consideration because of a disability. We do have a columnist in features who has been with us for 15 years, and he is a wheelchair user.” Cathy Foti, human resources manager at CTV, says that the station actively places job postings with diversity groups as well as with post-secondary institutes and on its website.
At Rogers Media (publisher of Maclean’s, Chatelaine and Canadian Business, among others), an unidentified woman in human resources curtly says, “We are equal opportunity employers.”
So from all appearances, Canadian media are more than willing to hire any person with the correct qualifications. There’s just one complicating factor. As Wong-Ward says, “‘The best person for the job’ is a loaded term. It could mean ‘who fits in’ or ‘who doesn’t create problems.’ The playing field should be equal, but unfortunately there are subjective qualities that are brought into the game.” Wong-Ward recalls an experience she had when looking for a job in 2000. She called The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Television to inquire about a position. The female senior producer that Wong-Ward spoke to was enthused and asked her to come by for a chat. Before the phone conversation was over, Wong-Ward asked casually if the offices were accessible and was told, “Well, no.” Before the job opportunity could ever begin, it ended.
“You’d think a subsidiary of The Globe and Mail would have the funding to be accessible, but apparently not,” Wong-Ward sighs. “When you start pointing this out to the people who hire, you run up against people’s baggage. ‘Yes, I’m an equitable employer. Just because I don’t have a disabled member of staff doesn’t make me a bad person!’ Until we get over that guilt, we’re not going to move on this issue.”
We all know the drill. Entry-level journalism jobs are often grunt work, as Wong-Ward puts it: running upstairs to make copies, filing or chasing ambulances. “I know I’m not an ambulance chaser, but there has to be an equal playing field. Accommodation does not make you special or unique. Everyone needs accommodation. It means so many things. If you’re a single mom who has to go to daycare at five to pick up your kids, that’s an accommodation. If you’re an observant Jew, chances are you’re going to have to leave early on Fridays during the winter for sundown. Compromises are for everyone, and I am no different.”
Overall, unemployment is huge in the disabled community. The rate of unemployment of persons with disabilities was 43.7 per cent in 1991, according to Human Resources Development Canada. HRDC’s December 2002 report shows that disability employment rates slid even further. By 1996, 41 per cent of men with disabilities were employed, compared to 47 per cent in 1991. Thirty-two per cent of women with disabilities were employed in 1996, compared to 35 per cent in 1991. What’s more, the December report states that “the 1996 census found that persons with disabilities are only half as likely to be employed as those without disabilities.” Worse still, they are “at a disadvantage because of their disabilities: even with the same level of education, they are 20% less likely to be employed than those with no disability.”
Catherine Frazee, co-founder of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University and former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, says that in the media, employers blaming school recruitment – and vice versa – is a circular path that has to end. She herself wanted to study journalism at Carleton University in the 1970s; the school’s underground tunnels made getting around ideal, and she had also received a scholarship when she applied. “When I was out seeking advice and direction, I arranged to meet with a member of the journalism faculty. Candidly she said, ‘So much of journalism involves getting to the scene. You’re going to be sent out on assignment to cover something and you’ve got to be there in 45 minutes. For someone with restricted mobility, I think this would be extremely difficult for you. If your primary interest is writing, why don’t you major in English.’ I was completely discouraged, and indeed, I did not pursue a degree in journalism. I did what she suggested.”
While the faculty member had some valid points, mainly they pertain to hard reporting for newspapers. In other areas of the profession, disabilities seem irrelevant, as Talia Maze says. Maze, currently a journalism student at Ryerson, has had a condition called short chain acid deficiency since birth, which results in general muscle weakness. She explains that she chose her field of study largely because of its practicality. “You can be a successful journalist without having to do much heavy-duty physical work. For the most part, it involves the mind more than the body. I have always enjoyed writing and can type as well as anybody else. Interviews can be done by phone when accessibility keeps me from getting to a person. Compared to other professions, journalism does not have many barriers to overcome.” Maze chose Ryerson because it was close to home and all the buildings have been accessible since the early ’90s.
Wong-Ward, who began journalism school at Ryerson in 1990, faced a more difficult situation. During her first two years, the journalism school building was not accessible. She would have to go to Jorgenson Hall, Ryerson’s main building, which had access, and phone her professors to come meet her for a cup of coffee. “How intimidating is that, especially in your first year? It was terrifying.” In her third year, the journalism school became accessible, and finally, in 1992, her final year, the Rogers Communications Centre was completed. “But I had to fight for automatic entry doors,” she adds. “My naïveté must have helped me – I never really contemplated if I couldn’t physically get into school, how was I ever going to get a job?”
It’s 10 A.M. and Barbara Turnbull arrives at her desk at the Toronto Star. Her chair, controlled by her head motions, lets her enter the building and take the elevator to the newsroom floor and finally to her desk. As co-workers pass by, she asks one of them to aid her with putting on her telephone headset, hooking up her tape recorder and setting up a glass of water with a straw. Later, after she’s been assigned the stories she will research and write, she calls her sources. She uses a mouth stick that enables her to type, dial the phone, and press record on her modified recorder. Co-workers frequently ask her if she needs a refill of water – or anything at all. “No, it’s not in their job description,” she writes in her autobiography, “but I have never had any indication that anyone minds.”
Turnbull has been a quadriplegic since she was shot in a robbery in 1983. Her biggest career obstacle turned out to be applying to journalism school in the first place. In the ’80s, says Turnbull, there was less of an expectation that a disabled person would find an area of interest to study. “The focus was that if you’ve got anything wrong with you, anything different, whether mental, developmental or physical, you’re going to go into social work. I was pushed that way. I had to appeal to my insurance company to attend journalism school because, according to them, I had not shown an aptitude for it. Well, I hadn’t shown an aptitude for anything! But I guarantee if I had said social work I wouldn’t have had a hesitation, and I wouldn’t have had to appeal.” She won her appeal, and studied journalism at Arizona State University.
The most common concessions disabled students require are alternative tests. For students studying in Ontario, the Ontario Student Assistance Program offers a bursary for students with disabilities for funding of specific items, which could be anything from tutoring to specialized equipment. Similarly, at every major post-secondary school across Canada, accessibility issues are taken seriously and accommodations made.
Still, employment falls way short, and has even deteriorated, according to HRDC. No wonder that there’s little satisfaction with the 2001 Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It has no enforcement mechanism for any part of society, public or private sector, to mandate accommodation. It simply asks organizations to make a plan, but does not make them accountable for implementation. “They might as well have not passed anything,” says Turnbull.
And at the national level, there are no government policies that encompass both the private and public sector. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 enforces a civil rights guarantee for persons with disabilities in both the private and public sector. “If there were any other minority group in our society that had this rate of unemployment, there’d be rioting in the streets,” says David Onley. When he talks to a group, he likes to remind them that they are but one accident away from disability. And that, if for no other reason, is why we should care about these issues.
The common belief among disability advocates is that this is the new civil rights movement. “But it’s a catch-22,” says Wong-Ward. On one hand, it’s hard for the disabled community to be galvanized into organizing without having seen their issues covered properly in the media. On the other hand, the media may not pay attention to the issue because the community is not yelling loudly enough to be heard. Adding to that, Frazee says, “The medical paradigm is so strong, it takes a great deal of time and intellectual and political work to help people give up that idea that my problem is that I can’t walk. People need to understand the idea that my problem is built on the assumption that everybody can walk. The media just buys into that majority bias.”
I meet Wong-Ward at her downtown condo, and her husband answers the door. As I take off my shoes, she welcomes me and quickly leads the way, steering her chair into the kitchen. Casually dressed in a black sweater and jeans, her black hair is chin-length, framing her face; dark lipstick accentuates her mouth. She’s forgiving of my tape recorder that won’t work, and she brings me a pad of paper to take notes, ripping out pages for me to use. Only rarely does she take her eyes off my pen or me. She allows time for my hand to catch up with her words. Her hands play with the pieces of ripped notepaper while we talk for three hours. Her frustration makes confetti out of the scraps of paper, and her voice often rises heatedly about the issues that affected her entire life.
While Wong-Ward is glad to be at the CBC, especially if it means that her perspective can add diversity toMetro Morning, she has no illusions that change will come quickly or easily. Her thoughts return to Christopher Reeve. “We all want Superman to walk again. We just don’t want to know about his everyday reality,” she says, looking me straight in the eye. “So how do you move the mindset?”