The crew at CBC television’s Studio 6 in Toronto is preparing for the next show-switching on hot overhead lights, adjusting furniture, positioning cameras. “Any more wheelchairs coming in?” someone shouts from the shadows. “If so, you’d better move your car, Joe.”
Joe Coughlin, one of the hosts, leans on a crutch, fishes in his pocket for car keys and hands them to a crew member who’s volunteered to move the offending vehicle. Meanwhile, his cohost, Susanne Pettit, chats with a camera operator about her need for a double lung transplant and the cost of the oxygen tanks she uses to stay alive. Elegantly dressed in a black blouse with gold brocadc, she carries a shoulder pack of portable oxygen. A thin plastic tube traces its way from the machine to nasal prongs that she wears until she’s sitting behind the desk with the cameras facing her.
Finally the crew is ready. ‘T’he signal comes from the control room and another taping of the weekly news and current affairs show Disability Network begins. Coproduced by CBC ‘Toronto and The Centre for Independent Living in Toronto Inc., the program debuted in March 1990 and is now seen on both the CBC network and CBC affiliate stations across Canada. Executive producer Peter Reynolds focuses exclusively on disability issues, and his production team is made up mostly of persons with disabilities. Hiring disabled journalists is part of the show’s mandate of dispelling misinformation and stereotyping of the disabled. Coughlin and Pettit are the up-front symbols of this mandate-Coughlin has cerebral palsy and Pettit has cystic fibrosis. Disability Network isn’t the first show the pair have hosted: starting in Januaty 1989 they appeared on Challenge Journal, a 13-part series created by independent producer Carolann Reynolds (no relation) in association with CJOH- TV Ottawa and CKCO in Kitchener, Onto Unfortunately, resentment and bitterness mar the relationship between the two shows-feelings that extend from the producers right down to the disabled community, where there is considerable disagreement over the approaches the programs take to disability issues. Animosity between the producers began when Coughlin and Pettit were hired as the hosts for Disability Network (also known as D-net) while Carolann Reynolds was searching for a new partner to coproduce the next Challenge Journal series. Although the hosts had no contract binding them to the show, Reynolds felt betrayed. “They [D-net] jumped on my bandwagon,” she insists. “I don’t know if it was stupidity or brilliance or good luck. But the truth of the matter is they capitalized on my success.”
In fact, each show has a distinctive approach and format. According to John Feld, a Toronto journalist specializing in disability issues, choosing between them is just a matter of taste: “Which do you prefer?” he asks with a laugh. “Oprah or 60 Minutes?”
On Challenge Journal, the hosts’ disabilities are visible immediately-Coughlin used to appear standing on crutches, while the new host, Ed Wadley, sits in his wheelchair. On D-net, Coughlin and Pettit sit behind the same desk used for the local six and eleven o’clock newscasts, giving the show a hardedged, mainstream look. As they read the news or conduct interviews, Pettit’s oxygen pack and Coughlin’s crutches are mostly out of sight. D-net’s magazine format packs several items, including a newscast, short documentaries, interviews or profiles, into half an hour, while Challenge Journal uses the same time to focus on one theme only.
The difference between the two is clear in the way they handled the topics of integration and access to schools. Challenge Journal’s “A Credit to All” emphasized the positive aspects of integration: both studio guests supported it and the lowkey documentaries highlighted benefits for both disabled and nondisabled students. Although reasons for segregating students with special needs were mentioned, no one represented that opinion.
One commentator has dismissed this “social worker” approach, but Carolann Reynolds feels that by avoiding Dnet’s confrontational approach her show will appeal to a wide audience. “We’re not the disability police!” she says. “Disability Network has its place, but I think you can turn people off by shaking your finger at them.” D-net’s mini-documentary on access to universities reflected the tone Peter Reynolds expects from his show-fastpaced, aggressive and confrontational. At the same time, he wants it balanced and fair. On the surface at least, the item appeared balanced because it sought both sides of the story. First a satellite interview with a member of the disabled students’ movement and a video of a disgruntled York University student presented the case that universities are insensitive to their needs. Then a lawyer representing York explained the university’s position in an interview with Coughlin, but she appeared defensive and embarrassed. Finally, Coughlin and Pettit concluded that because there are few disabled students at York, “access is not a high priority.” Coughlin’s raised eyebrows and a shrug from Pettit left no doubt about their opinions on the subject.
Coughlin admits he’s finding it difficult to maintain the standards of objective journalism: “We were criticized for not taking a stand at Challenge Journal,” he says. “Here [on D-net] the biggest challenge is attempting to strike a balance without bringing in our own cynicism.” But just presenting the other side may not be enough to make the show balanced when its underlying tone and overt presentation clearly advocate one point of view. Stephen Trumper, the managing editor of Toronto Life magazine and a member of D-net’s advisory committee, likes the show’s “legitimately” tough attitude but does feel it leans toward advocacy journalism. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “But it poses questions, especially for an organization like CBC.”
Point of view and balance are always controversial topics in CBC news and current affairs, especially since its most recent journalistic policy manual insists on a balanced point of view within a single program or identifiable series of programs. But CBC Toronto’s program director, Rudi Carter, says he’s happy with D-netand disputes that it is in any way advocacy journalism. “They aren’t expressing personal opinions,” he says. “How else could you present the problems of employment equity and access?”
When Peter Reynolds first approached Carter with the concept that became D-net, Carter saw it as a way to make up for the lack of information about disabled issues and a chance to train people with disabilities for jobs in broadcast. But he also saw benefits for the CBC, which had been “inadequate in employment equity.” In fact, the CBC, along with several other major corporations, was taken to the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1988 for its poor record on hiring people with disabilities. Although Carter staunchly denies a link between his decision to coproduce Disability Network and the embarrassment over the human rights case, he admits that head office was probably relieved at the chance to “take some heat off.”
The CBC has made a considerable investment in hiring and training disabled staff for Dnet, as well as making studio facilities accessible to the disabled. When D-netwas about to debut, Carter pushed for maximum publicity, entering the show in as many competitions as he could. In May 1990, after only six weeks on the air, D-net won ACTRA’s Into the Mainstream award for its positive portrayal of a minority group in the media. The awards ceremony proved a public relations delight for Carter and Reynolds when they discovered that Ryerson’s Oakham House, where the D-net team was to receive the award, was inaccessible to wheelchairs.
Despite its official success, Disability Network is not a total hit with the disabled community. Carol McGregor, the coordinator of Disabled People for Employment Equity, the group that took the CBC to task on its hiring record, prefers the slow pace of Challenge Journal, with its in-depth look at issues, to Disability Network. She feels Dnet oversimplifies issues by using “five-second clips” and presenting material out of context, but she concedes that the disabled community “is as glad to have it as not.”
Still, there is more at stake for the disabled community than how the issues are presented: empowerment is crucial to portraying the disabled in a positive light. In this respect, D-net certainly has succeeded in its mandate. Unlike Challenge Journal, where Coughlin and Pettit’s role was limited to reading scripts, the hosts on D-net are part of the production teamattending story meetings, reporting, writing and editing tape. They and producer John Kass, who is legally blind, have also moved into part-time jobs with CBC Toronto’s news department, CBC’s Midday and Newsworld. Furthermore, Coughlin has been approached to produce freelance pieces for the business show, Venture.
McGregor still questions the CBC’s commitment to disabled issues and says that D-net “hasn’t improved CBC’s hiring practices” in general. But that’s a lot to ask from just one program-and its policy on empowerment is still more progressive than Challenge Journals was in its first series. However, in the second series, which went on the air in March, the role of Challenge Journals new host, Ed Wadley, who’s used a wheelchair since a car accident 16 years ago, has been broadened. Although the themes had already been chosen when he arrived, Wadley took an interest in the research and “lobbied for certain questions to be pushed and followed up” to reflect his own point of view as a person with a disability.
Ultimately, despite their animosities and differences, both shows share the ambition of presenting the disabled as intelligent, articulate and capable broadcasters and journalists. In time, the need to choose between inoffensively soft or cunningly hard-edged stances will gradually disappear as they move toward their goal of genuine integration. “We’ve been taught to hide the disabled away and to be embarrassed that they exist,” Wadley says. “The only way we’ll change that orientation is to have people out there in wheel chairs on the street, going to schools and on television.”