The challenges facing disabled journalists entering employment

Aspiring journalists with disabilities just want an opportunity to prove that they can bring value and diversity to the workplace. But there are many obstacles along the way

During a recent trip to South Africa, as a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism competition, I realised my disfigurement could have been a potential barrier when interviewing case studies in the townships; I had to make the interviewees feel comfortable looking at my face.

So how do disabled candidates fare in a tough industry such as journalism?

People with disabilities and disfigurements have to work harder than non-disabled people to get their foot on the career ladder. The government's Office for Disability Issues reported that in 2011 the employment rate among people with disabilities was 48.8%, compared to 77.5% among those without. Statistics for the number of people with disabilities entering industries such as the media are even worse – the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability says that fewer than 1% of those working in the media have a disability; the national average for the UK population is 13%.

There are many issues facing disabled candidates entering any form of employment. Will employers see past the disability? How will other colleagues react to the disability? Will a line manager be capable of dealing with the disability in a professional manner? These are just a few questions that may be going through a candidate's mind before applying for a position, before an interview or before starting their new role.

When interviewed, aspiring journalists with disabilities said the issues that concerned them most were: whether or not to disclose their disability in a covering letter with their CV; if they had the right image for the employer; and whether or not the disability would affect their ability, or perceived ability, to perform a task.

One graduate, Tamara Marshall, is worried that being partially deaf and wearing a hearing aid might go against her hopes of breaking into fashion journalism: "I always worry that I will never be perceived as someone who is as good as everyone else. I will always lack something, such as the same standards of professionalism and acceptance, within the workplace." She doesn't feel confident enough to mention her disability in her CV for fear of implicit prejudice.

On the other hand, Hannah Morgan, who is in a wheelchair and wants to work in local news reporting, believes that sometimes when the disability is more severe or obvious, then it should be mentioned.

"If I leave my disability out of my cover letter, they would still see me in a wheelchair when I go for an interview. It's often easier to read it on paper than suddenly be faced with it a few minutes before an interview. An interviewer's initial reactions can also knock a candidate's confidence. It's more of a problem within smaller organisations that may not have an equal opportunities quota."

Like Morgan, Simon West, who is blind and wants to be a sports journalist, doesn't feel he needs to disclose his disability.

"My disability is not obvious unless you're standing a few feet away from me, unlike a disfigurement, or the loss of a limb. Of course, one of the potential stumbling blocks is not being able to make eye contact during an interview, whether it is for a job or for research for an article. But being blind can be a good thing too, as you can't see an interviewer's initial reaction to your disability."

West is, however, aware that his disability could affect how a potential employer may perceive his ability to perform a task. He had hoped to be a reporter with a newspaper, but because he can't drive and be on location as and when desired, he fears he may end up with a menial office-based job that will undermine his skills: "employers may see someone like myself as a risk – can I file copy and meet deadlines on time?"

Morgan worries that potential employers may see her wheelchair and automatically assume that costly adjustments need to be made, which she says isn't always the case. This view is echoed by Marshall, who feels that being partially deaf and requiring expensive equipment may mean that she is less likely to be employed. Her impairment means that she finds tasks such as hearing everyone in a meeting clearly, understanding deep male voices and making and receiving calls using a corded phone, difficult.

"Who wants to employ someone who will need expensive equipment provided, and who cannot 100% commit themselves to certain tasks like every 'normal' employee? My hearing impairment may be mild, but technically I am still disadvantaged."

The three graduates all agreed there was a general misconception about disability and that this relays to how colleagues may perceive and treat them. Morgan said that on a recent work placement, colleagues treated her in a patronising manner. "I think the editor was worried about offending me, and the staff were overly friendly. They did try, but I think it was a case of mismanagement and not knowing how to deal with disability effectively."

Mismanagement of disability is not unusual, and is not helped by a lack of advice, particularly for smaller organisations that may lack knowledge of the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, Marshall told me there is a significant lack of advice available to disabled aspiring journalists.

While there may be graduate schemes in the journalism sector that seek to recruit disabled talent, such as BBC Extend, it may mean that disabled graduates (and not just aspiring journalists) may be forced to narrow their career choices if no opportunities are opening up elsewhere. West says such schemes can reinforce an 'us and them' mentality and, rather than creating separate opportunities for disabled journalists to get experience and a step on to the ladder, focus should be put on how to help them build a successful career in predominantly non-disabled environments.

It is sometimes assumed that a disabled journalist wants to write about disability, but more often than not they just want an opportunity to prove that they can bring value and diversity to their workplace.

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Rich McEachran

The GuardianTramp

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