In the year after I graduated from journalism school, I had more than a dozen job interviews that ended with variations of the same phrase. Thank you for coming in for the interview, someone would tell me, often with a sympathetic smile. We’ll be in touch. I’d seen all the discouraging statistics—for instance, that people with disabilities make up less than one percent of those who work full-time in the media. I’d hoped that I would beat those odds.
When it comes to full-time employees, the journalism industry is, by some measures, increasingly diverse in terms of gender and race. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say the same for journalists with disabilities. The American Society of News Editors was founded in 1922, but did not include people with disabilities in its mission statement until 1999. (The organization still does not include disability in its annual survey questions to newsrooms, although it started to include gender and race in 1999.) There’s a scarcity of journalists with disabilities at major news outlets.
I have cerebral palsy, which affects my mobility and speech. I walk with a noticeable limp and an abnormal gait, but I always get myself to wherever I need to be. I make sure my speech is understood, either by repeating myself numerous times or writing things down. As a reporter whose most basic form of communication involves struggle, I try my best to let the listener’s job to be as easy as possible.
After more than a dozen interviews and subsequent rejection emails, I turned to freelancing. At first, I expected to freelance for just a few months, until I received a full-time job offer. However, a year and a half later, I’m fully immersed in the freelancer’s lifestyle. I’ve concluded that editors are more likely to give me a chance when the computer screen hides my cerebral palsy.
As a freelancer, I can better control how much of my disability is shown, or whether it is shown at all; indeed, all I have to show is my work. I interact with editors primarily through email, which means they don’t hear my speech impediment or witness my awkward penguin walk. As a freelancer, I can determine my own limits, which I believe has allowed me to cover riskier stories than I might in a traditional newsroom job. I deliver well-reported stories and never miss a deadline. In retrospect, all those job application rejections might have been a blessing in disguise.
That freedom also comes with grave liabilities. Often, freelancing for a publication means that you work without the assurances of full-time employment; expenses and risks are offloaded onto you. The publication “owns” the work you produce, but doesn’t take ownership or responsibility for any mishaps associated with that work.
The hardships of obtaining a journalism job aren’t unique to disabled reporters. The news-industry workforce has halved in the past 15 years; over that period, more journalists have lost jobs in America than coal miners. Many turn to freelance work, which can further expand the pool of journalists willing to work for less in a gig economy—and, considering how few disabled journalists hold full-time news jobs, might further decrease their chances at freelance assignments.
Living with a disability carries extra costs—from an estimated $1,170 to $6,952 per year, according to a 2017 study. People with disabilities tend to have higher medical bills and require access to personal assistants or assistive devices, such as a wheelchair or hearing aids. My disability is not so severe that I need to bear the additional costs. My condition has improved over the years; recently, during an assignment, I forwent the use of my wheelchair to have more flexibility while traveling. However, I am an unusual case and, therefore, in a position of relative privilege.
Right now, I’m a permanent freelance contributor for the “Diversity and Inclusion” section at Forbes. My inbox is constantly overflowing with disability-related story pitches—more than one freelance journalist could possibly cover. There is no shortage of disability issues that need attention.
Without disabled journalists on staff, editors and managers have a limited, biased perspective on people with disabilities. Meanwhile, disabled journalists lack sustainable ways to write and report on the issues they face. I will continue to use my privilege and my platform to cover disability issues as a freelancer. But that’s a lot of pressure for an industry to put on a select few journalists; such pressure, I believe, becomes easier to bear with more disabled journalists in the industry.