The RRJ’s Julia Simioni examines how inspiration porn still manages to dominate the beat in Canada
After four days of incessantly checking my inbox, I finally got a response from Jason Miller, a general assignment reporter at the Toronto Star, who interviewed me in November about winning the 2019 Barbara Turnbull Award. It’s a conversation that I’ve been putting off since his article was published just hours after we first spoke last fall.
Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that never happened.
Miller informed me via email that he wouldn’t be able to participate in an interview — he was away reporting on the Tyendinaga blockades and was too busy. I understood but was disappointed. I spent months thinking about what I would say during this conversation. Instead, Miller referred me to his editor, Julie Carl. A few days later, I expressed my concerns to her over the phone. When she asked why I didn’t reach out earlier I was honest: I have anxiety and confronting the situation felt debilitating.
Carl, too, told me that she wouldn’t be able to provide me with a comment for my piece, but Kathy English, who was then the Star’s public editor, would. It took a few days for me to get her on the phone, but Carl followed up with me every day until I did.
In my piece “Show of Hand” for this year’s Ryerson Review of Journalism, I recount my experience as a Toronto Star story subject — a piece in which Miller wrote that I “overcame” adversity, though I never used the word “overcame.” In the piece, he also mischaracterized my hand tremor, and mentioned my mother’s death before my disability as if, just as I feared, my tremor on its own wasn’t enough to earn me the award. I also discuss my conversation with English and the state of disability coverage in Canada.
I spent months researching the disability movement and its history. I read and watched anything I could find about Canadian journalists with disabilities, especially path breakers and pioneers, such as Mona Winberg, Helen Henderson and Barbara Turnbull. I spoke with and read the work of scholars, activists and journalists in the field.
At first, it didn’t make sense to me. There was a time when Henderson and Turnbull were at the Star, and the newsroom set new standards for disability reporting. Why had that changed? As English later confirmed, during her time as the public editor at the Star, disability reporting hasn’t emerged as a priority. It also doesn’t seem to be for many other mainstream newsrooms.
Given this reality, it was both exciting and frustrating to see how the COVID-19 pandemic shifted more of the mainstream media’s attention to disabled communities. Articles written by and about disabled folks began to occupy my social media feeds more than ever before.
These articles also helped to highlight some of the long-standing inequities experienced by people with disabilities. For instance, community members have long advocated for certain accommodations, many of which have only now become accessible as anyone is at risk of becoming infected with or transmitting COVID-19, no matter their abilities. Even more, the federal government’s aid for people affected by the pandemic is nearly double the maximum amount available for provincial disability support, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). Meanwhile, disabled folks expressed their frustrations with the ODSP’s lack of financial support long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Supports that had previously been deemed “impossible,” are now possible.
“Show of Hand” exposes why so many journalists have continued to tell the same stories about people with disabilities, myself included. It also considers how journalists with or without personal ties to disability could have made the same mistakes.
While articles about Canada’s disability aid — and its shortcomings — continue to occupy my social feeds, other news concerning people with disabilities appears to be falling through the cracks, and long-standing stereotypes continue to creep into stories by major news outlets.
However, there are pointers I learned while reporting this piece that can turn things around. First and foremost it is critical to accurately represent people with disabilities without falling prey to overused stereotypes. There are tools available—you just have to look for them. Making Accessible Media, a free online course that focuses on representation of disability in media and the basics of inclusive design is a great place to start.
Hiring more disabled journalists will also lead to better disability coverage. There is also scope for more education in journalism schools and organizations about covering disability.
But of course, the first step is admitting there is a problem.