Cathy Browne is standing against a bannister in front of the CBC newsroom. She is wearing a printed black blouse and a black hat, and a red lanyard around her neck.
Cathy Browne, who is legally blind, worked in public relations before getting an internship at CBC Vancouver in her 60s. She has since become an award-winning producer and mentor for new journalists with disabilities. Photo by Nancy McLaughlin

Journalists with disabilities blaze a trail in on-air broadcasting

The road to greater inclusion in newsrooms remains fraught, but a few radio journalists are pushing ahead with programs to recruit more talent of diverse abilities. Continue Reading Journalists with disabilities blaze a trail in on-air broadcasting

Benjamin Ouellet may no longer be behind the mic, but traces of his year at the Collège Radio-Télévision de Québec, a private professional school for aspiring radio and TV personalities in Quebec City, remain. Alain Dufresne, the school’s director, had the console labelled in braille for Ouellet, who is blind. 

Ouellet is a middle-distance runner who made headlines around Quebec for outperforming sighted runners. “When you want it bad enough … nothing is unrealistic,” he told a reporter in 2022 after finishing second in a 5K race. 

He applied the same attitude to his studies, holding himself to high standards. “In radio, you need to read an ad within a certain amount of time. I read with my fingers, so I read more slowly than a sighted person. I did get some adaptations – I got the text in advance to pre-read it – but I lost points just like anyone else if I didn’t read the text in the required time. Any other way would have been unfair.”

However, despite Ouellet’s best efforts and those of his mentor, CRTQ president Alain Dufresne, he was unable to crack the radio journalism job market after he graduated last spring. He’s now studying to be a massage therapist. 

“I did send a lot of demos (to radio stations) which didn’t get an answer,” said Ouellet, who had a successful internship at a private radio station during his studies. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t expect to end up empty-handed. To be honest, it was hurtful to see my classmates getting jobs when I couldn’t get one.” 

For Dufresne, Ouellet’s experience is emblematic of an inclusion problem in Quebec broadcasting. “When it comes to opening our doors to people who are different, we’re far behind,” he said. Although it’s hard to know exactly how many disabled Quebec journalists have on-air roles, Dufresne said he believed they were “largely underrepresented.” 

Late last year, the CRTQ was recognized by Quebec’s Office des personnes handicapées for supporting three recent graduates – Ouellet, a hearing-impaired man who preferred not to be named, and Julien Tremblay, who has cerebral palsy. Of the three, Tremblay is the only one in a full-time radio position – he hosts the noon-hour and the weekend shows at CHLC in Baie-Comeau, Que. 

Dufresne says he sent Tremblay’s demo to CHLC without mentioning the aspiring announcer’s disability. “They said, ‘He’s good, when can we start?’ and I said, ‘Here’s what you need to know about him.’ It’s terrible that you need to hide a person’s disability to help them get hired … but in the end, we took an open-minded person, sent him to a station with open-minded people and got a good result. It pains me that (the others) have had such difficulty finding work.”

Tremblay, who has a gregarious on-air presence and clearly loves his job, acknowledged that some tasks had taken him longer than usual in his first days and weeks at the station, but “some of the things that took me an hour and a half take me five minutes now.” 

Dufresne is proud of Tremblay’s success but bewildered that Ouellet and the other graduate felt pushed out of the industry. In addition to attitudes, he cited a lack of accessible sound editing software and accessible studio spaces as potential barriers. However, he believes that with good will and ingenuity, many of those barriers can be overcome. “Giving people a chance takes adaptability – but you know what else does? Moving from cassette to digital. We spend our lives adapting.” 

Change from the inside

It’s hard to know exactly how many journalists with disabilities are employed in Canadian media. According to a 2023 self-identification survey, 2.2 per cent of Radio-Canada employees have a disability. The Canadian Association of Journalists collects some disability data as part of its annual Diversity Survey, but does not share it due to small sample size. The Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec does not collect data on disability. What is apparent is that journalists with disabilities are making themselves heard.  

When music content producer Kai Black, who is blind, first started work at CBC Radio One in Toronto, he quickly learned that he wasn’t alone. “I met two blind people in my first week. I found that employees with disabilities were respected for the job they did. The challenge was recruitment – (applicants) had a lot of fear pushing into new areas, about other people’s attitudes and whether they’ll be able to do the job.” Black started getting calls from staffers who hid their disabilities, or who were unsure how to support a disabled colleague. He also noticed that people with disabilities were underrepresented in the newsroom. 

In 2018, at Black’s initiative, CBC launched CBC Abilicrew Placements for Excellence (CAPE), a program offering paid internships to aspiring journalists and content creators with disabilities. He also mentors staff with disabilities through the Abilicrew working group. 

CAPE has paved the way for people like Vancouver-based producer Cathy Browne, who is also legally blind. Browne, 69, worked in PR for decades. She says working for CBC was a “lifelong dream” that she thought was out of reach. One night in 2019, the application link showed up on her Facebook feed. “I thought, I’m too old for this. Then I thought, what the heck?” 

Browne got an internship with the Vancouver morning radio show Early Edition and later became an award-winning associate producer. She also mentors early-career journalists with disabilities through Abilicrew, and advises managers who have disabled staff on their teams. She said there is “still some hesitation” about providing accommodations for employees with disabilities. “We have to be mythbusters, saying, this (accommodation) is a fairly simple fix and you get a much more efficient employee.” Deconstructing myths about accommodation is a key part of the public broadcaster’s first-ever three-year accessibility plan, released in 2023, which aims to create an “accommodation toolkit” for employees with disabilities and their managers and increase their participation in development and advancement initiatives.  

At Radio-Canada, there are no paid internship programs for entry-level employees with disabilities, but a francophone equivalent of the working group was launched in October 2023 under the leadership of corporate accessibility lead Rachel Desjourdy. 

Léonie Rosée Choquette, a web editor at  RCI, Radio-Canada’s platform for international audiences, is a co-spokesperson for the Radio-Canada working group. It has held several all-staff events to help “demystify” disability, one step down a long path toward greater disability inclusion. “There’s still a lack of understanding about what people with disabilities can and can’t do, and a taboo around talking about it,” she said. 

The group broke the ice with a panel discussion featuring amputee humorist and podcaster William Bernaquez. “He took off his prosthesis and you could feel the awkwardness at first, but people warmed to him,” she recalled, “and it was a great way to address the topic head-on.” 

In this image, Benjamin is sitting and working. He is wearing a blue sweatshirt and glasses with a blue frame.
Benjamin Ouellet, a blind long-distance runner from Saint-Pascal-de-Kamouraska, Que., trained to be a radio announcer. Unable to find a job despite solid grades, he left the industry a year later to study massage therapy. Photo courtesy of CRTQ

Black, Choquette and others observed that employees who had previously hidden their struggles were speaking more openly about their experiences, building connections with others in similar situations and helping dismantle taboos and stereotypes. “There were always disabled employees within Radio-Canada, but now we’re realizing what the obstacles are and having these conversations about reducing them,” said Desjourdy, who is hearing-impaired. 

“Even in school, before people enter the industry, there’s still a lack of understanding about what they are capable of, and in the workplace there are still a lot of taboos about communicating your capacity and your needs. I had to learn not to excuse myself for existing, but to say, ‘here are my needs and here are my skills.’” 

“The biggest obstacle I’ve had to face is other people’s attitudes,” said her colleague, Jérôme Bergeron, an experienced journalist and producer with hearing loss who is currently an accessibility advisor for the public broadcaster. “But it’s not because someone else tells you you can’t do something that you have to stop.”  

The author would like to thank Cathy Katrib-Reyes and Simon Bassett of CBC and Marc Pichette of Radio-Canada for their contributions to this story.

Ruby Irene Pratka is a Montreal-based freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work has been published in English and French in Vice Québec, Ricochet, Daily Xtra, Shareable and Canadaland, among other websites and magazines. She covers a wide range of topics but focuses on diversity and language policy. Originally from the U.S., she has been living the expat life since 2006. She has lived in eight countries and four provinces, but keeps coming back to the delights of Québec.