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American Journalism Review
The Last Minority  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1991

The Last Minority   

Disabled journalists know how to circumvent their obstacles. Not so the editors who hire them.

By Anne Marie Cooke & Neil H. Reisner
Anne Marie Cooke, who is visually impaired, was a police reporter at the Home News in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for 17 years and now works for Recording for the Blind.       Neil H. Reisner is database editor at the Bergen Record in Hackensack, New Jersey, and teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is assistant system operator on CompuServe's Journalism Forum, where he leads a section sponsored by IRE and NICAR.      


John Hockenberry was in a radio reporter's nightmare. Delayed by Palestine Liberation Organization security, Hockenberry didn't get the audio he needed at a 1989 Cairo news conference where Yassir Arafat updated reporters on Soviet shuttle diplomacy with the Israelis.

To get to the PLO chieftain he would now have to circumvent milling hordes of reporters and camera crews clamoring for time with Arafat and PLO aides who were refusing all interview requests. The prospects didn't look good.

"I made friends with this PLO thug," Hockenberry recalls. "I was saying to him, 'This is too bad. I have to go see Chairman Arafat upstairs, just to ask him a few questions, because I don't have anything.'

"I was just sitting out there waiting for the thug. He comes downstairs and he says, 'But it's very difficult. It's all stairs here.' And I say: 'Four guys. All you need is four guys,' " recalls Hockenberry, who has used a wheelchair since he sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1976 car accident. "He smiles. He goes upstairs. He comes back down with three others. They lift me up...and I just go floating up there like Cleopatra and set down right next to Arafat."

Hockenberry, a Peabody Award winner who now hosts "The Talk of the Nation," a new NPR call-in program, is at one end of the disabled spectrum the out-in-the-open end. At the other is a veteran writer for a national magazine who insists on remaining anonymous. Over several years he has lost much of his vision, and thinks of his disability as an embarrassing secret. If his bosses knew, he fears they might give him fewer high-profile assignments even though his company offers assistance and adaptive equipment as a matter of policy. So he spends long hours alone in his office struggling with a magnifying glass rather than asking for simple tools that could make reporting and writing the joy they once were.

"I don't want to be perceived as being less than completely able. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I don't want to be thought of as damaged goods," he says. "I probably use up a lot more energy this way, relying on my own devices rather than asking for help."

People with disabilities are the last newsroom minority. The media business has spent decades recruiting women and ethnic and religious minorities. But it is the rare organization that seeks out and hires qualified candidates with disabilities.


Getting In The Door

There are no reliable figures on the number of disabled people working in U.S. newsrooms. Of 326 newspapers responding to a recent American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) survey on disabilities, 111 about one-third said they employed people with disabilities in their newsrooms. There are overall employment figures for the 43 million disabled Americans, however, and only one-third of the 18.5 million of work age have jobs.

Disabled people who aspire to be journalists fear they might not be taken seriously, that their employment prospects end as soon as their job interview begins; they fear tokenism, and they see as a mixed blessing laws barring potential employers from bringing up the subject for frank discussion. Newsroom managers, on the other hand, wonder whether hiring disabled workers will blow their budgets. How much does it cost to make the newsroom accessible? Can the disabled journalist do the job? If not, can one fire an incompetent disabled person the same way one can dismiss an able-bodied employee?

Technology now makes it possible for people to work who could not in the past. And the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which will be fully implemented next year, bars discrimination against those with sensory or mobility impairments and requires companies with more than 50 employees to accommodate disabled workers as long as it doesn't cause "undue hardship."

"The ADA says people can't be discriminated against because of disability," says Cyndi Jones, publisher of Mainstream, a California-based magazine specializing in disability issues. "But just because you have a disability doesn't mean you're going to get the job. You have to be able to compete on a regular basis, but your disability can't be counted against you."

Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh says the ADA does not make unreasonable demands. "Employers do not have to provide accommodations that impose an undue hardship on business operations," he says. "The act does not push an employer to the wall simply to carry out this effort."

But are newspapers making an effort? While ASNE survey respondents believe newsrooms should be open to all, there is only a handful of disabled people working in the field. Those disabled journalists with notable credits in newspapers, radio and television view their successes as aberrations. They tell eloquent tales of discrimination and insensitivity encountered on the job, most often when employers focus on their disabilities rather than their qualifications. Others still looking for work tell of employers who refuse to make changes as minor as moving reference books to a lower shelf where they would be more accessible.

Bob Fuss, now Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC and Mutual Radio, recalls being asked years ago whether the crutches he uses would prevent him from running a tape across the newsroom.

"I was completely taken aback. I [said] I'd be happy to run across the newsroom," says Fuss. "I can't tell you that I was discriminated against, but I got the feeling in some of those first job interviews that the barrier was there to be overcome." Fuss went on to cover the San Francisco earthquake and Ferdinand Marcos's departure from the Philippines.

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times Book Editor Henry Kisor, who in his book, "What's That Pig Outdoors?" discusses a life of deafness with gentle good humor, agrees that prejudice is subtle. "Being deaf, I don't hear of the discrimination until long after the fact," he says. "I've applied for professorships at various universities, and either never heard a word or didn't even get an initial interview once my deafness was revealed."

Kay Maddox, now an information services editor at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, has spina bifida, a congenital condition in which the spine does not develop normally in the fetus; after her foot was amputated two years ago, she began using a wheelchair. At another major daily paper where she once worked, her editors seemed to believe that her disability was just an excuse.

"When I came back from major surgery, the editor asked whether I planned to be out again. I think he and others honestly thought I was taking time off to take advantage of the situation," she says. "Who decides to have major surgery? There were better ways to get time off. I thought it was rude and insensitive...but they wanted me to stay because I am black, a woman, and disabled."

Jon Schans edited the campus newspaper at Kalamazoo College, the liberal arts school where he graduated two years ago. Schans is partially blind and muscular dystrophy limits use of his hands, but a special keyboard and an oversize computer screen enable him to type. Although he successfully completed an internship at an arts magazine, when a copyediting job opened up at the magazine, he says he wasn't considered. Schans has not been able to get a job at any other publication.

"For people with disabilities, getting the initial opportunity is twice as difficult, because they have to get people to overlook that which is most obvious, which is their disability, that they're stuck in a wheelchair, that they can't do a certain physical activity, that they have a speech impediment," he says. "If that's the first thing you see, how are you going to get beyond that to give them the opportunity to use the skills they do have?"


Doing The Job

Disabled journalists in every medium say that in the job market, the best defense is a good offense.

Television anchor Bree Walker wore prosthetic gloves when she first went on the air in San Diego, California, so audiences would not see her hands, turned claw-like by an inherited condition called ectrodactyly, a congenital deformity of the hands and feet. Walker, who has had reconstructive surgery on her feet, quickly decided that coming out was better than covering up and, despite her managers' trepidations, took off the gloves. Audience response turned out to be favorable. She advises other journalists with disabilities to go public, arguing that people with disabilities naturally acquire compensating qualities that help at work.

"It can require a tough skin, but disabilities can make you suited. Handling tough moments in life becomes second nature," says Walker, who worked in the demanding New York market before moving to Los Angeles, where she anchors the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts for KCBS-TV, a CBS-owned station.

Walker needed all the toughness she could muster last summer when a radio talk show host in Los Angeles criticized her for getting pregnant despite a 50-50 chance of passing on her disability. Walker and others responded by filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against KFI-AM and Cox Broadcasting.

By shining a light on potential problems, Walker insists, disabled job-seekers can comfort squeamish managers while not forcing them to break the law by raising the issue. Others, such as Liz Campbell, a feature writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, agree. Campbell has from the beginning stated on job applications that she was born blind. A Nebraska native, Campbell graduated with honors from Baylor University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. She recalls a potential employer asking how she would keep up with day-to-day news and how she would turn in stories. These are unfair questions with logical answers, says Campbell, who hires readers and uses a typewriter, but that apparently was not good enough; the editor told her she would have to "prove herself" before she could be hired.

"Then I got a call from the affirmative action program at the Star-Telegram," she says. "I was asked the same questions. The editor laughed and said no one uses typewriters and I would have to use a computer. I panicked. I said I would figure it out. Anyone who wants to do well and who has a disability learns to wing it."

Campbell got the job for a three-month probationary period and passed handily after a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Nebraska helped outfit her with computers equipped with Braille and synthetic speech.

Sally Wagner, a blind police reporter for the Kansas City Star who now works out of her home in Prairie Village, Kansas, covers 30 suburban police and fire departments. Author of the 1986 book "How Do You Kiss a Blind Girl?" she recalls an editor asking the usual questions how she would read newspapers and write stories before getting to what really bothered him. How, he asked, would she know when the computer system crashed?

"I asked if anyone said anything when that happens," recalls Wagner, who uses a dog guide. "He said, 'Yes, the air turns blue.' 'Oh,' I said. 'That would be a good clue.' "

But getting assistance on the job often is the easiest hurdle for disabled journalists to get over. For one thing, "most journalists solve their physical problems these days by laying down an American Express card," says Hockenberry, who has stashed portable automobile hand controls at friendly rental agencies around the world. For another, asking for help is something journalists do all the time.

"If you're straight off the plane from New York and you can't figure out how to ask people for help, you're not going to get the story," Hockenberry says. "In my case, there's a physical dimension to asking for help, but it integrates perfectly with the journalistic impulse...There's just no difference between 'Excuse me, can I get on this donkey?' and 'Excuse me, do you speak English?' "


Brains, Not Brawn

Many editors and news managers who have hired journalists with disabilities are pleased with the results.

Mike Sweeney, deputy features editor at the Fort Worth Star- Telegram, describes Liz Campbell as "the kind of reporter that editors love to have on staff, because she always wants more to do, she hates to sit around."

"Liz simply radiates confidence. She's a walking public relations tool for our newspaper," he says. "When she goes out on a story, people obviously can see she's blind. Then, when they see her stories and byline in the paper, they realize she goes out, gets the information, and contributes like everyone else."

Adam Clayton Powell III, who was NPR's vice president for news and information in 1988 when John Hockenberry first went to the Middle East, says members of NPR top brass were reluctant to send Hockenberry abroad, potentially depriving him of the sort of choice assignments that build journalism careers.

"He impressed me with his knowledge of the hazards involved. I simply said, 'What do you think? Let's compare notes,' " recalls Powell, who listened to Hockenberry reporting for several years from the Pacific Northwest and Chicago before learning that he uses a wheelchair.

"In journalism, where you are manipulating information, physical disabilities don't have a bearing on the job it's more intellectual than related to physical strength and agility," says Atlanta Journal and Constitution Director of Information Services Chris Jennewein, who works with Kay Maddox. "People with disabilities can more than pull their weight in the newsroom environment...I wonder if disabled people bring a certain kind of wisdom others don't have by seeing the tougher side of life."

But San Diego Union Ombudsman Bill Stothers, who uses a wheelchair, wonders whether his presence in the newsroom makes any difference. "I get asked about stories for sensitivity language and I have a weekly column and have dealt with it," he says. "But our treatment of disabilities tends to be horrendous. It makes me wonder whether anybody's paying attention."

Few news managers will discuss misgivings they have about hiring disabled people; federal law and the liberal values of newsrooms work against such candor. Of the 111 editors who told ASNE that they had worked with disabled people, only nine said their experience was negative. Some of the editors responded anonymously or said they did not wish to be quoted. The problem cases mentioned largely related to lack of ability or motivation perennial complaints of news managers. A few managers, however, said they had to fire alcoholics or employees with psychological problems who did not take their medications and could not cope with newsroom pressure people also covered under the ADA.

So what do news managers have to consider when hiring people with disabilities? Very little that isn't already familiar, say experts on the ADA and adaptive technology.

The ADA requires all businesses open to the public to be accessible. What that means in practice, says Steve Mendelson, a blind New York attorney and consultant on workplace adaptation, is that existing barriers must be removed whenever building renovations are undertaken, and no new barriers can be installed.

The act's "reasonable accommodation" requirement, Mendelson says, means just that. Often tax credits are available to companies that modify conventional equipment so that a disabled person can use it.

"If you're already computerized, the cost is very small," he says. "What is the cost of a speech synthesizer and a program to run it? Often less than $500. Newspapers are becoming a capital-intensive industry, not labor-intensive. They're always retooling and adapting to new technology. We're talking about buying a computer that's a little different, an infinitesimal cost."

"Computers are the great equalizer," says Cyndi Jones, of Mainstream magazine. "No matter what the disability, if someone is quadriplegic, speech-impaired, or visually impaired, someone with the inherent ability should be able to get the job."

Adds Joan Chase, a New Jersey psychologist who counsels recently disabled people, "The way to normalize the professional life of any person with a disability is to realize that they'll be as different as anyone else in the workplace and to be prepared for individual differences."


Making Room

The ADA does not force businesses to hire or keep disabled workers who are not qualified. "Editors ought to hire the best people they can get, not simply patronize people with disabilities," says Cape Cod Times Editor William J. Breisky, chairman of the ASNE committee that administered the survey and developed a stylebook on covering disabilities. "It's possible to do both."

"You want to make sure you are firing them for incompetency and not because they have a disability," says Mendelson. "You have to work through in your own mind what the problem is. Why didn't the person do the task right? Was it not thought through correctly? It takes a good manager to figure it all out."

Still, many disabled journalists report they have to work hard to overcome employers' misgivings. In some cases, they say, the problem arises when news managers think they have to treat disabled journalists exactly as they treat the able-bodied. John Hockenberry, for example, reports that when NPR first sent him to Jerusalem, network officials initially would not increase his travel allowance to pay for taxis in a country where buses do not have wheelchair lifts. They feared other reporters would want similar perquisites.

"NPR was saying, 'Look, we're not going to pay anything extra,' " Hockenberry says. "I said, 'It's fine that you allow someone in a wheelchair to cover the story. Now we're going to have to look at every detail. Why set me up for failure? Why waste the time?' There's this notion, I think a damaging notion, that this is some kind of egalitarian, equal-opportunity situation."

Managers cannot always be accommodating, however. For example, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's downtown building is accessible, but parking is not. Kay Maddox complains that parking under the building is reserved for top executives. Her "handicapped" space is across from the newspaper office, at the top of a hill. After her foot was amputated, she applied for an underground space. Maddox is still waiting. She fears that one day she will lose control of her wheelchair crossing the street and careen downhill.

Chris Jennewein concedes the problem. "Parking is a difficulty for any metropolitan city paper," he says. "Parking at the top of the hill was the quickest solution. Admittedly it's not perfect, but it was timely. The situation is subject to change; we'd like to provide more convenient parking."

Conversely, Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun-Times, who reads lips, says it is unrealistic for hearing-impaired journalists to expect news managers to provide them with sign-language interpreters and perhaps wiser to strive for positions on the copy desk where hearing is not so critical.

"I don't think newsrooms are particularly open to the disabled these days," he says. "Newspapers are having a tough time balancing hiring decisions between the journalists they think will perform best for them and minority journalists...Disabled people haven't, to my knowledge, yet been elevated to the status of minorities."

And there are still cases that, to the disabled at least, look like outright discrimination. Jon Schans, the aspiring journalist, said he could easily have handled the copyediting job he sought had his potential bosses moved some reference books to lower shelves, allowed him to bring in his own computer and purchase some inexpensive software to translate the IBM format he uses at home into the Macintosh format the office used. Schans was willing to pay for the software.

"They shut me out because I was not their preconceived idea of what their copyeditor should be," says Schans, who would not name the publication for fear of burning bridges. "I'm more than willing to use my own equipment; adaptability is not going to cost the business anything. They just have to be willing to permit adaptability."

As disabled people enter the mainstream and employers search ever more diligently for competent, literate workers, to ignore a potential pool of talent does not make sense. There is still much to address, both in the newsroom and in the way news about disabled people is reported.

News organizations who hire disabled journalists will gain a unique perspective, says Michael Smith, a professor at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who founded a committee on disabilities for the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. "If we don't have people with disabilities in our newsrooms, the way that person sees the world will be neglected," he says. "We want our newsrooms to reflect our community."

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