The moment I realised my disability was not an unequivocally bad thing for my career came when I was on work experience at the Guardian, aged 20. I was fretting to a kindly colleague about a fear of being ‘pigeon-holed’ when he stopped me. I had it all wrong, he said. Editors wanted different perspectives, and disabled journalists were few and far between. And then he gave me the advice I’ve carried with me ever since: use writing about disability to get your foot in the door.
For me and many others, the advice worked. As Paul Carter, a reporter for the BBC’s technology news show, Click, says, “any area where you do have a special insight is always going to give you an advantage.” Paul was hired through a BBC scheme, known as Extend, which is specifically aimed at increasing the broadcaster’s disability representation, on and off-screen, at both entry and more senior levels. He credits Extend with leading him to the job “I dearly love”. Full disclosure: I was also on Extend for my four years at the BBC.
Paul Carter (R) and Sophie Morgan (L). Image Credit: Twitter
“For a long time in my career,” Paul says, “I almost wanted to avoid doing disability-related stories. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed – I had this notion in my head that I’d become known as ‘that disability guy’ and nothing else.” These days, Paul is happy to report on disability.
He specialises in disability, accessibility and assistive tech – and is responsible for producing Click’s annual disability special. Every single reporter featured on the special is disabled themselves. “I think it’s so important from a representation perspective to have disabled people telling those stories on screen, but also because it brings authenticity to our reporting,” Paul says.
"I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed – I had this notion in my head that I’d become known as ‘that disability guy’ and nothing else."
At the time, Sophie says, presenting “opportunities for people like me were pretty minimal”. But she made a documentary about her accident, and then came her big break: presenting on Channel 4 during the 2012 Paralympics. Channel 4 provided training to a whole host of new disabled talent, including Alex Brooker and Martin Dougan. “They held my hand through that and then they steered me in ways that I think no one in the world has ever done with disabled talent as far as I know.”
After the Games, Channel 4 invited Sophie to explore other ideas. So getting into the media was “definitely because I have a visible disability,” she says.
While she doesn’t think any disabled presenter should be obliged to make shows about disability, Sophie feels she has a “responsibility to, if I can, carve out an accurate depiction of what it is to be a woman with a physical disability”. That’s led her away from what she calls shows for “generic presenters”. “I’ve tried to carve out my own path,” she says – and having just presented her own show, Living Wild: How to Change Your Life, she finally feels like she’s getting there.
Sophie’s career is the ultimate proof that ‘getting your foot in the door’ with disability can lead to new and exciting things. “It’s slow and it’s hard and it’s not a given. There’s a long way to go, both for me and all disabled presenters, but it’s moving – it’s going in the right direction,” she says.
I ask Sophie what practical advice she would give to a young disabled journalist. Immediately, she points to Access to Work, the Government scheme that provides funding for things like adaptions or support workers in the workplace. “Find out what you’re eligible for and find out how to use that to your advantage. I couldn’t have done half of the jobs that I’ve done if I didn’t have Access to Work. I’ve had support workers come with me and carry me around sets that are in locations that are not accessible.”
She also urges people to gain as much experience as possible, whether through blogging or practicing presenting their own videos on YouTube. ”Do exactly what you have to to take control over your voice and find a way to showcase what you can do,” she says.
More broadly, Paul and Sophie ultimately give the same advice. Paul urges young disabled journalists to “lean into what you know, don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. But remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation, and it doesn’t have to define you.”
“Trust in the fact that you are unique, and that’s a selling point,” says Sophie. “I believe disabled people offer the world a unique and extraordinary perspective on so many things, and I refuse to keep allowing people to think that we don’t.”
Whether it’s Paul’s accessibility special, Sophie’s Paralympics coverage, or my reporting on social care and the pandemic, we’ve all used our disabilities to our advantage. We’ve also been able to represent people who don’t often see themselves in the media, tell new and different stories, and bring new voices to the fore. In a media landscape where diversity is more important than ever, that can only be a good thing. So here’s my advice to any aspiring disabled journalists: just get your foot in the door.
Featured Image Credit: Disability IN
Lucy Webster is a writer, political journalist and disability advocate. She freelances for a range of publications including The Guardian and Tortoise. Previously, she spend four years at the BBC.
She is also a proud fellow of the John Schofield Trust, which works to improve diversity in the media.