When Catherine Frazee applied to study journalism at Carleton University in the 1970s, a senior official at the school told her she would not be able to “elbow her way into the scrum on Parliament Hill” and shouldn’t pursue a career in journalism because she was disabled. She then gave up her scholarship and her place in the program—a decision she says is regrettable – Saburah Murdoch

Fortunately, since the seventies much has changed. New legislation, education and awareness campaigns have fostered enhanced accessibility and worked to change public perception of people with disabilities. But journalists with disabilities still face daily accessibility obstacles and social stigmas. Like Frazee, these barriers still prevent some people with disabilities from becoming mainstream journalists.

Enter citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is a utopian ideal that promises “journalism for all.”

I will provide a quick recap from a previous post in case you are not familiar with the term and how it has changed the media landscape.

According to Mark Glasser, citizen journalism is when people without professional journalism training can utilize social media tools, such as Twitter, camera phones etc., and the Internet to “create, augment or fact-check media on their own or collaboration with others.”

So, really, social media has reshaped the way journalism operates, making the field more fluid and open to diverse experiences and new forms of reporting. The interplay between citizens and the media is key. As Castells says, “media is not the holder of power, but it constitutes by and large the space where power is decided.” Applying Castells’ logic, citizen journalists can use social media to provide an alternative perspective in the media landscape, with hopes of challenging unequal power relations and changing the outcome of events by fostering transparency.

So yes, undoubtedly, citizen journalism is important, but citizen journalism is also exclusive. Why?! Simply because how citizen journalists cover events is not accessible for everyone.

I will analyze, step-by-step, what a citizen journalist must do to cover a story that is located at an event in order to see what barriers a person with a disability may face and to explore what we can do to work towards a solution.

Case Study – Covering an Event

Step One: Finding out About an Event – Social Media

Most Common Accessibility Problems

Using social media to promote an event is a given nowadays. Often, it is the only avenue event organizers will use to promote their cause.

Yet some people with disabilities still face significant challenges in gaining access to social media tools, despite new innovations to improve access. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, blogging websites and Google+ all have features that limit accessibility. Issues such as lack of captioned videos, poor colour contrast, lack of alternative text, incompatibilities with popular assistive technology products, etc., are common and affect the ability of people to access social media tools.

Kennedy, Thomas and Evans argue that “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Arguably, this has not yet been achieved.

 Step Two: Getting to the Event – Public Transit  

Using public transit can be irritating sometimes and downright aggravating most of the time. If the transit is not accessible, an individual who does not have access to other forms of transportation simply cannot attend the event they plan on reporting on.

For example, MTA Metro in New York platform gaps make travel inaccessible for wheelchair users. The main issue is that the level of the train is often higher than the level of the platform, creating the situation that when a wheelchair user boards the train their wheels get struck between the two surfaces.

 *I focused on public transit as I made an assumption that if someone is using their own vehicle it will be accessible for them.

 Step Three: Getting into the Event

There are many factors that contribute to making an event accessible. Did the event hosts hire someone to translate what they are saying into sign language? Are there suitable entrances and exits (preferably the same for everybody)? Are guide dogs allowed at the venue? Are wheelchair-accessible lifts available? Are the corridors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs?

If one or any of these questions are answered with a “no,” a citizen journalist may be prevented from attending the event.

Step Four: Reporting the Event

SPAM: Social - Poorly Accessible Media Citizen journalists are expected to live tweet and take videos and pictures from the event. You have to be at an event to live tweet from an event. If someone can’t access the information from social media sites, or use transit to get to the event, or even get into the event, this is not possible.

Considering that citizen journalism is about making the field more fluid and open to diverse experiences and new forms of reporting, how can we make sure citizen journalists have…

Accepting attitudes – Creativity – Citizenship – Equality – Success – Self Confidence – Increases Independence – Belonging – Interaction – Living Life – Initiative – Teamwork – You ?!

(Accessibility acrostic props to Glenda Watson Hyatt)

So, does citizen journalism truly challenge unequal power relations and provide an alternative perspective if it is not accessible for all?

Kennedy, Thomas and Evans are committed to the “nothing about us without us” ethos of disability advocacy movements. I could theorize the day away and not really understand the barriers that citizen journalists with disability face. The complex and varying levels of disability require complex and varying solutions. Taking this into consideration, how would you propose we search for a solution?

I wish to leave you with a positive example of how someone has used social media and journalism to challenge the media landscape’s abilist logic. After the presidential debates, Ann Coulter tweeted:  “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” John Franklin Stephens, a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome, called Coulter out for using the ‘r’ word. This is an example of citizen journalism in action.

We need to enable all potential citizen journalists by disabling barriers.


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