Disabled journalists consistently face obstacles when entering the industry. Here's how I overcame them.
Dayna Latham is a disabled journalist. She talks about the difficulties she faced when breaking into the industry.
I’m a freelancer who’s still studying for my NCTJ Diploma. It’s been a long journey with obstacles in the way and here they are – laid out plain and clear in hope for some resolution for the generations coming up.
I hope in sharing my story of how I overcame such obstacles, and made a career despite these barriers, I can help someone else who may be in my position.
But where do I start, eh?
Over the past six years, I’ve started university, completed my first year at University of Chester, then due to bad experiences, switched to Liverpool John Moores University. I then quit university and writing entirely for over a year (due to deterioration of health, care responsibilities and housing insecurity). After recovering my previous health back, slowly I chose to go back to study my NCTJ with News Associates in Manchester. Which brings me to where I am today – freelancing.
One of the few silver linings to my long hiatus, is that I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I did right, and what I’d do differently.
When I started university way back in 2014, I was painfully naive. I had not long received my diagnoses – Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and congenital spine anomalies.
Turning 18 opened me up to a world I had yet to grow accustomed to. It was less than a month before I started university when I hit this milestone and I was still trying to hash out internalised ableism, trauma, and how these newly defined impairments fit into my identity.
I certainly hadn’t adjusted to my ‘new normal’ yet. I’d been privileged enough to be (largely, not entirely) insulated from the barriers often faced by disabled people in our society up until this point. Although it soon became apparent to me that sometimes you have to work smarter, not harder.
An Independent Needs Assessment and Student Learning Plan can prove to be very useful and can be arranged through your university. They can give you access to resources, assistance and bursaries that you may not initially think are worth your time.
Extra time in exams, subsidised travel, and assignment extensions are all within your rights too. It’s a red tape riddled process, but these mechanisms exist precisely to level the playing field. Push through the tedium and get what you are entitled to.
Honestly, when I first went to uni, I didn’t think I was ‘disabled enough’ to qualify for such help. Some of my lecturers didn’t, either. One even said so, openly. My best advice is this:
“Don’t let this ableist strain of imposter syndrome sabotage you. Don’t let pride or anxiety get in the way of being upfront about your needs, which we often forget, the university actually has a duty to meet. Don’t let anyone dismiss you.”
Build a good relationship with your lecturers – make sure that they understand your circumstances and update them frequently about your situation often. Network with students too – especially those with disabilities. A solid support network will do wonders to get you through the course. Having people you can talk to about your time and having them actually relate is something which can help you considerably. And in five years time, who knows which of those contacts will prove invaluable.
Use your phone (or a dictaphone if you’re feeling fancy) to record everything. Especially if, like me, you find it hard to write for lengthy periods or struggle with information overload towards the end of the day.
I’ve found that most lecturers are happy for you to record zoom lessons. Revision is infinitely less dull when you’ve got video and audio notes, too!
Also, know that people with disabilities are often exempt from recording restrictions. I spent months struggling through shorthand lessons and daily drills before a lecturer mentioned that my disabilities may exempt me from recording restrictions in court and parliament.
You cannot rely on others to give you all the information you need – research independently and self advocate at every available opportunity.
I won’t touch on the debate on the ethics of unpaid internships here. Other than to point out that disabled folk are far more likely to be in poverty, and therefore far more likely to be priced out of internships. Remote internships somewhat mitigate this huge barrier proving to be a godsend for many, though they are highly competitive.
I’m fully aware I’m preaching to the converted here but PressPad deserves huge credit themselves for making internships accessible too.
There are also various bursaries and schemes aimed at disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students. When starting my NCTJ Diploma, I applied for the Journalism Diversity Fund. This has given me a travel allowance, a mentor, and monthly expenses provision. All of these features make internships more accessible for disabled people.
When you apply for an internship listed online, you rarely know what working hours are expected of you or what adjustments the employer will (and won’t) be willing to make. This is why I personally decided to prioritise freelancing – to gain experience in a different way, whilst getting paid, however intermittently. This feeds nicely into my next section.
Disabled people are chronically underrepresented in journalism and media, but actually more represented as freelancers and the self-employed. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why: accessible workplaces and working hours can be scarce in any industry, hence why working for ourselves is statistically more attractive.
Freelancing gives me a lot more independence. I’m able to set my own working hours, have a say in deadlines, and my house is already adjusted to my needs. Then there’s the more broad perk of being able to choose what you write about instead of having it dictated to you by an editor.
Invest in a few zoom courses to build contacts and confidence. Freelance Sessions in particular, have taught me so much.
Most importantly, quality over quantity is something which is worth taking some time to master. Instead of writing a million pitches a week and firing them off aimlessly with my fingers crossed – I’ve started to hone in on several each week. By doing this, I’m able to tailor pitches more precisely to individual editors and certain papers’ needs, increasing the chance of getting a commission.
My penultimate tip is this – never be afraid to chase up a pitch. And learn to not take rejection personally. Editors are busy and their inboxes are bursting at the seams – often with several angles on the same story. If your idea is strong, it’s worth persevering. Tweak the pitch and send it elsewhere.
Finally, have a list of evergreen pitches on the back burner to send out in slow news weeks. Circle dates on the calendar that are national holidays, anniversaries or culturally significant. These are great to have in your toolkit when writers block strikes.
If I can carve out a path for myself, you sure can. Tenacity, self advocacy, and enthusiasm are all it really takes.