Q&A: Disabled Writers

Over a quarter of adults in the United States are disabled, but the journalism industry consistently falls short in hiring and retaining disabled writers, making journalism accessible, and talking to disabled sources.

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Five years ago, Disabled Writers was launched to directly address one of the many problems within the field: the “I couldn’t find anyone” justification so many outlets employ. The organization’s database of more than 250 disabled writers and sources helps newsrooms connect with experts on a variety of topics from science to sports. 

Holly Rosewood spoke to s.e. smith, one of Disabled Writers’ founders, about the database, the importance of pay transparency, and what newsrooms can do to support the disability community. 

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

Disabled Writers started as a co-partnership between yourself and two others. What led you to create this resource?

Vilissa Thompson, Alice Wong, and I started this project in direct response to coverage of the fight over the Affordable Care Act. Disabled journalists were largely unrepresented in the coverage, and it showed, especially when disability advocacy groups like ADAPT were involved and the media was patronizing, clueless, and inept. We wanted to put a stop to “we couldn’t find any,” while highlighting the disabled talent out there. 

Since 2017, how has Disabled Writers changed? What are your hopes for the future of the community?

We’ve remained pretty much the same, between hosting the database and circulating opportunities on Twitter. We’ve collaborated with a few media outlets on fellowships, which I hope to do again, and got a generous Disability Visibility Project grant in 2020 to help us send writers to Poynter trainings, pay for blog articles about journalism, and provide some technical assistance. We’d definitely love to do more of that as well. 

I know you get this question a lot, but for folks who may be new to Disabled Writers: Why writers, and not journalists?

Because imposter syndrome and self-rejection are very real. Some people identify as writers, not journalists, or think they aren’t “allowed” to call themselves journalists if they haven’t published the right things in the right places. We really want to stress that if you are a writer—at any skill or experience level—and you want to write for media, you belong here. (We know it’s very confusing for the literary community, sorry!)

One thing I appreciate about Disabled Writers is the dedication to promoting paid opportunities. Could you tell me more about that commitment?

There are reams of research showing that providing people with information about compensation upfront increases diversity and inclusion, and decreases pay disparities. That applies to one-off opportunities as well. It’s harder for an editor to offer one writer $250 and another $500 when rates are public. Public rates also push media organizations to offer more—if you’re embarrassed to publish your rates, maybe you should raise them! Writers of Color deserves the credit for being the first to take a hard line on this. By following, we’re supporting them, but also pushing similar groups to do the same, which pushes everyone to publicly list rates, and that benefits people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, not just the disability community. (On a more personal note, when I do my end-of-year highlights thread, I disclose pay, in the spirit of providing writers with as much information as possible about the market.)

In addition to connecting with disabled people working in journalism and being transparent about pay, what can organizations and industry leaders do to support the disability community?

Actually hiring disabled people as staff writers, not freelancers, and building out disability as an explicit beat, are both very important. Thinking about ways to provide mentoring and support from people with nontraditional backgrounds or with specific access needs; disabled people often get left out because, say, they didn’t finish college or they need more time to get going in the morning. It’s wise to consider sourcing practices as well: Disabled people need to be considered as experts in their own right not just on disability, but their work, whether they’re bakers or astrophysicists or accessibility experts. All publications should be tracking their sources and asking themselves where the shortfalls are, including not just along disability lines but race, gender, LGBQTIA status, etc, and thinking about how to rectify that (this is a starting point for more diverse databases). 

It’s also really important to be responsible about disability coverage; whether the journalist is disabled or not, bad coverage is bad coverage, and can do harm that echoes through the community. Stigmatizing, misleading, or just factually inaccurate coverage should be taken seriously when it involves 26% of the population.

This piece was edited by Curtis Yee

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