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The invisible millions: Radio and the differently abled

14 January 2009

Jean Parker

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Disabled people comprise ten percent of the population, yet they are nowhere to be found on the airwaves, says Jean Parker, creator of Disability Radio Worldwide.

Statistics reveal that ten percent of any given population identify themselves as having one or more physical or mental disabilities.  That means in a world with six billion people, at least six hundred million of them are blind, deaf or have a head injury.

The media tend to portray two extremes: the disabled superhero who can 'overcome' his or her disability, or the pathetic disabled person in need of a handout  

Some might have an orthopedic or spinal condition requiring use of a wheelchair or crutches.  Others might have difficulty speaking or learning, and still others might have a mental disability resulting in difficulty with daily activities.

In 2008, the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted, making now a good time to talk about disability.

Negative attitude

People have contradictory feelings about disability. Most have an aversion to it. When they see someone on the street who looks different than they do, they either avoid that person or become hostile. They fear it might happen to them.

jean parker.jpg
Jean Parker, Creator of Disability Radio Worldwide

They believe they could not manage if they became disabled themselves, yet do nothing to lessen their chances by driving responsibly, obeying safety rules and demanding safe infrastructure.

Many believe having a disabled person in one’s family might ruin marriage prospects or subject them to pity by their neighbors. These are just some common reactions to disability, the list is infinite.

These negative attitudes become a self-fulfilling prophecy when mainstream media gets involved.  They tend to portray two extremes, the 'amazing' disabled superhero who can 'overcome' his or her disability and overpower any obstacle in his path, or the poor, pathetic disabled person (often a child), in need of a handout.  

The first portrayal denies the reality of the person’s disabling condition and establishes unrealistic expectations, the second denies the personhood of the subject and leaves the viewer or listener believing that charity will conquer all. 

Both are catastrophically damaging; both let the viewer off the hook and neither depicts the reality of disabled people’s lives.

As a result, disabled people as a group have the lowest financial, social and political power.  They are routinely excluded from education, jobs, transport, religious functions and family life. They are subject to disproportionately high rates of violence inside and outside the family. 

Within families, they are routinely deprived of decision-making power, money food, and inheritance. 

The role and responsibility of community radio in correcting these inequalities

First, it is to integrate people who have disabilities into every aspect of it’s functioning.  This means going to talk with people who might look or communicate differently than you do and finding out what is important to them. It means seeking out people who may not be easy to find. 

You might be uncomfortable at first, but that’s ok - you’ll get over it and you’ll learn that your job is to advance community radio as a way for people to harness their own power and bring others along with them.

Just as you wouldn’t insist on women only making women’s programs, you should expect that disabled people have interests, skills and talents to address any topic at hand.

There should be programs about disability produced by those who have disabilities, but there should be disabled programmers making shows about other topics as well.

Because community radio is about harnessing and utilizing power, it is inappropriate to focus on themes of pity, religious healing or cure. 

After all, you wouldn’t air a show espousing the merits of 'curing' someone’s race.  Neither would you do so with disability.  Certainly, you would impart information of genuine assistance to those with a particular condition, but far to many past efforts in radio have focused on what is wrong with being a disabled person in society rather than on how to correct societal inequities that make participation in life with a disability so difficult.  Neither do we focus obsessively on medical issues at the expense of the disability voice.

Again, important and sound medical information that enhances daily life is appropriate but in the past, this has all-to-often created a dynamic of the 'expert' preaching to the uninformed.

It is therefore helpful to consider the basics of inclusion of people with disabilities in your radio project by asking the following questions:

  1. Is your station location physically accessible?  Can a person using a wheelchair get in the door?  Is the toilet that is available to everyone else usable by someone with a variety of physical disabilities?  Can a person using a wheelchair get into the studio and control room?  What about the place where you hold your trainings?  Is the furniture arranged to allow maximum access for people with limited mobility?  Is the equipment arranged so it can be used by many different kinds of people? Creativity is in order here, think “universal design,” adjustability and efficient space utilization.
  2. Is your studio and field equipment usable by someone who is blind or has a visual impairment?  Does your equipment vendor even know what you’re talking about when you ask this question before purchasing gear for your station?  Is the softwear used for editing, production and on-air functions accessible by a blind person using a program that reads aloud what is on the screen? Have you identified work arounds for recording and editing equipment with touch screens, graphical interfaces or other primarily visual components? Is your web site and all its functions accessible and usable by someone using a variety of adaptive technology when they use a computer?
  3. Do you make program transcripts available to deaf or hearing-impaired people?
  4. Do you include the disabled as a distinct minority group to be targeted in outreach and recruitment efforts?  Have you identified local groups or individuals who could lead you to those disabled people who are isolated within your community?
  5. When you seek participation by other distinct groups such as women, elders, kids, linguistic groups, religious caste or racial groups, do you make sure to include those who have a disability and value their expertise?  Do you encourage disabled members of these groups to participate in all aspects of program making even if others in the group are resistant? 
  6. Are their people who have disabilities represented on your governing boards and committees?  Are they represented on your editorial committee, program evaluation, and planning committees?  What about the training committee?  How about the technical and engineering aspects of your project?  What about administrative, fund raising and operations committees?  Public presentations?  If someone visited your project would they see any disabled people doing things around the station? If you have outside social activities are they held in places where everyone involved can participate?
  7. Do the programs you air represent your entire constituency?  Are those constituents involved in making programs of relevance and not just passive listeners?

This is by no means a comprehensive list but it will get things started.  Go back to the top of this article and review all the ways in which disabled people continue to be excluded and rejected by our society. 

Now think about how your radio project could help reverse those exclusions so future editions of this publication could report on all the accomplishments that have been made towards equal participation of people with all kinds of disabilities.

People often assume that including disabled people in something means it will cost more money. This is not necessarily true. 

It is wise to collaborate with those who will be involved in a given activity and engage their assistance to find solutions together. This way, everyone will be invested in making the project work. It has been repeatedly proven that if something works for people with disabilities, it will work for everyone.

For eight years, Jean Parker was the producer of Disability Radio Worldwide, a weekly program about the disability experience from a global perspective. She works as an independent radio journalist producing features and breaking news from South Asia on social development and human rights. Her work has been heard on the CBC, Radio Netherlands, Voice of America, BBC and National Public Radio in the US. She has been blind since birth.

Source : EDAA

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