A 9-step plan for 'curb-cutting' disability access in India’s news and newsrooms

An Indian girl walks along a pavement with a high curb, carrying balloons. It is a representation of the need for curb cuts in Indian media. Photo: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

Making pavements more accessible for wheelchairs benefited everyone – the curb cut effect. Might the same be true for news and newsrooms in India? Photo: REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

In the Winter of 2017, civil rights advocate Angela Glover Blackwell coined the term “curb-cut effect”.  

Prompted by acts of civil disobedience (wheelchair-using students had been pouring concrete to create ramps off pavements), the city of Berkeley, California, installed its first official “curb cut” at an intersection on Telegraph Avenue in 1972. 

What happened next was “magnificent and unexpected”: when pavements were made more accessible for people in wheelchairs, parents pushing prams benefited, as did workers with heavy loads, and businessmen wheeling suitcases. “When we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully,” Blackwell wrote, “everyone wins”.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has exposed a disability reporting gap, and “a distinct lack of care when it comes to nondisabled journalists writing about the community”.

In India, my home country, a 2012 content analysis of two major outlets found their “news articles on disability issues appear to possess more publicity value than news value”. Another report on the depiction of mental illness between 2019-20 found the use of stigmatising tone, language, and photographs.

It is my belief that the time is ripe for Indian media to give the world another “curb cut” moment – one that will benefit more than just disabled audiences and journalists.

I spent my time at the Reuters Institute speaking to more than a dozen journalists with disabilities, as well as editors at top outlets about what does and doesn’t work. I’ve isolated nine steps for Indian media to consider implementing.

Step 1: Adopt an accommodating structure and outlook

Do you need to know everything about all 21 disabilities protected under Indian law – and the many invisible disabilities like Crohn’s Disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s that aren’t? No. Just be open to learning as you go, and keep asking: “What can we do to help you?” Make people feel like they belong, and they will feel confident to talk to you about accommodations. 

As someone living with clinical depression, senior editor at the English daily New Indian Express Ranjitha Gunasekaran chooses to start her workday a little late and continue late into the night, as her sleep cycle is disturbed at times. Her newsroom gives her time off to recover whenever she experiences significant dips due to her depression.

Dheepakh PS, a senior sub-editor of the sports desk at national English-language daily The Hindu, a wheelchair-user, goes home an hour early twice a week for his physiotherapy, and makes up for the time later or earlier.

Data journalist at the financial daily, Mint, NanditaVenkatesan needs captions for her virtual meetings, as she is hard of hearing.

Manasa R, a journalist at New Indian Express, lives with ADHD and autism. She gets into short regular meetings with her editor, and constantly keeps herself updated with information about which stories to prioritise over others. Quieter spaces with dim lighting help her function better.Providing most of these reasonable accommodations might involve modifications in management skills or practices, but they don’t necessarily cost money.

Apart from that, newsrooms should make basic access, such as ramps, elevators with audio output and accessible toilets, a norm. 

Step 2: Think about how to actively recruit

Make specific mention of diversity hiring practices in job postings so that disabled journalists know they can apply. Wording like “people with different abilities are encouraged to apply” can build trust for your organisation amongst interested candidates. 

Recognise that written tests and job interviews that take place in another city might be a challenge for people with locomotor disabilities. Could you offer an online alternative? If the newsroom is not accessible, ask a potential interviewee to pick a venue for the job interview. Be respectful of their needs. 

While you are implementing changes, consider outsourcing work to disabled freelancers to get their perspective on stories.

Step 3: Encode inclusive processes and foster a culture change

Diversity, including disability, has to be put front and centre of an organisation, as with any other goal. Having a Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) policy and discussing it can open up conversations among diverse staff as it gives them the confidence that they will be heard.

Once policy is set, diversity and inclusion should be baked into the culture of newsrooms. Unless there is a top-down approach to it, disability and mental health will not gain traction. And remember: representation should also reach the top levels in a newsroom.

Invite disability-rights NGOs for education on diverse disabilities, laws, policies and gaps. This can help, not only in shaping policies, but also improve reporting on the subject. Other ways to offer this critical education is through workshops, training, awareness sessions, and reading material.

Disabled journalists do not mind fielding questions about their disability either. Co-workers should have these conversations to understand their colleagues better. 

Getting the onboarding process right is critical. It can give new employees a sense that they belong and the importance of their contribution. Saying something like, “We have never had someone like you before, so please let us know what you might need, and we’ll get it done,” can go a long way in reassuring and building trust in a new employee.

As well as explaining the organisation’s policies, hiring managers should explicitly inform new hires about who to approach for redressal. Assigning a buddy or a mentor during onboarding could also help a newly hired disabled journalist find a trusted person in the team for addressing queries. 

Step 4: Document editorial policies

Guidelines for engagement with disabled sources should be handy to all newsroom journalists. 

This BBC guide could help disabled interviewees prepare for a broadcast interview, while the journalists could keep these points in mind for engagement with their disabled sources. The ABC also has a comprehensive guide on how to photograph disabled people sensitively.

A language and style guide inclusive of diversity should be available for journalists. This BBC Worklife article explains what ableist language is, and how to eliminate it from your vocabulary. The Disability Language Style Guide by the National Centre on Disability and Journalism, is widely accepted worldwide.

The Carter Center has a comprehensive guide for reporting on behavioural health conditions, including mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders.

India’s Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy offers a free course on responsible suicide reporting for all journalists.

Step 5: Adapt your coverage style

Reporting should be rights-based, meaning, it should rest upon the legal rights of people with disabilities. The charity and medical models of disability coverage have long expired. More news and features on policy and laws should be commissioned. Stories portraying the everyday lives of people with disabilities, and focussing on them as untapped talent, should also be given space.

Disability coverage isn’t just “stories of overcoming difficulties to inspire readers” – and when it is, it should still be backed by social and cultural context. Replace the ‘positive’ story frame with a solutions-oriented one. 

Mental health coverage should include narratives of how people successfully navigate their work and life. Caregiver burden, options for recovery and what recovery means would also make for good stories and foster public understanding. 

New and unrepresented voices should be interviewed, and disabled people should be spoken to directly, rather than through their family or caregivers. 

Preparation for an interview with a disabled person should involve doing research about their disability, and having a conversation about their needs.

Remember: disabled sources can be interviewed for their expertise for any story, not just disability.

Lastly: disabled people have explicitly noted their dislike for “Divyang”, (Hindi for divine bodies), a term coined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for disabled people. News media should avoid its usage.

Step 6: Get in early

Training on disability and accessibility in news should begin in journalism schools.

J-school buildings and hostels should be made accessible to enable more aspiring disabled youth to study journalism. Accessibility features should be explicitly mentioned on their websites to attract aspiring youth with disabilities.

Grants and fellowships for courses can help disabled students from different economic backgrounds study journalism.

Newsrooms can also train aspiring disabled youth and hire them as correspondents or freelance contributors. 

Play up to people’s strengths. Be creative and find how they can perform to suit a newsroom’s requirement. Not every journalist is “in the field”: there are roles in audience management, social media, and more that can be filled. 

Step 7: Audit on-network accessibility

Website accessibility should be tested by people with every disability it serves, instead of relying simply on a team of non-disabled technical experts. WCAG 3.0 guidelines have to be complied with for website accessibility, and a few basic access features are listed below.

Websites should have a dedicated page listing accessibility features.

Images should have alt-text.

Videos should be captioned and should avoid flashing lights, or warn of them. 

Either turn off autoplay on embedded videos, or mute it. 

Podcasts should have transcripts.

Advertisement placement should be carefully designed to avoid clutter that makes pages unnavigable. And incorporating text to speech is a helpful feature for print-disabled people.

Step 8: Audit off-network accessibility

There are a number of steps to take to ensure your content on social media platforms is accessible.

YouTube automatically creates captions, but since they are often inaccurate, Classic Studio and Creator Studio can be used for creating and editing captions. 

Twitter provides auto-caption support for videos, voice tweets and Twitter Spaces. This is how to add Alt Text to Twitter images,and upload a caption file for a twitter video.

Facebook has auto alt-text for images, but it should be edited for accuracy. Here’s how captions can be added to a video posted on Facebook.

Instagram also has auto alt-text, which needs editing to be precise. Here’s how to add captions to a video using the Captions sticker, and Kapwing.

Step 9: Look for success stories to replicate

Here are a few replicable ideas that newsrooms across the world have successfully adopted:

  • ABC News recruits talent from the community through their Media Cadet Programme. Cadets don’t necessarily need to have journalistic qualifications, “just a real and demonstrable passion for the media”. Many of them are absorbed by ABC News after their cadetship.
  • ABC Inclusive is a forum for staff with disabilities and allies. They meet once a month and discuss the upcoming important days and content related to it, what the staff members can do for each other, and tackle any workplace issues related to accessibility. 
  • Across UK newsrooms, a centralised ”BBC Passport” informs managers about the reasonable accommodations each disabled person needs, which simplifies the process of moving around the organisation for disabled staff.
  • Trainee programmes at the BBC such as Extend in News and Elevate are dedicated to hiring journalists of diverse disabilities at different levels of their careers.
  • To make a 2021 investigative series about people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities accessible, ProPublica translated it into plain language.
  • In July 2020, the New York Times 30-year anniversary coverage of the American Disability Act was converted to digital Braille files that could be downloaded and read with an electronic Braille reader. 
  • For their podcast More Than This, Vox Media created an immersive visual transcript for deaf and hard of hearing people “by translating the emotions, pacing, and atmosphere of the podcast into a visual medium.” 
  • Al Jazeera Contrast’s interactive project Inaccessible Cities helps the user navigate the accessibility in New York, Lagos and Mumbai.

Research suggests newsrooms that embrace diversity – including disability – may be more appealing to audiences: 74% of the respondents in the Digital News Report 2021 said “they still prefer news that reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think”. Siperstein et al (2006) researched consumer attitudes to businesses that employed people with disabilities and found organisations that hire people with disabilities are viewed more favourably.

The curb-cutting effect of improving accessibility of newsrooms and news is perhaps best expressed by award-winning journalist Nicole A. Childers, who told Nieman Lab: “I’ve learned in real time that the wider the range of perspectives and backgrounds covering the news, the more capable a newsroom will be in reaching a wider audience, the more revenue that audience will bring in, and the more attractive a newsroom becomes for drawing more diverse talent.”