Writing my last Telegraph blog, about the disabled pilot whose arm fell off as he was landing a passenger plane and the pleasing lack of fuss this created, left me feeling optimistic about the future of disabled people in employment. But that feeling was quickly dispelled by an email I received from a young disabled woman who had read it.
The young woman—I’m going to call her Laura—was born without one of her hands. She is about to enter her final year of A-levels and is determined to study journalism at university and then to become a journalist. Her email suggests this is well within her abilities.
After a struggle to find a placement, she was recently given a day of work experience at a local newspaper. She loved it. She even had an article published online. At the end of the day, she had the chance to interview “an experienced journalist” about her future career. She had her questions well-prepared, but he did not answer them.
Instead, he interrogated her about her disability, questioning why she thought she could be a journalist. If she applied for a job with him, he said, she would be at a major disadvantage compared to any able-bodied candidate.
My reply to her email answers questions I am often asked. Consequently, I am going to make it public. It is not just a letter to Laura but to any young disabled person who cares to read it.
Thank you for writing to me. I may not be able to tell you everything you’d like to hear, but I hope my message can be more positive than negative.
Your story angers me, and saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. People like the man you met are everywhere. There are a lot of them in journalism. I doubt you’ll meet many who’ll talk like him (they’d be in danger of losing their jobs) but you could meet some who think like him.
I face prejudice in my career, and my career has been damaged because of it. But I still have a career and the idea that it should be limited by my status as a disabled person is accepted by fewer and fewer people, meaning I have more and more opportunities. The more pieces I write, the better it gets.
You have already identified the reality of the situation you faced on your work experience day: your disability was a problem for him, not you. That you’ve already written a letter of complaint, and then an email to me, tells me you’re not the kind of person to be pushed aside or to let injustices stand.
Those are invaluable qualities for a journalist. Before you’ve even started studying, you are better placed for a successful career in journalism than the man you spoke to on Friday. He is missing something far more important than a hand.
This man told you that, should you apply to him for a job, he would illegally discriminate against you. He clearly thinks this behaviour is acceptable and that it is widespread enough that you should curtail your ambitions because of it. His employers need to know this. They ought to be appalled.
If they don’t give you an adequate response to your letter, keep asking questions until they do. It will be good training for your future job.
People you’ve told about this man may be telling you, “He’s a jackass. Forget about him.” They’re half right: he is certainly a jackass. But I don’t want you to forget about him.
I want you to remember him when you take your exams to get on that journalism course. And I want you to remember him when you’re on that course and you’re struggling with an assignment that’s complex and dull, and you’d rather go to the pub.
And I want you to remember him on your first day in your first job as a journalist. And when you’re Editor-in-Chief of The Telegraph or are head-hunted by the New York Times and win a Pulitzer Prize. Use the memory as rocket fuel.
I want you to know this: your future is unlimited. I can’t promise you won’t face obstacles because you have a disability, but I can promise that you are strong enough to find a way over or around them all. I can also promise that by surmounting those obstacles you’ll become a better journalist than people who never had to face them.
Perhaps the best reason for you to become a journalist now is not because I’m telling you you can but because the man you spoke to told you you can’t. Able-bodied people will always tell us we can’t do things. And we will always prove them wrong. And then, eventually, enough of us will have proved enough of them wrong that they’ll stop telling us what we can’t do.
By the time you join journalism, things will—I hope—have improved. I’m sorry they aren’t better now. I think almost every member of every disadvantaged group has at some time thrown up their hands in exasperation and thought, “We shouldn’t still have to be fighting this.”
But we’re making progress. You’re right that more awareness is needed. And you can help create it. You could become a journalist specialising in disability issues, and raise awareness that way. Or you could become a journalist in an area to which your disability is completely irrelevant, and raise awareness simply by being good at your job.
The saddest news I could hear as a disabled journalist is that someone so clearly suited to my profession has decided not to enter it because of ignorant opinions about disability that she obviously disproves every day.
Journalism is the enemy of ignorance. Journalism needs voices like yours.