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I do not have ‘special needs’, I have rights

WHAT CHALLENGES do disabiled journalists face in their careers, and what advice can they offer others on inclusion at work? And what can we do about the representation of disabled people within journalism? These were the questions facing the April London Freelance Branch meeting.

Natasha Hirst

Natasha Hirst addresses the meeting, with automatic transcript

Our speaker was Natasha Hirst, a member of the NUJ's Disabled Members' Council (DMC) and of its Freelance Industrial Council and National Executive Council. She had been due to speak alongside Ann Galpin, but had to report that "Ann feels terrible that she can't join us because she is unwell." Ann is a freelance journalist, Chair of DMC and also co-chair of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Disabled Workers' Committee - and an experienced disability and mental health activist.

Natasha was born deaf, to a hearing family. She also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia - also known as developmental co-ordination disorder. Neither the ADHD nor the dyspraxia was known when she was a child, so, as she reported, "my access to education and to employment has been difficult."

She "came to recognise that there were many barriers to me as a disabled person that didn't need to be there." This "led me to disability activism".

Now, she is a freelance photographer. She also has skills from previous careers, for example in research and writing. "It is common for disabled people to choose self-employment," she notes, "because of the barriers they face in PAYE work." But "disabled people should not be forced into freelancing."

Personally, she has "never regretted that choice - and I really enjoy being a freelance photographer".

"In the Journalist in December", Natasha reported, "I wrote of different ways to make remote working go better for disabled journalists." In fact, "technology such as Zoom has also given us an opportunity to work better." For example, Natasha had requested that the Branch set this meeting up with a live text transcript, - which, despite the occasional entertaining mistake, greatly increased its accessibility for her.

"For me online working has been more accessible than face-to-face - but that's not the case for all disabled people," she reminded us. "For example you get a lot of information from people's faces and body language that you lose in Zoom." There's also the problem of Zoom fatigue: "before all this, I wouldn't have expected to be in 6-8 back-to-back meetings through the whole day." When we met people face-to-face we had time out travelling to or between meetings.

The expectation for people to be online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week "can create a disadvantage - and also an opportunity to think about how we expect people to engage with us".

The challenges she faces in her work, though, are "largely attitudinal".

The social model

Natasha's work on disability issues is informed by the "social model". This "frames everything, from my point of view". It was developed by disabled people in the disabled people's movement. It "says that a person may have an impairment - and it's not the impairment that creates disablity: I am disabled by the structures in society that prevent me having full control over my life and where and how I live and work."

So we need to remove the barriers that exist in society for disabled people. "As someone with a hearing impairment I'm not necessarily disabled in every situation," Natasha observes. But if she's at a railway station and a change to what platform a train will arrive at is announced over a loudspeaker and not in any other way - then "I have been disabled by that decision."

"The reason the social model was such a revelation to me," Natasha recalls, "is that it collectivises the responsibility for addressing the issues. Rather than saying to people 'you need to do this' it says 'together we are responsible for doing that'."

The concept of "reasonable adjustments" in law could be improved by taking the approach of the social model to enable disabled people to fulfil their potential in work, for example. "Rather than the individual having to step forward and say 'I need this special access'," Natasha points out, "and rather than them likely getting into an argument about that, with other people saying 'it's inconveniencing us, why can't you just manage and get by' - the onus is clearly on the people controlling the work or living environment."

"The expectation that I should "just manage and get by" has meant that I haven't been able to fulfil my full potential," Natasha notes.

Disabled people are diverse - "I am deaf; someone else might have impaired sight or mobility... people shouldn't necessarily have to disclose what their impairment might be." Rather, we should ask people "what is it that you need in order to play your part as you'd like to?"

"I do not have 'special needs'," Natasha insists: "I have rights and want to exercise them" to fulfil her capabilities.

Terminology is important

When people use the term "differently abled" Natasha finds it "patronising - we are all differently abled, we all have different abilities." The problem with using phrases like that instead of saying that someone is "disabled" is that it depoliticises the whole situation: "people are disabled by lack of access that arises from political decisions. Because disabled people are often seen as of less worth than others that has a massive impact on people's lives."

Disabled people form about a quarter of the UK population - "we're a large minority group - we're not people with 'Special Needs' but, again, people with rights. Too often disabled people are still "viewed as passive, tragic, weak, the recipients of care..."

"I haven't overcome my disability," Natasha concluded: "I have overcome barriers that other people have put in my way. I'm not a 'super-crip'. I simply have faced different challenges to those my next-door neighbour has faced."


A member amplified this, noting that they had "ticked the 'disabled' box on staff surveys for years" because of their mental health. The "editorial form is to write of people with 'mental health problems'; I kept saying it should not be described as a problem but as an illness. You don't say people have cancer problems or multiple sclerosis problems..."

Natasha responded that "the social model terminology is 'mental distress' - and that covers conditions from mild anxiety to bipolar or schizophrenia." This term is "increasingly coming into use - though the language is not familiar to those who are not active in the disability and mental health movements". This term "expresses the idea that there is a diverse spectrum. Everyone has mental health - and of course there's a lot of stigma attached to mental health issues and to disabled people more generally."

The point of concern about terminology is to "enable people to talk about their own lived experience, to tell co-workers and family, 'this is what I am experiencing at the moment and this is what I need'. It seeks to reduce stigma and leave us talking about the positives."

"As a photographer," Natasha went on. "being a disabled person is one of my strengths. It affects how I work with people and the work that I produce. Once, I struggled to have the confidence to confront people's negative views about me. As a trade union activist it is important that I am there as a role model and to listen to what others need."

Another member asked whether Natasha sees deafness as a positive attribute.

Natasha "wouldn't choose to get rid of that entire life experience. I had a cochlear implant about seven years ago - my access to sound is better than it has been, but I am still a deaf person. I would not have faced so many difficulties and so many challenges if I were not, but I didn't cause those issues: other people did. I became an activist because I don't want other people to have to experience the damaging attitudes that I grew up with."

Branch committee member Phil Sutcliffe asked: what has the NUJ done, what is it doing and what should it do more of for our disabled members?

Natasha noted that "we have the Disabled Members' Council - and my role on the National Executive. We could do more to promote the fact that we're here for members: if disabled members want support or advice we are here. If there are issues, whether in the workplace or within union structures, do get in touch.

We need to do more to be inclusive in branches: "the default should be to ask members whether they have access requirements and finding out what people need to be able to participate in meetings and in training."

In response to another member, Natasha spoke about what we can do if we're reporting: "many reporters will go to one of the big disability charities for comment - when there are organisations that are run and led by disabled people that might be more appropriate to give a quote or information - rather than a huge charity that is run by non-disabled people and that does not foster the independence of those they say they are there to serve..."

What about neurodiversity? A member noted that "some neurodiverse people, like some deaf people, do not see themselves to be 'disabled'." Deaf people may simply identify as someone whose first language is British Sign Language: they see themselves as a cultural minority. Some neurodiverse people see themselves as simply cognitively different.

Natasha responded that a big question is: "how as a union do we embrace our diversity more effectively?"

Branch member Duncan Campbell observed that the film Sound of Metal had won awards for editing and sound at the BAFTA awards the previous night. It follows the life of a heavy-metal drummer as he begins to lose his hearing. Does Natasha feel that film adds to people's understanding?

Natasha has not seen it yet, though "my sister sent me a link." In general, representation is important: "where you have a disabled character, that should be played by a disabled actor to be represented authentically. At the very least it should be done with very close involvement of people with lived experience. Oscars have been won by actors being 'terribly brave' portraying disabled characters, when that casting has reduced opportunities for disabled actors."

A member asked how Natasha deal with working as a photographer: "It's hard work, and I'm aware there'd be some environments I'd not go into - for example very hostile public order situations - unless, perhaps, there was a group watching each others' backs." In terms of day-to-day work, "people communicate in different ways: I just need to be clear that I need to lipread. I hope that people who work with me take something away from the experience."

Committee member Romana Sustar asked: "what camera are you using? And did you have specifically support or were you just thrown in the deep end?"

Natasha uses Nikon - "and I am self-taught". It "was a bit of an accident that I ended up in photography. It has been important to be a member of the NUJ and thus have the opportunity to collaborate with other photographers and to see how they work. There's so much to learn, for example when other photographers showcase their work and talk about how they do it." She is also involved in the Facebook group "Women Photograph London".

All are welcome to get in touch with Natasha - whether about working as a disabled journalist or about photography.