Being lost for words when you’re a talkback host could hardly be considered ideal. But back in September of 1992, I was hosting an evening talkback show on a fledgling radio station in what was then a newly deregulated, highly unstable radio market. And something happened that, for one of the few times in my life, left me lost for words.
I was born blind. Yes, blind. I’m not visually impaired, and I’m certainly not visually challenged. I’m comfortable in my own skin. My blindness hasn’t stopped me from doing anything of significance that I’ve wanted to do, other than perhaps drive a car, and even that won’t be impossible forever.
I don’t think about my blindness every waking minute, and certainly in those days when I was hosting talkback, I didn’t talk about it very much at all. My interests were the same of those of my listeners back then. Would Winston Peters be kicked out of the National caucus? Would a young governor from Arkansas defeat an incumbent president who at one point seemed unbeatable? Then there’d be the occasional bit of banter about much less consequential stuff. Yes, it was your typical talkback formula.
But on this occasion, welfare reform and Jenny Shipley were the topic of conversation. It added value to the discussion for me to mention that I was blind, and had had some experience with the benefit system in the past.
A few minutes after making the comment about being blind, an incredulous caller was on-air saying, “Did you just say you were blind”? When I confirmed that she’d heard correctly, she said, “that’s amazing! You really don’t sound blind at all”.
It was at that point that I just had no idea how to respond, other than eventually to say, “how does a blind person sound any different?” It was also at that point that I realised the work I was doing, on this under-funded, struggling Auckland radio station, had the potential to change attitudes. Just opening the microphone and engaging with listeners on the issues of the day may cause them to rethink their perceptions of what blind people, and perhaps other disabled people, could do.
Anyone who remembers the radio market after frequencies were put up for sale as a result of the Fourth Labour Government’s reforms will know what a crazy time it was. That particular radio station went out of business. I moved to another. It was taken over and largely automated. At that point, my wife started suggesting rather insistently that if we were going to start a family, I might like to consider a more stable career.
Much of the work I’ve done since then has been in the blindness fields - in Government relations, niche-market Internet broadcasting, and IT. Some might argue that I’ve made bad career decisions, because when anyone looks at my CV, it pigeonholes me a bit in the blindness space. Yet I think all we can ask of our careers is to make a difference somehow. Blind people are a minority, and I’ve been motivated to try to make a difference to that minority.
Since the days when I was working full-time in commercial broadcasting, our politics have become more inclusive. Thanks to MMP, the House of Representatives truly is much more representative. The media now reflects Parliament’s greater diversity, and the need to feature a greater mix of perspectives and voices. Maori issues, and Maori broadcasters, are more prominent than they used to be. There are Pacifica-specific stations, but particularly in public broadcasting, we sometimes here Pacifica voices. The invisible minority remains disabled people.
When has Q+A, The Nation, Radio New Zealand’s afternoon panel, and the opinion pages of our major newspapers featured disabled people offering opinions on issues, both disability-specific and not?
Indeed I initiated some dialogue with the Editor of the New Zealand Herald, or at least attempted to, last year. My offer to write some pieces on disability issues apparently didn’t even warrant a reply, despite similar pieces being published in other countries.
There are two reasons why the invisibility of disabled people in the New Zealand media is of concern.
First, the unemployment rate among working-aged disabled people is far higher than any other minority group. Disability is a broad term, so let me concentrate on blindness, which is what I experience and what I know.
In the US, it’s estimated that up to 70% of working-aged blind people are out of work. Surveys here in New Zealand have shown repeatedly that employers are less likely to employ a blind person than any other disability. It frustrates me, but I understand why. Vision is a dominant sense. If you have it, you’re going to rely on it heavily. Because you rely on it heavily, it’s hard to imagine how a blind person could possibly do any job for which you’re hiring. We’re a tiny minority, so few employers have the chance to get to know a blind person, and to see that even if it may seem implausible, blind people can and do get the job done.
Having disabled people in the media on panels, writing opinion pieces, reporting and presenting, puts disabled people in front of far more of the public. It shows us to be competent, qualified and/or opinionated New Zealanders who are contributors to, and stakeholders in, our society. Just seeing us in these roles can change attitudes.
Public broadcasters such as the BBC and NPR are conscious of this. I know of a number of people with front-line roles at the BBC who are blind, one of whom is a political reporter whose stories are on BBC radio and TV. They cover disability-specific issues, but they cover mainstream issues too. It’s interesting to observe that Britain has also had a blind Home Secretary.
Second, political and public policy matters pertaining to disability need greater exposure in this country. Just as we now readily accept and embrace tino rangatiratanga - the idea that Maori must speak for themselves and that the best policy decisions about Maori are made by Maori, so disabled people need to lead the discussion on critical and often neglected public policy issues.
We presently have two programmes, one on public radio, the other on public TV, about disability issues. They both tend to be focussed more on human interest stories. Many of them are good stories, and I’m glad they’re being told, but I long for in-depth, hard-hitting current affairs discussions about some of the serious issues disabled people face in this country.
Why is someone born with a disability able to access so much less support than someone who becomes disabled because of an accident? Why is there a disparity between the degree to which various disabilities are funded by Government? Is it really appropriate to have disability fall under the Ministry of Health? Does our human rights legislation possess sufficient teeth to effect meaningful change in a timely manner, and how does it measure up to anti-disability-discrimination laws in other countries?
The list goes on and on, and I’ll be covering some of these issues in subsequent posts. But these are public discussions that should be in our mainstream media, on our mainstream current affairs shows with disabled panellists leading the discussion and with taxpayers giving thought to what these issues say about fairness and opportunity in our society.
I’ll continue to advocate for disabled people to be more visible on mainstream programmes and pages in our media. Just because I can’t see you, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see me. The good news, though, is that this is 2014. The mainstream media isn’t the only way opinions can be expressed and issues discussed. I applaud Russell’s initiative in establishing this new part of Public Address, and look forward to the discussion.