Conversations regarding diversity and amplifying voices from diverse backgrounds are increasing, especially from the peak of Black Lives Matter, but it’s important we include disabled voices too, writes Myra Ali.
Growing up as a British-Pakistani woman with a rare skin condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) wasn’t easy at all. In the Asian community, disabilities are seen as a negative thing. Women like me are not pushed to further their education or career goals because there’s a preconceived notion that it would be impossible for us to get a job, therefore studying is just seen as a ‘hobby’ to keep us busy.
No matter what I achieve, I will be labelled as ‘sick’ or ‘unwell’ first. I find stereotypes like this to be detrimental to my mental health and draining. I didn’t want to be defined by what people think so I went to Birmingham University and studied History while still undergoing major surgeries. Living with EB means I have burn-like wounds, bandages on my body, and I deal with constant chronic pain. Regular surgeries are the norm for me as my scar tissue is released from areas of my body, on my hands, eyelids, and lower limbs.
An experience that I’ll never forget was when an Asian Uber driver said to me: “Why are you going to university? You are hardly going to work in the future!”. Well, years later, to his surprise, I now work as a celebrity journalist, interviewing A-list Hollywood actors around the world. My condition is difficult and painful but working as a journalist liberated me from my suffering and enhanced my confidence. I love the work I do and I’m good at it! Just ask actor Tom Holland, he posted me on his Instagram saying I was his best interviewer. A highlight in my career.
I remember telling my mum I wanted to work in the media as a presenter and her response was that I should rethink this career path. I was shocked but I understood her concerns; she viewed the media industry as too superficial. I think she was protecting me from rejection. Who could blame her? Why would she think it’s a possible career option for her Asian daughter when no one else who looks like me was on the forefront?
The first time I saw myself represented in the media was through the careers of three amazing women: burns survivor Katie Piper, who has had multiple surgeries and skin grafts like me; presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born with only one hand; and Bree Walker, an American news anchor who has disfigured hands. They all gave me the boost, belief and confidence that I can be in this industry too. Looking back, it occurred to me my role models were all white women. Now I have my foot in the industry, I see that there are no mainstream female disabled presenters from an ethnic background on our screens.
Amber Sunner, who is a British-Indian journalist suffered two strokes which resulted in her voice being affected, recalled to Stylist how a journalism lecturer at a university open day stated that: “I shouldn’t even consider doing the course because of my health. I cried the whole journey home”. Like me, Sunner is happy that there are lots of conversations regarding diversity and amplifying voices from diverse backgrounds, especially from the peak of Black Lives Matter, but it’s important we include disabled voices too. She adds: “I think when we hear the word diversity a lot of people assume colour but there are intersectionality factors to consider such as disability, gender and class”.
A lack of disabled journalists of colour means our stories aren’t told authentically or are not told at all. The way the media portrayals us is often terrible and stereotypical. I have heard stories from disabled journalists who have had their pitches declined and they feel that their stories are not seen as important. Editors and gatekeepers need to recognise that disabled voices are an integral part of any newsroom. We also need greater diversity training everywhere, especially training that looks at unconscious bias in hiring. One hire is not enough – we are not your tokens.
If this was implemented maybe some of the experiences I have had to undergo wouldn’t have happened. Whenever I’m interviewing at press junkets, I’m the only disabled presenter there. I went to a pre-screening of a film, and the women in the studio asked if I wanted water. I said ‘yes’, but she put it on the floor. I couldn’t pick it up as my hand was heavily bandaged. I will not say she was wrong for not asking me if I needed help. It’s not her fault, but it exposed that a lot of work still needs to be done.
I don’t want disabled journalists to feel alone in this industry as I did. So it’s crucial that we aren’t the only ones calling for equality. We need support from everyone in the industry, every editor-in-chief, every fellow journalist. Otherwise, we are fighting our own battle, we need help to break down barriers. It’s great to see white people speaking out such as The Last Leg presenter, Alex Brooker, who said his show consists of three white men and yes, “there’s a lot of diversity in the sense of our disabilities”, but there needs to be more.
In addition, Rachel Charlton-Dailey, a disabled journalist, told Stylist: “Although I rarely see people like me portrayed on screen, there are even fewer BAME disabled people in the mainstream media, I hope this changes”.
The importance of role models is vital. If we are not shown, we are then shattering the dreams of others. Seeing a disabled, black, ethnic journalist can open the door for others.
Image: Getty/ Myra Ali