I could not persuade senior management of the CBC Alberta/NWT region to consider qualified disabled workers for a broad spectrum of employment across the CBC. They were resistant to the point of obstinacy (particularly when it came to the idea of television broadcasters). Never mind broadcasters, they just could not imagine the possibility of including skilled disabled writers, researchers, producers, directors, editors, and particularly NOT television reporters and anchors.
Year after year, the federally funded CBC failed to meet expectations for an internal workforce that reflected the mosaic of Canadian society. This was particularly true with regard to disability.
My training and experience prior to my disability included television and radio so I convinced my Commission to offer me on secondment to the CBC for a year to work with a program team as a radio writer/researcher (start modestly). Of course the CBC bit, it was free labour for them. It was an opportunity for me to infiltrate the ranks, so to speak, and encourage them to look past disability. They would not. They seemed to think they were above accountability.
Even after the year's secondment, and glowing performance reviews of my work, senior management remained resistant to the point of defiance to consider employment equity for qualified disabled workers. At the end of the year I met with Alberta/NWT senior management for debriefing. They admitted that I proved to be a valued employee who only required minor workplace accommodation. They admitted their dismal employment record for disability--they could not deny the horrible statistics--particularly with television reporters/anchors. One executive cynically mused about getting employees who wear eyeglasses to identify as disabled to get their numbers up (snicker-snicker).
One manager said, "A reporter in a wheelchair would be distracting to viewers." I responded, "Initially, perhaps, but I think you underestimate your viewers' ability to accept difference.They simply want the news and quality programming." I reminded them there was a time in the 1960s when the same argument was used against women reporters and anchors.
An uncomfortable program executive feigned openness to the idea and said, "Well, I suppose we could hide their wheelchair behind a desk or take waist-up shots." I replied: "Why are you presuming a wheelchair, and secondly why would you hide a person's disability?"
Another producer erupted, "This is bullshit!" He stood, threw his file on the conference table, and stormed out of the room. The meeting ended shortly after that.
It was clear that I failed to break through a corporate culture that discriminated against considering qualified disabled people across a full spectrum of employment opportunities. (What was ironic was that the national President of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the time was an amputee (Patrick Watson)).
President of CBC
In fairness to the CBC, a month or two after I returned to my regular position with the employment commission, I received a call from a senior CBC executive in Toronto about a new series they were developing to explore issues of Canadians with disabilities. They wanted me to consider hosting it. The CBC flew me to Ottawa to meet with the executive producer for the proposed show to discuss the idea of a 13-week pilot on their newly established news channel. It was hardly attractive. They offered me half my salary and I would have to unroot my young family and move to Ottawa for the tenuous prospect of hosting a show that could easily end after 13 weeks (which happened). I turned down the offer.
Why was I persistent in my push for the CBC to consider disabled broadcasters? Young people with disabilities needed (and still do) positive role models in the broadcasting industry for them to aspire to (and other professions). The broadcasting industry needed to be introduced to the prospect of employing skilled, talented people despite disabilities not because of them. They still do.
I hope things have changed, although I still do not see a visible disability presence on television. The CBC seems so quick to point out the prejudices and failing of everyone else but loath to admit their own.
Why am I blogging about a 27-year-old experience I had with the CBC? I'm doing it precisely because so little seems to have changed in over a quarter of a century! It seems the broadcasting progressives are not so progressive after all.
General employment prospects for workers with disabilities in Canada (and abroad) remains appalling. Such horrendous unemployment/under-employment rates experienced amongst the disabled would not be tolerated in the rest of the workforce!
You see, I used my experience with the CBC as a segue into the larger issue of disability discrimination. The cultural deck is stacked against disability inclusion. It's politically correct to speak about being inclusive -- but progressives' inclusion is selective. People with disabilities face discrimination in every meaningful aspect of life from employment to finding decent housing, transportation, recreation, proper education and supports, health care and home care that may be spotty, inconsistent or piece-meal.
Many Canadians with disabilities feel marginalized and excluded from mainstream society.
Canada's federally funded CBC should be helping to change that through addressing disability issues just as they do with gender and sexual politics, racism and First Nations issues, and setting a progressive image of disability inclusion. Give similar attention and air time to issues of disability as with LGBTQ issues (which represent a much smaller proportion of society). The CBC should be giving the same coverage to suicide amongst the disabled, and reasons behind it, as with First Nations' suicides, and the reasons for it. The CBC should show an ongoing commitment to news and current affairs dealing with employment and disability, just as they do with women and employment issues.
Qualified anchors and reporters with visible disabilities should be a regular part of news delivery across the nation. Why visible disabilities? Not only does this set an example and promote role models for young people with disabilities, it helps to promote integration and inclusion in the public's mindset. But I predict it won't happen any time soon. If the CBC feels no compunction to employ a workforce that's reflective of Canadian society -- despite receiving more than $1.2 billion dollars each year in public money -- why would private broadcasters? Including broadcasters with disabilities is still foreign and uncomfortable to the CBC -- and other media outlets. It's not fashionable in the way LGBTQ issues are, or First Nations issues.
Granted, there are exceptions one can point out but they are few and far between. They are the rare exceptions, and everybody knows they are the rare exceptions. Society still sees workers with disabilities as less capable. Employing them is considered a gesture of corporate benevolence. Our culture has yet to understand that a qualified and inclusive workforce, in all its variations, enriches society. Until that really happens, we will all be poorer.
Someone may say they would be willing to consider qualified disabled workers, but they are can't find any. That may be true. I remember a time when similar reasons were presented about women in what we used to call non-traditional jobs. Training! Job-shadowing, cooperative work programs, internships and assisted apprenticeships. These are ways to change things and build an inclusive workforce that is capable and willing to include people with disabilities on equal footing as the rest of the workforce.
As I said earlier, I used to be program officer for the federal government's employment commission. In 1990, I worked with the Radio and Television Arts program (RTA) at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, Canada, to promote and reserve seats for students with disabilities. It did not succeed. Not many young people with disabilities could meet the prerequisites of the program. Others who could meet the criteria did not even consider the RTA program. That's where role models, promotion of broadcasting at high school career fairs, and assistance to meet program entrance criteria come into play.
Let me return the example of women: many women in the early 1960s did not even
consider professions that were the traditional domains of men (physicians, lawyers, broadcasters, and the trades). But over time, that changed. Today, many law schools and medical schools are dominated by women. They are some of our finest legal, medical and scientific minds. Look how much richer society is now!
And so I pose another question: How much are we missing by not developing, encouraging, and promoting the potential and talents of people with disabilities?