‘Oh, so you are telling me that you work for a newspaper?’
‘Yes,’ I reply.
‘Which department are you in? Advertising? Accounts? Or do you work as a sub-editor?’
‘No, I work as a reporter.’
‘A reporter?’ A look of disbelief follows.
Every single time, with every single person I introduce myself to, the conversation begins in the same manner. I cannot entirely blame people for their reactions. In a country where accessibility for people with disabilities is next to zero, and in a fast-paced job that demands mobility, it can definitely be difficult to imagine a physically disabled person, let alone someone with paraplegia who uses a wheelchair, working as a journalist.
Inevitably, people ask how I manage to write and file my reports.
The truth is, I was equally clueless about this when I first started working as a journalist.
I’m restless and easily bored, hate being indoors (especially in the evening), and love travelling. Even as an undergrad studying English Literature in Chennai, it was clear to me that I would study further to be a journalist. And then November 20, 2014 happened. I had never imagined, not even in my wildest dreams, that a casual outing with friends would lead to an accident that would leave me paralysed from the waist-down.
Was I traumatised and shattered? Undoubtedly. Yet, I was determined that the accident would not impact my education, career, or the dreams I had for my life. I was privileged enough to have supportive networks of friends, family and teachers, who helped me through two months of intense rehabilitation. I finished my degree without any breaks or gaps.
When the big question of ‘what next?’ came up, my sister and I convinced our parents, after many attempts, that I should try my hand at journalism.
My first job interview went terribly wrong. The media house itself was not disabled-friendly, I fumbled during the personal interview, and my worst nightmare turned into a reality when my name was missing from the ‘selected’ list. A series of sleepless nights followed, where I twisted and turned and worried whether any media firm would be willing to offer the job of a journalist to a 22-year-old woman with disabilities. When I did get recruited as a trainee sub-editor for a brief stint at a prominent newspaper firm, the job was fun, lively and great for a novice. Since it was a desk job, the work did not involve leaving the office, searching for story ideas or submitting articles. I knew I liked the work. Yet it lacked the challenging atmosphere and opportunities for reporting that I was eyeing.
Around a year ago, I shifted from Chennai to my hometown in Kerala and started working as a trainee reporter with a newspaper. But it was the wrong time to begin a new job — a series of unexpected health issues and the pressure to meet my own expectations at the workplace pushed me to the verge of a nervous breakdown. As a journalist, it was necessary for me to build contacts and create a circle of sources for my assigned beats of education, art, culture and lifestyle. Now, that’s something every journalist struggles with at the beginning– to meet and interact with the right people who can give you quotes and story suggestions and to maintain these contacts. To create a network, you have no choice but to be out in the field, at least during the initial phase. The only difference in my situation was that half of the places I went to for reporting were completely inaccessible for me, while the rest only had stop-gap provisions for people with disabilities.
Before I get into the details of how I go all over the city, I’d like to give you a little heads up on the kind of transport services available at the place where I live. The public transport system here is not disabled-friendly, which is not surprising, as the situation is no different in any other part of the country. We do not have Uber or a full-fledged Ola service here, so the online taxi system is not an option. Why not use a self-driven, modified car? That’s wish number three on my bucket list, waiting to be fulfilled. So, for the first couple of days, my father used to drop me off to the place where I had to report, and later pick me up when I was done with work. Now, I travel by auto or with the help of a taxi service called ‘She Taxi’, run by a handful of women.
From government offices, to private firms, to educational institutions, I have come across only a handful of places that provide ‘barrier–free’ provisions and are equipped with ramps, lifts with Braille buttons and disabled-friendly bathrooms. Once, when I had visited an established organisation that had rolled out much touted programmes for the disabled and often conducted awareness classes on the subject, I found that even their office lacked the basic provisions for accessibility. When I pointed out the irony to them, an official just smiled and replied, ‘We will soon look into the issue,’ where ‘soon’ definitely meant ‘not any time soon’.
Over the past fourteen months, I have learned and unlearned many strategies. Say I’m going to cover a technical fest in a college. I usually look up the details of the venue online to find out whether it is accessible or not. If yes, then good for me. If there is a flight of stairs at the entrance, making it inaccessible, I usually call up any of the programme organisers, explain to them that I use a wheelchair, and make sure they arrange for support at the venue. In the beginning, I used to hesitate to do this. How could I call a random person and explain the whole situation to them? Should I tell my interviewee that they were going to be interviewed by a disabled person? These doubts used to gnaw at me all the time. But over time, I realised that there was no point in being hesitant or too cautious about what people might think. At the end of the day, I had to get my work done, and could complete it only if I could access the places from where I had to report.
Luckily, I have not had any bad experiences while going out for reporting so far (fingers crossed). Yes, people do stare, especially when I am in the midst of an event like a school science or arts festival, asking a bunch of questions to students. People approach me and ask for details about my disability, and want to give me unsolicited advice. This used to be frustrate me in the beginning, but over time, I have gotten used to it. And then there are the people who assume I need help and push my wheelchair around without even asking my permission. To them, I explain the idea of consent. No means no, no matter what the situation is.
It amuses me when people tell me it is ‘inspiring’ to see a woman with a disability working as a journalist. I’d rather live in a world where this is not considered entirely unusual, and not just in journalism. I want to see people with disabilities employed across fields, whether it is films, medicine, engineering — the list is endless.
Ambika Raja completed her Post Graduation Diploma in Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She currently works with the New Indian Express. She loves music, books, movies and, of course, travelling.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal