Awesome Humans 04 Aug
What it’s like to be a disabled journalist
An interview with Olivia Shivas
Olivia Shivas is passionate about empowering disabled people. As a wheelchair user and being mixed-race (Chinese/Malaysian and European), she understands what it means to experience prejudice. However, she has used her experiences to positively influence and invest in to others, such as running the volunteer radio station at Starship Children’s Hospital.
She was one of the first disabled models included at New Zealand Fashion Week and is a member of All is for All, an accessible media, communications and talent agency. She is a trained journalist and works as a digital producer at one of the biggest news organisations in New Zealand.
We sat down with Olivia to discuss her role as a journalist and how we change the media landscape from the inside out.
- Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you decided to become a journalist?
I did a Bachelor in Communication Studies at AUT in Auckland, and I did a postgrad Honours in international journalism at the University of Helsinki in Finland. I'm now working as a digital producer in the newsroom at one of the biggest news organisations in New Zealand.
I wanted to become a journalist because I always enjoyed telling stories, performing and making movies/radio shows as a kid. I never saw any relatable stories about disabled people growing up, so I wanted to become a journalist to see better representation in the media. It's important for young people to see themselves represented in the media they consume as it expands their possibilities and potential in life.
- Often, we see articles that use language like "suffers from" or "bound to" to describe peoples disabilities and mobility devices; why do you think these terms are still preferred over the evolving language that the disability community uses and do you ever have conversations with journalists that use language like that?
I think we still see those negative words because they have always been used in the past, so people still use them out of habit and because of their own ableism (even if they don't realise it). With so many repetitive negative stories about disabled people, they keep using the same words. And from a journalist's perspective, it is easy to chuck on a label like 'wheelchair-bound' because it is visually descriptive, and the average non-disabled reader knows what that means. But it doesn't mean that it is the right language to use. Journalists need to make a more conscious decision with their language not to reinforce those negative stereotypes.
I still see those negative stereotypes used in articles - from the news organisation I work at and others. If I do see negative stereotypes reinforced and know of alternative language that could be used instead, I mention it to the journalist or news director who published the story. I believe journalists don't want to reinforce negative stereotypes, but they are usually ignorant because, like most people, they haven't had positive exposure to disability. So I do my best to educate them and suggest how they could reframe the story without taking away from the work they have already put into the story.
I have also given workshops and put together resources for my news organisation on how they can avoid ableism and negative stereotypes about disability in their work.
- What has been the biggest change in the media landscape becoming more inclusive that you've noticed since you started working in a newsroom?
I don't think it's the 'big things that always make the most impactful difference in the newsroom, but the everyday little things. For example, just the fact that I am a wheelchair user in the newsroom and am outspoken about disability issues around my colleagues makes a difference in how they perceive disability. They will often ask me how they would frame a story or word in a particular sentence - and I think that makes a big difference to disabled and non-disabled people reading that story.
In terms of physical inclusivity, since I started working at the company I do, they made changes to ensure the newsroom was accessible. I can be comfortable around the office and do my job with dignity. Things like making sure the taps in the kitchen are easy to reach from my wheelchair make a difference.
- What stories do you think the media needs to be covering and talking about when it comes to disability.
There are a lot of fundamental human rights issues that disabled people face that are not often talked about in the media - such as access to affordable and safe housing and equal access to education for children. Unfortunately, many of these issues come down to a lack of resources and awareness, but the gatekeepers in charge of these inaccessible systems need to be held more accountable.