When will disabled women in journalism get our Me Too moment?

Trigger warning: this article discusses in detail harassment, abuse and sexual assault of disabled women, including drink spiking and date rape. Please take care when reading

Every industry has grandiose ideas about its place in the world, matched by a sense of its own relevance; whatever that may be is exactly what recruits are told from the get-go, to bring them on side. 

Journalism is no different; the concept of ‘the watchdog’ for the underdog is embedded at a base level, ingrained everywhere you look. However, willingly lie to ourselves about the state of misogyny and harassment in this profession.

The false reality makes only for an eventual rude, bitter awakening. I’d believed wholeheartedly without questioning for such a long time; these days I want to hug that younger version of myself. 

How is it that we can claim, at all, to be a guardian for ‘members of the public’ – whatever that term may mean, as it’s become somewhat redundant of late – when we are incapable of policing ourselves? 

I’d seen this first as a student, starting with the very basic, low-grade churlishness; others had their stories of inappropriate propositions from authority figures, sources, and interviewees, who would persist beyond the obviously stated and set boundaries. 

There is the catcalling, the leechy behaviour, and the sleaze at every level.

It’s worth pointing out that almost every single female journalist I know of personally who has been subject to a form of inappropriate behaviour has been disabled. Yet we rarely if ever speak about this.

The length of a woman’s skirt is not ‘asking for it’ – why we still have to debate this is beyond me – and I will never forget my disgust when an individual in an educative position specifically made a point of referencing the clothing of women as a way to ‘keep safe’. 

Others opened up to me in time about their experiences – such as how the compulsion to fend off propositions with ‘my partner is waiting for me’, or drinks being spiked while out on assignment, being unable to remember but knowing something terrible had happened. 

A woman who was decades older than me needing comfort in the surrounding silence, to just cry, is something that is burned in my memory. This is normalised when it should not be. 

If we care about media diversity, then this ought to be tackled immediately. Other journalists have written extensively on how, for example, disabled women are more at risk of behaviours such as harassment and abuse – yet we don’t talk about it specifically in our industry. 

I have found myself without support when it came to my own experiences, too. I believe that I was subject to these experiences because I am female, and because I am disabled. I’d always use the question of ‘if I was a guy, and non-disabled, would this have happened?’ (Spoilers: probably not.) 

Be it inappropriate or rebuffed propositions – there was no support structure in place, not even at a basic, human level. The usual journalistic rumour mill works in overdrive sometimes – stay away from this organisation,  do not go to x event as they will be there.

Allegations made in private conversations have ranged from sleaze to the more serious. I’m not surprised or shocked any more, But I am tired beyond belief.

Trying to raise the alarm previously was met with me being deemed as hysterical – because “this is not unusual and is the same everywhere else, it is standard practice,” You watch, you warn the best you can. There’s not much else you can do. There is a constant weighing up of ‘is this worth it’ in breaking ranks. I don’t want to feel small any more. 

She Said, the book by the two reporters who broke the initial Harvey Weinstein story, speaks to an environment of what could arguably be described as retaliative measures, when it came to people questioning the patterns of disgusting behaviour. 

At times I’d felt there was a strong resemblance in that to what I’d experienced – and often felt like I was being punished for something I did not do. It was enough to contribute to significant levels of anxiety, made obvious by experiencing panic attacks – and enough to have a huge and ongoing health impact. 

The self ‘pep talks’ of psyching yourself up – to assemble your mask – are not fun. It teaches you to be wary, question everything, to not be trusting. I’d lost friends, key contacts, and probably income, too. 

I have never felt angry, not until now. The behaviours I see and hear of, through reliable disabled female journalists, are utterly infantile and sometimes shocking to the extreme; there is blatant hypocrisy. 

‘It’s the media’ shouldn’t be an excuse any more – but any kind of outspoken behaviour is often penalised in trying to address this. 

The idea of diversifying the media is great as a concept – but in not tackling harassment from the get-go, and failing to be honest that we are imperfect, arguably acts as a barrier to aspiring disabled journalists. 

Media diversity has a systematic structure issue in place because of the behaviour of a few. Why should we even bother? Because to tell the truth, in all of its ugly, hideous glory, is why we do it. 

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