While last week's political turmoil dominated the news cycle in the British press, The Daily Mirror ran a week-long campaign promoting stories about the lives of disabled people.
'Disabled Britain: Doing It For Ourselves' featured stories in both the print paper and the online website. It was guest-edited by Rachel Charlton-Dailey, the founder and editor of The Unwritten, a publication catering to, and written by, disabled people.
Charlton-Dailey says that her publication was formed during the pandemic, as freelance disabled journalists, like herself, were told their stories were not newsworthy enough despite six in 10 people dying from covid-19 in England and Wales were disabled. Add to that editors constantly trying to make these journalists reveal more of their disabilities than they were comfortable, in the quest to find a new angle.
The Unwritten is a publication where disabled people can tell their own stories without reducing them to inspirational stories or sharing their trauma. She says: "It’s unfortunate I had to found my own publication to get [fair] stories out, but it was the only way we could do it."
Changing the narrative
She then got her chance to do something similar on a national level. She pursued a week-long series with The Daily Mirror's features editor Nick Webster, with the pair spending the last two months finding contributors and planning content.
"We wanted to show a complex picture of what disability is like and we wanted to help people understand what it’s like to be disabled," says Charlton-Dailey, adding that the main goal was to show the realities of life as a disabled person, rather than the stereotypes that are pedalled in the media, like the abundance of benefit fraud stories.
The series considered a few topics must-cover. Like holding the government to account for how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failures were linked to the deaths of disabled people, the impact of the cost of the living crisis on disabled people, and also normalising natural curiosities like sex when you are disabled.
Day 5 of #DisabledBritain and were in the middle of the @DailyMirror paper again! Lead by @PenPep writing about her mission to make disabled sex accepted and @RunJumpStefReid on how her amputation made her love her body pic.twitter.com/h6sozs4tvR— Rachel Charlton-Dailey 💖💜💙 (@RachelCDailey) July 8, 2022
Overall, the objective was not to worry about making sure every type of disability was featured. Real life opinions and experiences are what mattered most.
"People shouldn’t have to give their medical diagnoses every time they talk about disabilities, that’s not how the world should work," she adds.
The series did aim to 'demand the Government consult with disabled people before making any decision that affects their lives'. While stories on the DWP have put scrutiny on the government, there is more work to do around this objective.
"Although we haven’t requested that of the government this week, through the DWP article and others which talk about how hard it’s been for disabled people, we will get to that point hopefully. This isn’t the end for Disabled Britain stories and making our voices heard."
Finding the right voices was another challenge for the series, as not all the pitches were suitable. Contributors ranged from recognised writers, well-known politicians and ordinary people living with disabilities. They had actually turned down quite a big potential writer because their vision and angle was not "in the spirit of the campaign".
"Even though it would have got a lot of attention because this person was such a big campaigner, it wasn't the right attention we wanted."
That is where it helps to have editors with lived experience. Amazingly, The Daily Mirror team gave Charlton-Dailey full autonomy to sense-check and gut-check all headlines, pictures, captions and copy before going live - journalists rarely get a say in the headlines which represent their stories, and this can be a regular pain point when they feel it does a disservice to their story.
"I don’t think I’ve been ever asked to approve a headline before and I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to approve one," she said, adding that they hired disabled photographers wherever possible as well.
"Every single step of the way has had disabled people in mind, the headlines have been approved by me, [so that] nothing has come across as traumatic."
This is also her first successful pitch at guest editing for another publication. Differences in values with other media companies have meant that previous attempts to do similar series have not materialised.
For a series about the lives of disabled people, she admits that the news website could have been better in terms of helping those with disabilities access the stories.
Online stories had alt-text, captions on videos, read-only versions (built by a custom client), and audio versions of the stories. The paperwork involved prevented more options and is a lesson for next time.
In the future, she would like to see clearer and larger fonts on the website for visually impaired people. Highly animated adverts on the website can also be difficult for these people, as well as those with dyslexia, who can suffer from headaches and find it hard to focus as a result.
Charlton-Dailey is convinced of reassurances from The Daily Mirror that they will work on improving the accessibility of the website.
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