Race and the media

I’ve been thinking since the Harry and Meghan interview and the subsequent debate sparked by the nonsensical claim from the Society of Editors that UK media isn’t bigoted.

An (older, male) editor once asked why I wanted to be an ‘Asian journalist’ when I started out in newspapers (to be clear – the question didn’t need the word ‘Asian’ in it). Later, I was asked to write about arranged marriages as the editor thought this was a topic I ‘must surely know about’. It wasn’t, nor was in my reporting brief, so I declined.

How can any professional body say there’s no bigotry in the sector it represents? There have been so many examples of questionable headlines and reporting, and obviously journalists of colour have had – and continue to have – far worse experiences than the two personal ones I’ve just shared (today, these might be called ‘unconscious bias’?).

The Society of Editors’ board has issued a new statement to clarify the original from Monday. The original ‘did not reflect what we all know: that there is a lot of work to be done in the media to improve diversity and inclusion’.

And that should be diversity of all kinds.

The press awards, in which I was shortlisted for my work on disability issues, have rightly been postponed. Several excellent journalists and news organisations had pulled out, as well as the awards host.

Along with many other journalists of colour, I added my name to two open letters calling for more action on the issue.


Reporting diversity

‘You don’t get kisses, Mummy, you don’t get hugs.’ Jack Cavanagh, on a beach in his younger days, has autism, a learning disability and epilepsy, and lives in secure care in south Wales (photo: Cavanagh family)

I’m delighted to have been shortlisted for the Society of Editors’ Press Awards in the ‘reporting diversity’ category.

I’m in fine, strong company in the category and delighted that the Society of Editors is considering the issue of diversity in all its forms.

The articles I’ve been shortlisted for have all been published by The Guardian, and they focus on the brutal impact of Covid on disabled people and their families. The pieces show how the pandemic intensifying the huge inequality already faced by part of our population.

The shortlisted pieces are:

My sister has a learning disability and I can’t visit her because of Coronavirus

Coronavirus restrictions have robbed disabled people of their independence

‘My fear is he’ll never come home’: the learning disabled people locked away in lockdown

I’m privileged to work with people and families and report on these vital issues. I’m also grateful for a supportive, thoughtful and sensitive commissioning editor, Alison Benjamin, who commissioned me to write these articles for The Guardian’s Society pages.

Read more about the awards here.

All learning disabled people should get the covid vaccine

Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

Imagine the anxiety of knowing you are at a greater risk of dying from the Coronavirus but are at the back of the queue for a life-saving vaccination and, if hospitalised, doctors might decide not to save your life.

This is what learning disabled people are facing in this pandemic. They are the hardest hit, yet the impact on their mental health is being overlooked.

I wrote this article for Byline Times on how the government is ignoring the impact of Covid on learning disabled people like my sister Raana.

Covid recovery ignores disabled people

Covid-19 exacerbates existing barriers to inclusion for disabled people. Image: RSA

Debates about Covid-19 recovery and economic renewal ignore disabled people. This is shameful given that even before the virus, the UK’s 7.7 million working-age disabled people already faced significant inequalities.

I wrote this opinion piece for the RSA Journal.

The Forgotten Learning Disabled Soldiers of World War One

A World War One battlefield in 1914. Photo: PA/PA Archive/PA Images

Arthur Pew was a lance corporal in World War One, serving in the 19th Kings Royal Rifles Corps. Trusted with responsibility for his fellow men, he commanded and organised other soldiers and was a skilled member of a specialist firearms regiment.

Yet, as remarkable new research published today shows, Pew also had a learning disability. And, before he signed up, he was regarded as incapable of contributing to society and was segregated from his fellow men in an institution.

The ‘Hidden History of the Labour Corps in the First World War: Contributions to the War Effort Made by People with Learning Disabilities’ shows how Pew joined the army from an asylum where – in language of the time recorded in the National Archives in Kew – he “was considered to be a mental deficient”.

You can read the full piece in the Byline Times here.

The learning disabled people locked away in lockdown

‘You don’t get kisses, Mummy, you don’t get hugs.’ Jack Cavanagh, on a beach in his younger days, has autism, a learning disability and epilepsy, and lives in secure care in south Wales.

After a year in secure care 105 miles from home, Jack Cavanagh, 17, who has autism, a learning disability and epilepsy, desperately misses his family. They used to see him every weekend, but with Covid restrictions have been unable to visit. As a result, they say, Jack has become more anxious and isolated and recently begged staff to “be” his mum or dad.

I spoke to several families including Jack’s, about how the use of restraint and isolation has increased during Covid. This group of people have been overlooked during the pandemic despite the fact they are more at risk thanks to the virus.

You can read my Guardian piece here.

Coronavirus restrictions have robbed disabled people of their independence

I wrote a personal piece for the Guardian about how Covid-19 is impacting disabled people and families.

Coronavirus has thrust us all into a new normal. Life has come to feel the same yet different. However, for some communities Covid has undermined their very ethos.

My youngest sister Raana, who has a learning disability, has lived in a supported living community in Hampshire for 10 years. We chose the charity that runs her home for its values. It creates a sense of belonging and purpose, focuses on abilities and is governed by the belief that everyone has the right to be involved in society.

Covid-19 means that not only are the guiding principles of the charity are at risk, but my sister’s independence is being undermined.

You can read the piece on the Guardian website here.

The disability employment gap

“Not everyone with a learning disability wants to work in a supermarket, but jobs for learning-disabled people aren’t ever talked about in terms of professions. If they were, it could change how everyone sees us.”

Veteran campaigner Gary Bourlet, co-founder of Learning Disability England, says people should have not just a job but also a career. This, as he argues in my book Made Possible, stories of success by people with learning disabilities, would have a dramatic impact on public attitudes.

Meanwhile, as a young man, Michael Edwards quit the council-run day centre he attended because he was frustrated with the menial and mind-numbingly dull “work” he was given to do. The final straw was when Edwards discovered the centre staff had been mixing up the plastic components he had spent an entire morning sorting into boxes, just so he would have a job to do in the afternoon.

I wrote for Learning Disability Today about why learning disabled people have the right to meaningful paid work as much as anyone else.

These issues are even more pressing issue now that COVID-19 has intensified the inequalities faced by learning disabled people in everything from health and wellbeing to employment. We already know that successive welfare-to-work schemes have not really helped people with learning disabilities or been specifically aimed at them.

Read the rest of the piece here and find out more about my book here.

LIFE IN lockdown limbo

Raana (left) with me at her 30th birthday last year. She lives in supported living in Hampshire.

Most of us are now emerging from lockdown and acclimatising to the “new normal” we find ourselves living in. From this week, we can go to a beauty salon or gym, and care homes visits are on the horizon.

But my learning disabled sister, Raana, is untouched by the easing of restrictions. Raana lives in supported living, in a shared house in Hampshire with help from care staff during the day. Thanks to a lack of any government guidance on coronavirus for supported living, she’s living in a parallel universe.

Without clear rules on what she should or should not be doing, her carers are – understandably – keeping tight restrictions on her movements. Raana is in lockdown limbo.

Read the rest of my piece in the Independent

Saba Salman on social affairs