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How the Pandemic Helped a Disability Journalist Find Her Groove

Photo of Woman Sitting on Bed While Using Black Laptop.

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Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a journalist specializing in health and disability. Her work features in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses her platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people. Here, she shares how virtual events can make public speaking more accessible.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many people faced a learning curve as they adapted to remote work or school. But as a disabled freelance journalist, I’d thrived under the added flexibility for just about two years. As events went virtual, doors began to open for me. I even spoke on a conference panel for the first time.

In May 2021, former chair of the Student Press Association and fellow disabled freelance journalist Charlotte Colombo asked me to appear on a panel she was chairing at the SPA’s National Conference. I’d get the chance to speak about my experiences reporting on disability issues.

Before the pandemic, I considered myself a semi-successful journalist and disability activist. But it’s only through lockdown that I truly was able to gain the experience that would establish me in my field.

As someone with a host of chronic illnesses and disabilities—lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and celiac disease to name a few—I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t follow the typical newsroom career path. Freelance life worked for me. I could write from bed and nap when I became too fatigued.

But I watched from the sidelines as my non-disabled peers spoke at public events. These opportunities lifted them up as authorities in the journalism field, while I lagged behind.

My absence at these panels was through no fault of my own, they were just inaccessible to me. Traveling to a venue was physically exhausting and spiked my anxiety. Due to my illnesses, I’m never sure how much energy I’ll have at a given moment. Some days, I even struggle to get out of bed.

Because of audio processing issues associated with dyspraxia—a developmental disorder that can affect language processing—it can also be difficult to understand what others say or make myself coherently heard. At a live event, where there are, of course, no subtitles, this poses some issues.

In hindsight, video calling into a conference panel is a simple solution many of us could’ve implemented years ago. I’d turned down several panels over the years that involved traveling. But until this moment, it was never something I, nor the panel organizers I worked with, ever considered.

Here’s How the Virtual Panel Worked

Technology will always have glitches. The SPA panel, which took place over Zoom, was no different.

At first, the panelists were accidentally sent to the wrong Zoom room. But once we were situated in the right space, the rest of the event flowed smoothly. The discussion was accompanied by subtitles, so not only could I be understood, but it meant I could follow along too.

Myself and Charlotte were joined on the panel by Hannah Shewan Stevens and Claudia Walder, two other disabled journalists. We spoke candidly about our struggles in everyday life and in our industries. As four disabled people, without the accessibility accommodations normalized by the pandemic, none of us would have been able to speak on that panel.

For me, the greatest benefit of an online panel was the ability to join in from my bed. During the first few months of the pandemic, I grew accustomed to taking meetings from the same spot. This helped me overcome my worries that I might be judged and labeled “lazy” for taking work calls from the bedroom.

The pandemic managed to highlight that there are many productive ways to work other than sitting at a desk. And for me, it’s lying in bed propped up on pillows with a bamboo lap desk.

Taking this call from my own space made the experience much less taxing than if it had taken place in person. The ability to mute my mic meant I didn’t have to worry about my breathing becoming too rapid and loud because of my anxiety. I could take a minute to calm down without disrupting the conversation.

Physically, I felt comfortable and accepted. Part of it was being in a shared space with other disabled panelists and attendees. But I also believe the pandemic made people more understanding of others’ needs without as much judgment.

You Can Do It Too

Getting your voice out there in your field doesn’t always have to be physical.

If you’re disabled and are speaking at an event from home for the first time, don’t worry. No one is going to judge you for doing it your way.

My advice? If you’re prone to memory blanks under pressure (like me), jot down a few notes and points you want to include beforehand. When the nerves first hit, these notes can prove particularly useful.

Remember, you can always mute the mic when you need to. Take your time, speak honestly, and enjoy yourself—the rest will follow.

Once the event finished, it finally hit me that I’d just taken part in a national conference from the comfort of my bed—which I never imagined possible. In just over a year, I’d gone from someone starting out in their field to a respected name who was called on to speak at events. And it was all because now, I actually could.

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