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Disabled Finally Making Inroads on Television

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, February 3, 2004.

Andrew Cardozo is a public policy analyst. He was a CRTC commissioner from October, 1997 to October, 2003.

Don Peuramaki made history recently.

Peuramaki is an experienced Toronto film producer who for years has argued that television should include and reflect Canadians with disabilities in programming, whether on the news, in drama or in documentaries.

He just thought television should include the 3.6 million Canadians whose activities are limited because of disabilities.

I first met Peuramaki at a conference in Toronto in 2002 when I was a commissioner at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. He was concerned that the issue, addressed by a parliamentary committee in 1988 in a landmark report called "No news is bad news," had long since fallen off the table.

I conceded that it had, and that at the time the commission had no plans to put it back on the table. I explained how people got things on the CRTC agenda, and advised him to pursue the matter by taking every opportunity to push and prod this taxpayer-supported, federally empowered regulatory body.

Peuramaki kept up a low-key but dogged fight.

He made a convincing submission to the CRTC in May last year when licences for a number of specialty networks were up for renewal.

At that hearing, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) was asked what it thought of the issue. It seemed to be caught off guard but said its Social Issues Committee would investigate the matter in more detail.

The reality is that the CAB has been giving this issue some thought, thanks to Valerie Morisette. She and her husband, Pierre, own Pelmorex, the parent company of the Weather Network, and its French-language counterpart, Meteomeida.

Morisette is in charge of human resources for the company and made it her mission to better reflect the cultural diversity of Canada on the weather channel.

She is the reason you see so many visible minority and aboriginal hosts on the weather channel, even though weather has no special significance to cultural diversity. Minorities face the same temperatures as everyone else.

At some point during the last two years, Peuramaki and Morisette connected and made common cause. Having achieved what she set out to do with regard to racial and aboriginal diversity, she set her sights on disability issues for Pelmorex and the industry at large.

Credit, too, Chris Stark, another unrepentant advocate from Ottawa who has been after broadcasters to provide television accessible to the blind and sight-impaired.

A couple of years ago, when Pelmorex was up for its licence renewal, Stark focused on the need for the company to provide weather news that could be "heard."

So, for example, instead of a weather person saying, "A cold front is coming in here from up there" while pointing to different regions, the host needs to say, "A cold front is coming into southern Ontario from northern Manitoba."

During that process, the Morisettes worked hard to understand and respond to Stark's views. Along the way, Valerie Morisette realized there was something her company could do about the visual representation as well.

To complete the circle, the CRTC issued renewed licences to several specialty networks two weeks ago and concurrently issued a new policy for all television networks.

The licensees renewed are quite exciting from a disability perspective: CTV Newsnet, History Television, the Comedy Network, HGTV, Treehouse, Prime, The

Score and Rogers SportsNet. Think about disability issues in relation to news, history, humour, children, seniors and sport.

The CRTC asked the CAB to report back within six months with an industry-wide approach on disability reflection, instructed broadcasters to include disability issues in their cultural diversity plans--which they have had to develop since around 2001. The CRTC also asked broadcasters to report annually on their progress in this regard, starting December of this year.

Some of the credit obviously goes to the CRTC. But most of the kudos belongs to Peuramaki who demonstrated that one person could take on the federal regulator and the broadcasting industry and get them on side.

For all that I say, "Good on you, Don Peuramaki. So what if it only took 15 years!"

Photo (left): Head shot of this article's author, Andrew Cardozo.

Photo (right): Head shot of Don Peuramaki.