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Blind Journalists Get The Scoop

Editor's Note: One of the liveliest presentations during the Thursday morning session was a panel of two blind journalism students. Elizabeth Rotenberg and Marty Cutting are two living examples of what we mean when we say that blind people can compete on equal terms given the right training, a positive attitude and a fair opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. Here is what they had to say to the convention. Elizabeth began the presentation.

I think I wanted to go first because my nerves couldn't handle waiting any longer. I'm honored to have been chosen to speak today. I'm really glad that I found the National Federation of the Blind because I've always been very positive about my blindness. I've always been very proud about being blind. All through my life it's been hard to find others who agree with me and it's just wonderful to be here and meet all of you with similar attitudes.

I'll just tell you a little bit about myself. I'm a student at the University of Victoria. I've been going there for seven years and this is my last term. It's been a long haul, but I'm almost there. I've been doing a double major in writing and anthropology and I'm in the co-operative education program at UVIC. It combines academic studies with a four-month work term, and you do four of those to complete the co-op. I've done two of them and have two more to do. I thought I'd start with an anecdote.

My first launch into writing was at the end of high school. I went to an interview with Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS). The person who was interviewing me raised the topic of career plans. I mentioned that I wanted to be a journalist. He said, Well, instead of being a journalist, why don't you be a psychologist because blind people listen so well. That really re-enforced to me the stereotypes that still exist in society about blindness and what blind people are capable of doing. The irony was that the counsellor was also visually impaired. I really think it's important that not only sighted people view us as capable but that we ourselves view us as capable. I think that's really the most important thing, if we have pride in what we do, that will really get us far.

I'll tell you a little bit about the writing experience I've had. I have written for both Camosun and UVIC newspapers. I did some volunteer work written on student issues. I've also volunteered in many areas, but for writing I've volunteered at the Status of Women Action Group a few summers ago. I did profiles on women and their careers which were published in their newsletter. That was a really rewarding experience.

My first paid employment was very exciting. It was my first co-op term and I worked for the ministry of Health, Communications Division. I wrote employees' newsletters and what you could call the government form of journalism--if you can call it journalism--fact sheets, press releases, and that kind of thing. It really got me into the work world and boosted my confidence.

The following summer I worked for the B.C. Forest Service Protection Program. That agency was dealing with forest fires. It's an area I never thought I'd be involved in, but it was actually very exciting. I got to ride a helicopter over a forest fire. I produced and wrote Fire Line Magazine which came out every week. It was exciting to interview people on the fire line. I worked with another co-op student in a job share experience.

For interviews I use a tape recorder. There are pros and cons to doing that. It takes a long time to listen to tapes over again, but the good part is that you can focus on what the person is saying and relax and listen rather than taking so many notes. I write my questions down on my Type 'n' Speak so I can read them.

Unfortunately, I'm not a Braille user because I was not taught Braille until high school. I guess I didn't practice enough so I never got very fast.

I do a lot of phone interviews. It works best with short interviews. I use a device that tape records the phone conversation. It works sometimes, but the speech is sometimes a little quiet, so I'm looking around for a better device. Sometimes I use a speaker phone and a tape recorder.

Another problem is that you have to make sure the tape is working. I've had a few nightmarish experiences where I came home very excited and proud of myself after an hour-long interview and found there was nothing on the tape. It's not fun to have to call the person back and say Can I interview you again, please? I always make sure the tape's working now, even if it slows things down a bit.

I also handled the transportation problem in a variety of ways. With the Status of Women job I asked the women to come to a central location where I had an office. They met me and I knew the bus route to that place. It worked out very well and the women were very open to doing that. In my last job, my co-worker drove. Sometimes we did assignments together. I guess I view independence as sometimes being mutual assistance. She could help me with certain things and I could help her with other things.

I use my scanner a lot to read things on the job, particularly if I have to read them very fast. I'm just given a photocopied sheet,I find my scanner works well for that: It doesn't work so well for volumes and volumes of material. For school I always use human readers.For the job I haven't done that yet. I was really intrigued by Mary Ellen Gabias' talk about using readers for work. I have not done that yet at work, but maybe I will in the future. Sometimes people give me information on disk.

The Internet is something I'm just beginning to learn how to use. I know it will be an asset for me for doing research. I can't wait to get better at using that. Desktop publishing and photography are two courses that are required in journalism. I took the easy way out and didn't do those courses. Looking back, I guess I would advise any journalism student that it's probably best to at least audit the courses. You need the theory so you know what's going on when people are talking about these things. The closest I've been to a picture at work was writing captions for the pictures. I would get someone to describe them to me. It would be kind of interesting to see what I could come up with not having seen the picture.

I've been very fortunate with the last two employers I've had. They've been very positive and open to learning. They always say it's been a mutual learning experience for both of us. I've felt very comfortable, so I think I've been very lucky in that regard.

When I go to a job interview I don't just say Hey, I'm blind. I say, I'm blind and I can read with a scanner and I have talking computers. I provide solutions. It's less work for them because they don't have to think as much about how I'm going to do something and they know I'm an innovative person. Coming up with solutions and alternative techniques is a real bonus. I present myself in a positive and confident manner. That always puts other people at ease and gets me a lot farther.

Even with the people I interview, it's a good technique. Sometimes they might be a bit hesitant at first. Once I explain the situation I've had very little problem. Legally, I have to ask them if they mind if I tape them anyway. That's a good introduction to explaining a bit about my vision.

That's all I have to say today except to thank you for the opportunity to speak. It's been a great conference so far. Congratulations to everyone who's organized it. Thank you.

*Editor's note: President Gabias next introduced Marty Cutting, a first-year journalism student at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto. Here is what Marty had to say.

Thank you, Dr. Paul. I'm Marty Lee Cutting. I'll start by telling you I went blind about five years ago near the end of high school. It made me reconsider a lot of things. I thought that my dream of becoming a journalist was null and void now. I was going to sit in my house and become a recluse and watch reruns of Oprah . When you're going through surgeries you have a lot of time alone to think. I just wasn't ready to give up.

I wrote on my application to Ryerson Polytechnic University that The only two things I've ever wanted to do in my life were to play center for the Toronto Maple Leafs and to become a journalist. I must have impressed them because the University lets one hundred and fifty students worldwide into the journalism program and they accepted me. We have a lady from Prague, Czech Republic. We have a lady from Poland. We have people from all over the world who come to Ryerson just to take this journalism program. In Ontario, the only two universities that offer it are Ryerson in Toronto and Carlton in Ottawa. So a lot of people get turned down. I just was one of the lucky ones. Every day I count my blessings.

One thing I love about the NFB:AE is hearing stories like Sandi's. When I'm sitting in my residence room and I'm crying because I have ten assignments due, and I haven't read my chapters for the next day's class, and I say Woe is me! I always know that there is someone out there who's an inspiration. Maybe I don't have it as bad as some other people.

I guess I'll tell you a little bit about the university. One of the most important things I've found--and this is so simple I don't know why people haven't caught on to this--is to become friends with your professors. We have pretty small classes with about fifty people in a regular class. By the end of the semester some teachers don't even know some of the students' names. I find that if I introduce myself, become friends, talk to them daily, before I know it they're calling me by my first name. I get the inside scoop on what's going on that day in class.

Usually I have a seven-hour reporting lab on Tuesdays. Monday I go into the teacher's office and get the daily plan for the next day so I can go about doing the work beforehand to prepare myself a little bit. It's such an important thing, especially at the Journalism Department at Ryerson. They've been totally awesome with accepting a blind student because they've never really had experience with a blind student. For them, it's a give and take. I don't know everything I can't do and they don't know what I need. It's a feeling out process for both of us. If you have that one-on-one relationship with your teachers, it just makes it that much easier.

Personality has a lot to do with things. If you can show people that you can do what you can do and become part of a team, that also makes things easier. In my four-hour radio broadcast class we have two teams of ten people. We all have to work. Some people have to go out and get the interviews, some people have to stay in the studio and write, some people have to host and read the whole newscast.

The last class I had before coming out to Vancouver, I was a host.I was sitting in the studio with the microphone on and all the technical people were in the back. Everybody was totally stressed out. I was there by five to five, ready to do my business. They wanted to do a mic level on me and so they told me, Ok, Marty, say something. I didn't know what to say, I was speechless, I had my mind on my newscast.So they said Do anything, sing! I started to sing Rainbow Connection by Kermit. It cut the tension.

Speaking of Kermit, he has been one of my heroes all of my life. I can still remember when I was five and six years old watching Kermit on Sesame Street delivering the Sesame Street Flash News in his gray trenchcoat and his little derby hat. Maybe that's why I want to be a journalist.

There's another neat aspect in getting into Ryerson. I had applied three or four times and got let down every time. A few of those times were back high school when I could see. I guess when I went blind I sat down and thought What do I have to do to get here? I didn't have that much experience. I decided I had to go get experience, so I took a grade 12 co-op class and got a placement at the Brant News in Brantford, Ontario.

There was a lot of changes during my placement. The editor who actually hired me got fired when someone else bought the newspaper. One of the reporters moved up to the editor's spot. I was told by the editor when I went to get my letter of recommendation for Ryerson that he asked the first editor What are you doing taking on this blind person? I just don't see it happening! By the end of my term Peter, who was the new editor, wrote me a fabulous letter saying things like I have to remind myself sometimes that Marty is blind. That's one of the greatest compliments I got at work there. He really let the Ryerson faculty know that the only thing I couldn't do was see. I felt really good about that work experience and the nice family atmosphere there. It boosted my confidence for going out and doing interviews.

Another thing I can say about blindness in the journalism field is that a lot of people look at journalists as ambulance chasers and scoundrels. It's really hard to get people to open up. The thing I find about being blind, is that it makes the person you're interviewing see you as more human because you're trying to persevere in this career that's dominated by sighted people. I know, for instance, that one lesson they teach you in journalism school is not to become too personal during your interview. I don't agree with that. I had one experience interviewing Larry Gowan, the Canadian music artist. I went into the back room where he was performing that night before the concert. He was so interested in how I did what I did being blind. I just told him my whole life story. It was a give and take process. I think I got one of my best interviews from Larry Gowan. He was a little more open to talking to someone that had gone through a little bit more and had struggled through life like he had done in the music industry.

My greatest memory of that time was that he asked me for my favorite song. Larry Gowan was one of my big influences and it was a great honor to interview this guy. I told him the song I liked. He was surprised to find out it was a song that wasn't a single. You hear singles every day on the radio over and over again until you get sick of them. The song I like was not a single, so he was really surprised. He pulled out his guitar and began singing it for me. It wasn't like he was singing around a campfire. He belted that song out as if he were performing on stage. He sang it just for me. I was blown away by that.

You asked about getting around to do stories as a blind journalist. At Ryerson I find I'm so busy that I don't have time to think. There isn't time to think Maybe I should get help going places. I get my assignment and I'm on the bus. I don't know exactly where I'm going, but I'm going straight. I get there somehow. It's really amazing.

I had to do an interview for the Horseshoe Tavern's fiftieth anniversary. I had to go out at two o'clock when the class started. I had to be back by 3:30 to have my interview tape edited, spliced, and everything written for five o'clock. I had to go to the Horseshoe Tavern, Much Music, and CFNY in that time. I was running everywhere. Those are the times I forget I'm blind. I have to slow down. I finally got back. The interview went really well. The broadcast did too.

I try to get as much help as possible from the Access Center at Ryerson. Due to the funding cutbacks, they're not always able to send somebody out on short notice. Sometimes it's either doing it on your own and learning by trial and error or not getting it done. Learning by trial and error is important. You can only learn what you don't know by finding out you don't know it. When it comes to readers, it's always nice to have as many people on your floor as possible, or other friends from anywhere. Then you can ask Can you help me out for an hour? Usually people have been really good at saying they'll help. Maybe they're really busy, but there's usually someone around who will give a helping hand. I try to have a ready store of ten people I can phone to ask for help with research or finding things in the Metro Toronto Resource Library. There are a lot of people who aren't scared of blindness and want to help. Many people say they admire me for what I do. I don't understand that, because I'm just me.

Toronto is a great city. It's busy--one of the media hotbeds in Canada. Things happen every day. You just go with it. There's never any shortage of information or articles or stories. It's been fabulous that I could get into this program and succeed.

To get back to Dr. Paul's story about my NFB article. I phoned him because I was doing an article for my introductory class. This teacher has been working for twenty-five years in the business of journalism at the Toronto Star , the Brantford Expositor , the Hamilton Spectator , the Toronto Sun . She has a wealth of knowledge. It's hard to get an A in her class. She doesn't give anything an A unless it's from Peter Mansbridge. Due to the nature of our relationship I have an advantage over the other students, because she tells me exactly what's good and bad about my work. Other students go in and get their papers and read her comments.

I wrote on the NFB and the sighted world's misconception of the blind. She said that the article really touched her and that it was well-written. She wanted me to do a couple more rewrites so that she could try to sell it to a magazine for me. Needless to say, I got one of the only B's in the class. Everybody else got C's and D's. It meant a lot to me because I'm finally gaining the respect of my fellow journalism classmates. They're seeing that my work can compete with anybody's in the sighted world. I'm not just there on vacation. I'm not there because they feel sorry for me. I'm there because I do the work and I do it to the best of my ability.