Beyond alt text: a conversation with journalist Hannah Wise on how newsrooms can better serve the disability community

By Catherine Komp,

NCLocal Editor

In North Carolina, 1 in 3 adults, or nearly 2.5 million people live with a disability — higher than the national average of 1 in 4.  

“I think that in any sort of beat there are disability stories to be told,” says Hannah Wise.

But Wise saw a gap. Besides ASU’s National Center on Disability and Journalism, there were few resources to help newsrooms better cover disability issues and make their websites, digital products and events more accessible. 

Wise developed a solution: the Disability Matters toolkit. It’s a living document that she created during a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Wise is assistant managing editor for engagement and experimentation at the Kansas City Star and I had the opportunity to chat with her earlier this week. 

Wise uses “identify first” (disabled person) versus “person first” (person with a disability) language for her own disability, and recommends all journalists ask a source’s preference at the beginning of each interview. 

"A portrait of Hannah Wise, smiling slightly, wearing dark rimmed glasses, a green sleeveless top and long wavy red hair in front of a dark background."
Hannah Wise

CK: What motivated you to develop the Disability Matters guide?

HW: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in February of 2015, and it was something that sort of threw me into the deep end of understanding disability, both from a health perspective, but then over time, from my journalistic perspective. Obviously my personal health and well-being and navigating this complex chronic illness came first. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I was at SRCCON and talking with some other disabled journalists and being like, “Ok, I know a lot about this thing that a lot of people don’t know about, it’s just become so a part of who I am. Everybody could use some help with this and I don’t see an existing toolkit.  

There’s the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School that has a style guide and some resources, but it’s not as comprehensive as someone might want. So I saw an opportunity to try to pitch creating something to the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) for their fellowship. I’d finished grad school and at the time I was working at the New York Times, and I’ve always been a little bit of a type A overachiever. I was like, I really think that now is the time for me to get smarter about this thing that I know a little bit about, and to provide this sort of public service to the industry. Both for my peers within journalism, but also within the disability community, because I heard from a lot of friends that they would be so tired feeling like every time they talked to a reporter they had to do the educating for the reporter because there wasn’t something that helped them prepare. That was really motivating. 

And I was like 50/50 on whether RJI would actually select me. So I was really, really pleased when they selected me. I’d like to put in a plug for them. If you’ve got an idea that you want time and support to think big about and make something, the RJI fellowship is absolutely worth it. It really gave me that freedom and flexibility and I’m really proud of the work. 

In your introduction, you write that journalists are “woefully unprepared to produce journalism that represents the people that make up the [disability] community and their needs.” And that part of this is society’s “discomfort with discussing disability and accessibility openly.” 

What’s at the root of this? And how can better journalism help to change this?

There’s a really layered reason why. When you think through history, people who were disabled or experiencing any sort of difference have always been tucked away or hidden. I think that this is both because of journalism — we are creating that first draft of history — and if we aren’t comfortable engaging with something that is different or unfamiliar to us, then how would we expect the people in our neighborhoods to? That’s why within the toolkit, I included some timelines and some greater historic touch points for folks to know that one, the idea of eugenics or castrating disabled people, didn’t happen that long ago, in America, or anywhere else. And we see the results of that still today play out in our politics, in our culture, in all sorts of ways.  

The uncomfortable feeling that people get talking about health, something that is very personal, very intimate, I think is also at play here. You don’t want to insult someone, you don’t want to ask about something that they’re not comfortable talking about. 

I think about my grandmother’s generation of women trying to be in the workplace, and being fired for being pregnant. Those are all parts of this sort of history and this weird feeling that I think a lot of people have. I think the pandemic definitely changed some of this for everyone. We have all experienced a mass disabling event over the last several years. It is forever going to change the shape that we have as we progress through the world, it’s going to change how we view healthcare, how we view policy decisions. So for journalists, more so than before 2020, more so than ever, we need to be smart about this, we need to be comfortable figuring out ways to ask questions that maybe feel uncomfortable to us. And doing so in an empathetic and really human focused way, because if you approach someone with their humanity and dignity first, even if you sort of fumble through asking the question, they will see you as more human and as a person and I think you’ll get to where they need to be. 

The more that we as journalists can expose ourselves intentionally to other experiences than our own, the better we are going to be as journalists and the better our work is going to be at representing an entire community of people. 

In addition to hiring people with disabilities, what are some of the first steps newsrooms could take to improve coverage of disability and disabled people?

In any sort of beat there are disability stories to be told. Things happening in entertainment for example. Taylor Swift is traveling all around and she just came to Kansas City and I saw some folks on TikTok from some shows saying that the ASL interpreter that was at the show, they were tucked away in a weird section of the arena. That is not Taylor Swift’s fault. But that is an accessibility issue that a local journalist, when they see that, that’s an ADA violation. The ADA says that at concerts, the ASL interpreter should be in the sight line of the person being able to watch the translator and the performer because it is supposed to be assistive to someone experiencing the performance. But that’s something that people wouldn’t necessarily be aware of unless someone [with a disability] said that.  

So I think the first thing that folks can do is listen to disabled people in your community and seek them out because there are organizations in every single state, in every single community who are working to provide access, who are providing resources or otherwise connecting people in your town, in your city and your state. Doing listening sessions, just inviting those people, those experts to be able to provide feedback or to say “Hey, if you hear something, we want to know about it, send us a tip.” That’s sort of step one.  

When you’re writing policy stories and you’re having to deal with Medicaid expansion, any sort of big money ticket being spent — asking, how is this going to be accessible? How can people engage with this? I know that some cities have really struggled to provide closed captioning on their public meetings, so just increasing your awareness to start looking for things like that and start noticing. 

Also if you’re writing a story about a disabled person, make sure that they’re quoted in that story. Don’t just speak with a parent or someone who is on their medical team, but actually talk to the person. One of the things that was really upsetting to hear early on while I was working in another organization was hearing it takes too long to try and communicate with someone who has a learning disability or needs an accommodation. By not extending them the same effort and dignity that you would any other source, you are dismissing their value to the story.  

There are a number of national news organizations doing really good work. I love the 19th’s coverage during Disability Pride Month; the New York Times has a disability journalism fellowship; Washington Post has an accessibility engineer and a disability reporter. So that’s all great progress, but on the local level, where are you seeing good models that we should be also following? 

Emily Watkins is at WBFO in Buffalo, NY, she is an investigative journalist leading their disabilities desk and she does really incredible work. She also wrote the Global investigative Journalism Networks Disability Reporting Guide, and she considers herself disabled and neurodivergent. I think that she’s doing amazing work and I would encourage you to check out her stuff. 

But it’s hard to quite put a pin on it, because I really believe that it’s wonderful to be able to have a disability desk and a dedicated disability reporter, but far more people are going to be served better if every single reporter makes it a priority to be seeking out this type of coverage. 

I would also say look at art. Museums are a really interesting space because frankly, they receive federal funding and they also generally have this sort of ethos about them that they want as many people to be able to access the information or the art as possible. That’s a space where I’ve seen great inspiration.  

You emphasize in the Disability Matters toolkit that when we talk about accessibility, it’s not just the type of coverage you do or technology or engineering that it’s also about culture? Why does culture need to be a part of it too and what should news organizations be thinking about in terms of culture?

A lot of newsrooms, maybe they’re downsizing right now into a different physical space. That’s an opportunity to say, OK, is the physical space that we’re choosing, does this serve all of our needs? How accessible is this for anyone with a physical disability or otherwise? One of the things that I’m so glad that the Star did, when we moved into our new space, we have a parking garage attached, it’s lovely for everyone. 

Having flexible work is really important for everyone, but especially people with disabilities. I have so many doctor’s appointments and I know that it’s OK. I know I am able to bring my best self to work, whether I’m at home or whether I’m in the office because of this flexibility. 

Also encouraging HR onboarding for new employees to include how to ask for an accommodation. Too often it’s this secret, hidden thing that you have to go ask HR about, which can be very uncomfortable and very scary. So presenting that just like you would any other type of employment related information is a huge win for the culture. 

And, this goes for things about disability, about race, about gender: creating cultures within newsrooms, that it is okay to ask a question of a colleague about something they’re working on. If you might have insight that might help make that story better. Or maybe you read something, you’re like, “I’m bumping on that, that doesn’t sit well” — making the culture so that it doesn’t come off as an attack on the person who wrote it, but that everyone’s on the same team, all trying to make the work as best as possible. 

A lot of newsrooms are familiar with Alt text, but first, how are we doing and what else should news organizations be thinking about in terms of platform and website accessibility? 

I think that ideally, all news organizations are able to do an accessibility audit, an official audit of their website. That would be ideal. I think they’d learn a lot. It’s hard to say exactly how we’re doing. I think that we have an increased awareness of it. But we’re hamstrung by the available platforms that we have. For example, Threads just came out. Threads has no alt text. I’m really excited about Threads, but I’m really disappointed that they didn’t bake this in, which is on Instagram, it’s on Facebook. To me that’s a clear example that this was not front of mind as this product was being developed.  

I think too for newsrooms, just thinking through “how can alt text can really help add to the story.” One of the sections that I have in the toolkit is Alt Text as Journalism and not seeing it as “Oh God, now I have to write the alt text for this.” I would not complain about writing a caption for something. I want this to be just as a high-quality experience for someone using a screen reader as someone who is watching or experiencing this more visually. It’s about promoting excellence, no matter how someone is seeking out information from us.  

So what else should be a priority for newsrooms when thinking about accessibility?  

 Now that more and more newsrooms are starting to get back out physically in the community and organizing events, taking on some of the labor on as the event organizer is one of those really impactful things. With the SRCCON and ONA conferences, I’m always really impressed at the thoughtfulness in how their sign up process works, saying we are going to go to the effort to make sure that there are transcription services being provided or audio accessibility features. 

Also make sure that the entrance to a public event for someone using a mobility aid doesn’t make them go through the back door. Finding spaces in your community that treat every single attendee with dignity and respect goes a long way. And we’re able to be the ones to push for that, as the organizer, to say “We’d love to use this space, but accessibility needs to be available.” Also leave the door open for someone who has a need that maybe you haven’t thought of; giving them a safe space to tell you about that is a huge thing. 

For product teams or for large news organizations that are going through a contract negotiation with a vendor: say that including alt text, including captioning, these are priorities for us. Otherwise, what motivation do some of these companies have to change? 

How else could news outlets prioritize accessibility on websites or platforms, or with their digital products?

One of the things that I really advise for people, especially working on digital products, is try turning on the built in screen reader and just seeing how your product is conveyed or how the information is presented — that will give you an idea. 

I advise avoiding digital flair. Just because we can do something doesn’t always mean that we should, or that it really aids in the storytelling process. This is trickier at larger news organizations that have some amazing journalists who can create amazing things digitally, but I don’t know that we’ve quite figured out how to convey that same level of amazing across every platform that the journalism might appear on. 

Keeping things simple is often best for accessibility and best for web browser load times. Making sure first that the core information that you are trying to convey to the other person on the other side of the screen, on the other side of whatever piece of journalism — that is the priority. 

Simpler is better. If we as journalists ground ourselves in the fact that our jobs are to convey important information to the people in our communities — that should be the driving force more than anything else. Make sure that we just keep going back to that idea of how can we make sure that this information is accessible to as many people as possible.  

The only thing I’d add, this is back to one of your other questions about creating a culture of accessibility. Politico’s job postings, at the top of their website, says if you cannot access this, or are having trouble, here is who you contact. They are very explicitly acknowledging that whatever system they are using probably has some accessibility issues and they are creating a way for someone to still share their application. Too often, because we’re not thinking about this, that’s how we’re excluding members of this community. I think that goes for if you’re requesting a cover letter for this job. Just tell people what you want to see. Don’t make them guess or jump through hoops or expect them to have gone through the same sort of schooling that you have. The more that we can use plain language and be very direct about what we need or what we’re going to do, the better for everybody. 

So yeah, what kind of response did you get to the Disability Matters toolkit? Have you seen progress since it came out?  

I’ve gotten a huge response. I left it open source and open comment. I’ve heard that it’s getting shared in a lot of places. I feel like there is an increased awareness about disability, about accessibility. I think the fact that Amanda Morris, who was hired at the Washington Post as a full time writer speaks to that. It’s really encouraging. I think the expectation for a lot of our younger colleagues now is that this is going to be how the workplace is and I think that’s a really good thing, for all of us. 

The Times wrote the ADA at 30 series, sort of about the ADA generation, which I would consider myself a part of. I am very grateful for the ADA, even with all of its sort of foibles. I can’t imagine my navigating life without it. I’ve been invited to speak in Greece at an international journalism festival later this year about disability and I’m having to get smart about some of the international groups and the lack of protections internationally and it’s made me really, really grateful. There’s so much more that we can do, but because we have this baseline, because this is becoming more a part of our everyday experience for many, many, many millions of people, I’m really excited about the future and hopeful. 

The more that people can just ask the question and start getting curious about this, the better. There’s a ton of books, podcasts, there are tons of people talking about this. And if anything, if somebody is in a community and they haven’t spoken with a disabled person this year on their beat, go seek out that conversation and I think that you’ll learn something from it.

NC Local News Workshop