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Insider: March 5, 2021 — The Experiences of Audio Makers with Disabilities

There are continued efforts to help make audio more accessible for more listeners — but what about for more creators?

When examining the audio industry, the work of improving the experience for people with disabilities means facing a cluster of obstacles. And when you zoom in on one locale or one type of work, the problems don’t get much easier to solve. Let’s start with an example in the UK.

Only 6% of the UK’s radio workforce are reported to be people with disabilities, as opposed to 19% of the country’s working-age population. This presents an impetus to improve working conditions and shape the industry as a place where potential employees with disabilities could see themselves to get that number closer to a representative level.

At the same time, “disability” is a flat term, used for an experience that is broad and varied. This can make the goal to “improve working conditions” significantly harder to pin down. Further, with some people who have disabilities presumably able and opting to not disclose that they do, is it possible and respectful to entice more potential employees with disabilities by showcasing the experiences of current ones (let alone verify such statistics as above and continue to track them as a marker of progress)? Audio’s ability to anonymize people — people who may be outwardly disabled to colleagues but not listeners, especially if said people perform in behind-the-scenes roles — makes this even muddier.

For such a multi-pronged problem, Darby Dorras, whom I spoke to about this, is taking a multi-pronged approach: addressing both fellow folks with disabilities and the employers that make up the audio field. And following his example, I, too, am hoping to hit this from a few different sides, since, you, dear Insiders, occupy spots all over the audio-industry spectrum.

Let’s say one of your employees has Erb’s Palsy and struggles with traditional desk arrangements, as talkRADIO producer Holly Keogh shared in a webinar that Dorras produced in early February. Or let’s say you, like comedian and audio personality Eshaan Akbar, who was also featured in the webinar, are hearing impaired or deaf, and you don’t personally see a way into the audio industry. Offering decision makers examples of workplace improvements and possibilities is one goal of events such as these; representation, an inward-facing goal for the disabled community itself, is another.

Giving airtime to a breadth of experiences, as this webinar served to do, is a way to touch both in one fell swoop, says Dorras, who is an executive producer at Somethin’ Else and the founder of the group Disabled People in Audio, though he’s quick to acknowledge that capturing true diversity is a Herculean task: “You’d have to have 500 different panelists.”

His own relationship with disability emphasizes such nuance. “I’ve only got one hand — from birth — and I’ve worked in audio for over a decade,” Dorras says, “but my disability really never had anything to do with my audio life.” He found the physical tasks manageable, and his work, whether in its quality or the content it covered, never suggested otherwise. “If you listen to the stuff I’ve made, you wouldn’t have a clue,” he says.

He also describes his professional role as one of privilege, as a high-level producer, staff employee, and someone connected with big names in the business. “I’ve got their ear,” he remembers realizing, “so what am I doing about it? And I was thinking, ‘not a lot.’”

When he took up searching for people who were doing more, he still came up short, he says, struggling to find “coherent” efforts. Even within companies with explicit diversity and inclusion initiatives, he says, “disability is often the bottom of the pile” and treated as a monolithic condition once there, even though “the term ‘disability’ encompasses so much.”

So what’s to be done? Dorras wants to know what you, what workers, what employers think: “How do we get more people with disabilities working in audio, and how do we support them once they’re there?”

BBC, for one, has committed to looking at the percentage of its workforce that identifies as having disabilities and increasing it to 12 percent by 2022. (The initial announcement was specific to TV programs, but in July 2020, the company issued a diversity addendum, which, notably, included both BBC Radio & Music as an entity and disability as a metric of representation.) Initiatives intended to craft a better workplace include BBC Passport, an internal document of sorts that tracks accessibility needs across departments in the event that an employee changes roles. It’s worth pointing out, though, that “the chance to work and gain further experience” offered by another initiative, BBC Elevate, is meant specifically for “disabled people with some industry experience,” meaning workers who already realized the industry was for them, then entered it.

How, then, to change the paradigm in the first place, to present audio as a viable industry for people with disabilities? After all, considering the anonymity — or at least the compartmentalization of body and voice — that audio delivers, “if the person making the content doesn’t tell you about their disability, then you might not even know they’ve got a disability,” Dorras says.

Perhaps the type of dual purpose that February’s webinar offered — diversifying the idea of disability, in hopes of both shaking employers awake and letting disabled folks know there’s room for them — could also be achieved in a more recurring, editorial sense. For example, panelist Akbar posited having disabled staffers self-identify in a program’s show notes.

“There is an industry standard in terms of how people are credited for the work they do in audio, but is it fully inclusive, and does it cover off enough for the state that we find ourselves in now?” Dorras asks. “I’m not sure it does.”

For what it’s worth, Dorras knows he doesn’t have all the solutions — if any — at this early stage. The Disabled People in Audio group only got started in earnest in late 2020, after months of what Dorras describes as the “soul searching” the pandemic prompted. He wants to hear suggestions.

“I’m really keen for people to get in touch and just have a conversation or ask questions,” he says, directing anyone interested to the email address on his group’s website.

With such multifaceted questions and the many circumstances that could inform the answers, “it’s not good enough to come up with one small piece of strategy,” Dorras says; there isn’t only one thing to do, because there isn’t only one group involved.

At any rate, as an industry, he says, “we’re better when we’re together.”