Mohawk creates accessible journalism course
Name a journalist with a disability.
Chances are, former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and broadcaster David Onley, or Barbara Turnbull, longtime Toronto Star reporter, come to mind easily. After that, though, brow furrowing likely ensues. It’s not that there aren’t other journalists with disabilities but there aren’t many in our nation’s newsrooms, and those journalists aren’t always visible or prominent.
A new journalism course at Mohawk, and a post-graduate certificate program that’s in the works, intends to change that. Mohawk will tackle the issues and make it easier for people with disabilities to consume news, doing away with the jumbled text that sometimes shows up in closed-captioning or makes screen readers stumble.
The 14-week course, called Accessible Content Production for Journalists, is thought to be the first of its kind in Canada. It launches in September and is mandatory for all students in Mohawk’s threeyearjournalism program. The year-long post-graduate certificate program is awaiting ministry approval, and will be geared to media and communications professionals who need to put into practice the standards outlined in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
“In news, it’s all about audience and you want to do everything you can to maximize that audience."
Mohawk was awarded $80,000 from the Broadcasting AccessibilityFund to develop the course. The fund supports innovative projects to increase the accessibility of broadcasting content in Canada. “In news, it’s all about audience and you want to do everything you can to maximize that audience,” says Kurt Muller, Mohawk’s associate dean of Media and Entertainment.
That’s something every journalist, including Muller, who worked in print and broadcast before mentoringnewshounds at Mohawk, knows well. It’s particularly poignant in an age of shrinking readership, and infinite click-bait to tempt audiences of the 24-hour news cycle. But if you ask anyone who works in a newsroom, creating accessible content isn’t usually on a journalist’s radar.
Muller and Jennifer Jahnke, the project lead who, along with a team of industry professionals, created the course and will teach it this fall, know that needs to change. After all, nearly 15 per cent of all Canadians report having a disability, according to Statistics Canada. Closer to home, 13 per cent of Mohawk students identify as having a disability. Depending what it is, they may be missing out on important information, and that feeling of being included in their community that often comes with consuming news.
“There are a variety of ways we need to do better, quite frankly,” Muller says. “This is an audience that has been and is being underserved. We have a lot of work to do to make sure Canadians with disabilities are heard.”
“It’s about changing the culture and the mindset. It’s just the right thing to do.”
The second-year course approaches accessibility in two ways: First, it will teach journalists how to make their product accessible; second, it will make the profession of journalism more inclusive to people with disabilities by making the newsroom itself more physically accessible through the addition of specially-designed desks and chairs. Additionally, assistive software will help with access to class material.
The intention is to improve the user experience for all consumers of news while creating more diverse newsrooms.
“It’s about changing the culture and the mindset,” says Jahnke, who is also Mohawk’s former AODA accessibility project manager. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Students’ first assignment will be to interview someone with a disability. From there, they’ll close-caption their videos, create accessible Word documents and PDFs of their transcripts, and design and lay out an accessible page in Adobe InDesign. By the end of the term, students will have created digital audio and video, print, and web content that anyone can enjoy.
Their work will be critiqued by the people they interviewed at the start of the course to ensure it truly is accessible. “It’s very holistic. Each assignment and task that students do builds on the previous one,” Jahnke said. “It’s a lot to squeeze into one course, which is why we’re developing the post-graduate program, but it gives a taste of what’s required by people with disabilities, and how to make content accessible.”
Muller and Jahnke developed the curriculum with an advisory committee that included representatives from CNIB, the Down Syndrome Association of Hamilton, Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, and The Honourable David Onley, who was not only one of the first journalists with a disability to appear on TV in Canada, but also served as Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor. A team of Mohawk staff — David Best, Andrew Connery, Janice Fennell, Greg Gagnon, Rob Harvie, Katherine McCurdy — also assisted in the development of the curriculum.
In addition to being taught on campus, Accessible Content Production for Journalists will be available for students elsewhere to take online. Other colleges and universities will be able to access the curriculum through a Creative Commons licence.
“This has application beyond the world of journalism,” Muller said. “These are skills that are going to become integral for anyone working in communications. These are really core skills for the future.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 issue of Quanta, Mohawk's annual celebration of research and innovation. Story by Tiffany Mayer
Mohawk College educates and serves 30,000 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three campuses and two City School locations at the Eva Rothwell Resource Centre and the Central Public Library in Hamilton, Ontario. Mohawk has ranked first among all Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area colleges in student satisfaction for seven consecutive years and first in graduate satisfaction for the past five years. Mohawk ranks 15th among all colleges in Canada for applied research activity and has been named among Canada’s greenest employers and the region’s top employers for the past three years.