'Accidental' Deaf TV Reporter:
A Profession with a
By Mike Ervin
Karen Meyer has had a long and fruitful career as a
television journalist. But it's all a crazy, happy accident.
Twice a week, Meyer, who was born deaf, contributes a
story about the disability community to the local news broadcasts of WLS, the
ABC affiliate in her hometown of Chicago. She is the producer, interviewer and
writer for all her stories. She communicates on camera with her voice and
through American Sign Language. Her segments are open captioned, with the words
printed on the screen along with descriptions of other associated sounds.
But Meyer never aspired to nor prepared for a career in
journalism. She has a B.S. degree in family services from Eastern Illinois
University and an M.A. degree in urban studies from Loyola University Chicago.
So I was either going to be a social worker or an urban planner,
she said. I did a little of both, then one career led to another.
In 1991, Meyer was executive director of the National
Center for Access Unlimited, a venture at the time of United Cerebral Palsy.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was a new law.
My job was to market our ADA compliance and training
services to businesses, Meyer said. WLS was the local host for the UCP
telethon, so Meyer volunteered to answer the TTY phone at the studio during the
telethon. At the WLS studio, she met Joe Ahern, who was then the president and
general manager of WLS-TV. She took advantage of the opportunity to arrange a
training session on the ADA and its potential effect on the workplace for WLS
management. In the session, Meyer emphasized that news operations needed to
prepare to hire people with disabilities and to cover the disability community
in more depth. Two months later, out of the blue, Ahern offered Meyer a job
covering the disability beat. Though a career in journalism had never crossed
her mind before then, Meyer jumped right in.
Her first story aired July 25 th , 1991, on the eve of the
first anniversary of the signing of the ADA. The story was about restaurant
accessibility for wheelchair users.
Emily Barr, president and general manager of WLS-TV for 15
years, was impressed. Karen is a passionate advocate for the entire
disabled community and a wonderful reporter who fully understands and
appreciates the many challenges faced by the disability community. She is a
Meyer, raised in the Chicago suburb of
Wilmette, has had a lifelong disability experience. Her younger brother and
only sibling, Gary, is also deaf, but their parents were hearing and never
learned sign language. We were educated in the oral school programs,"
Meyer said. "All of my classes were mainstreamed except one high school special
education English class for the deaf. There were only two of us in that
In November 2011, Meyer was awarded a Chicago/Midwest Emmy
for "Outstanding Achievement for News Specialty Assignment Report/Series."
Meyer, 57, acknowledges that she may not have gotten beyond square one had she
set out to become a television news reporter. What kind of reception could
someone with such an obvious disability have expected from journalism schools
in the 1970s?
I probably would have been discouraged due to lack
of accommodations and understanding about deafness and disability. Remember,
this was before all the laws like Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of
1973), ADA and the Illinois Human Rights Act.
As far as Meyer knows, she is the only deaf television
reporter in a major market and the only person with a disability regularly
covering her community for a television news station. Barr thinks that's
I guess I am not surprised there are so few
reporters, but I am mighty pleased that our viewers are able to benefit from
her knowledge, expertise and compassion," Barr said. "(Meyer's) reporting
provides a very important lens through which our viewers are able to better
understand the needs of this diverse and important community. I think it is all
of our responsibilities to reflect the communities we serve, and the disabled
community deserves that as much as any other.
The reporting job is not Meyer's only one. She spends her
mornings at WLS and then goes to the campus of DePaul University, where she
heads the Center for Students with Disabilities. She also teaches two classes
at DePaul, Chicago's Disabled Community and Disability
The first class, Meyer said, consists of a lot of field
trips to places where people with disabilities live, work and play. We
visit many places at the same time students get to experience what it is like
to be a disabled person living in the city, Meyer said. Her class on
disability culture covers disability issues ranging from employment to
health care. Students are assigned to read the book No Pity
by Joseph Shapiro. The students love the book. Most of the students in my
class do not have a disability. They want to learn and experience a new
Her teaching and journalism serve the same goal of
providing a view inside the disability community, especially to the unfamiliar.
I really enjoy doing stories that make a difference
to both people with disabilities and general viewers," she said. "I hope people
learn about the disabled community, understand our issues and also get a sense
of what life is like. Maybe laws will improve the quality of life for people
with disabilities. Maybe government will get a sense of why funding is
essential for programs benefitting people with disabilities instead of cutting
budgets and forcing agencies to shut down services that enable people with
disabilities to be productive in society. Those are my goals when I look for
There's something about every story I air that I
enjoy. Even though I am only on the air twice a week, I have enough stories
that I could be on three to four times a week. There are so many different
Mike Ervin is a writer who lives in Chicago. His blog,
Smart Ass Cripple, appears at smartasscripple.blogspot.com.