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'Accidental' Deaf TV Reporter:
A Profession with a Purpose

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.

headline for the Disability IssuesTV show with Karen Meyer

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 talented storyteller.”

Karen Meyer portrait pictureMeyer, 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 class.”

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 unfortunate.

“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 Culture.”

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 culture.”

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 stories.

“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 disability stories.”

Mike Ervin is a writer who lives in Chicago. His blog, Smart Ass Cripple, appears at smartasscripple.blogspot.com.


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