NUJ policy states that all meetings must be held in accessible venues. It also states that additional funding is available from the National Executive Council if branches cannot obtain an accessible venue on financial grounds.
NUJ policy further states that pubs are unsuitable venues for branch meetings, as they exclude some members on religious or health grounds and the availability of alcohol detracts from the good conduct of the meeting.
Despite this, London Freelance Branch has recently been meeting in the upstairs room of The Rugby Tavern in Holborn. At the end of 1994 a disabled member contacted several members of the committee to ask them to change the venue, but was refused.
Disabled branch members Keith Armstrong and Ju Gosling therefore decided to leaflet the AGM from the bottom of the stairs, asking members to abide by union policy. This move was inspired by the fact that discrimination against union members was the main subject on the agenda.
Ju said afterwards: "We were obviously pleased that future meetings will be accessible to us, but concerned that we needed to take this action first. I found the evening extremely tiring, and the following day suffered a head injury when I was unable to get out of a car quickly enough [I am still suffering from the effects of this].
"We were also concerned that no effort was made to involve us in the meeting - we were not given copies of the minutes, nor asked our opinion about agenda issues.
"One member did come down to ask me if I would stand as Equality Officer, which I felt was trying to make us take total responsibility for disability issues. No-one thought to ask me to stand for any other position, despite my long track record at branch and national level.
"And when a journalist becomes disabled there is no magic formula by which they suddenly become aware of all disability issues, rights - and in particular accessible venues.
"When I said that I was not fit enough to join the committee at the moment, I was asked 'what was wrong' with me? In fact my biggest problem is the fact that I am trying to complete a PhD without a grant, but the member concerned was only interested in intrusive medical details. I would much rather have been asked how my disability affected me and how the branch could help to make activities accessible to me.
"Despite the fact that Keith was sitting next to me and also has a long track record of union activism, he was not asked to stand for any position. I was repeatedly asked if I 'could think of a volunteer', while she looked straight through Keith as if his wheelchair conveyed some kind of magical invisibility on him.
"We were also annoyed when another committee member came down the stairs to ask if Keith could be carried up them. When we pointed out that our leaflet explained why this was impossible, he said he had not read it.
"And at the end of the meeting, no-one told us what decision had been made until we stopped a committee member from rushing out."
It is reasonable to assume that the majority of disabled journalists are freelance, because of discrimination in employment, and it was therefore particularly important to make this meeting accessible. But as Denise Searle, editor of Red Pepper, said later: "How many disabled journalists turn up to their first meeting and go quietly away when they cannot gain access, never to participate in union activities again?"
NUJ policy states that disability should be promoted as an equal rights issue, not simply as a social welfare issue. All NUJ members have the right to attend branch meetings - providing a venue which is accessible to everyone should not be treated as doing disabled people a favour. Disability is an issue which all journalists should take on board - and never forget that it could happen to you.
(Ju Gosling,unpublished article for The Journalist, February 1995)
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