Beena Raghavendran

Engagement Reporter • ProPublica • Brooklyn, NY
Last edited June 9, 2021

2021 MJ Bear Fellowship Project

What if we could design journalism that’s not just *about* vulnerable communities, but is also *for* them? My project tackles news accessibility through crowdsourcing, engagement and audience experiments for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).

In 2020, I crowdsourced stories about barriers to disability services in Arizona on a team led by reporter Amy Silverman, part of ProPublica’s partnership with the Arizona Daily Star. Communities with I/DD face extreme news inaccessibility: It’s rare that journalists think of them. When they do, they publish stories that sources can’t access. The cycle persists. We wanted to invite people with I/DD to share, include them in our journalism, and publish work in accessible ways.

Last summer, we partnered with a theater group that works with artists with I/DD. I helped lead a virtual show where artists performed monologues based on real life. At intermission, it was journalism: Amy mock-interviewed an artist to demonstrate expectations of story sharing. We urged people to call or text us their stories if they felt inspired. More than 100 people attended; about 10 people shared stories with us.

Accessibility means underserved communities can share stories in ways they’re most comfortable. Journalists listen and fill needs. This starts to repair trust. In the fall, our collaborator, disability studies professor Dr. Becca Monteleone, translated our resulting investigative stories into plain language. I read eight articles aloud (four in original text, four in plain language) to make online audio recordings. I helped run another Zoom event to share stories with the community and ask for feedback.

We struggled to find other journalism with plain language and crowdsourcing for this community; Nieman Lab said our plain-language translation was the first. The praise from the disabilities community and news industry for our accessibility confirmed that journalism about and for people with I/DD is largely uncharted territory.

I owe so much to the I/DD community. Though every community is distinct, the universal accessibility lessons they taught me are seeping into my other work. For example: I had led a team of reporters to meet 80 current and former public housing residents in Annapolis, mostly through door-knocking. When the resulting story last summer revealed the housing authority aggressively sued its residents for rent, I remembered accessibility. I snail-mailed 100+ residents our findings.

The I/DD community is inspiring me to do something about the changes I want to see. I was upset that people without the Internet were missing information during COVID-19. So a reporting partner and I built a bot to text people information about their stimulus checks. We sent food banks hundreds of flyers with the phone number on them to distribute to people seeking food assistance.

Amy, Becca and I plan to keep partnering. We want to A/B test plain-language story promotion, build social media strategies for communities with I/DD, and focus-group the plain-language translated stories among communities with disabilities. Accessibility work is critical for this community, and has universal applications.