The WBFO Disabilities Desk reports on stories involving and impacting the disability community in Western New York and Southern Ontario. WBFO broadcasts from its studios in downtown Buffalo. The Tower Foundation is the sole funder of the Disabilities Desk.
Emyle Watkins grew up with a dad who is disabled, and at an early age saw how the U.S. medical and disability systems work and affected her family. When she became chronically ill in her teens, her dad taught her self-advocacy skills, and after a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune condition—at 17-years old, Watkins began identifying as disabled and connecting with her community.
Majoring in multimedia journalism and digital media arts, Watkins quickly realized news outlets have not always been inclusive of disability, both in coverage and newsrooms. As she began pursuing a journalism career, people advised her not to talk about her disability because she could face discrimination. Watkins hid her disabilities until the pandemic, when she realized she needed to make space for herself in the industry and push for deeper, more accurate reporting on disability.
“It was at this critical time in my life when I realized what I wanted to do, but also understood I wasn’t going to have the same opportunities as other people in this society because of discrimination,” said Watkins. “While I questioned what journalism would look like for me as a disabled person, I was also learning that journalism could serve as a tool for changing the systems that try to limit people with disabilities.”
A year into the pandemic, WBFO, the NPR member station in Buffalo, New York, reached out to Watkins about a new reporter job leading the Disabilities Desk. Watkins was pursuing disability reporting and knew from an internship with WBFO they would embrace her as a disabled reporter. Once onboard, WBFO made sure Watkins felt supported by providing a mentor from the National Center on Disability and Journalism and allowing her to educate staff on covering disability.
“While I questioned what journalism would look like for me as a disabled person, I was also learning that journalism could serve as a tool for changing the systems that try to limit people with disabilities.”
Watkins went on to cover numerous stories at WBFO, including one revealing that the city of Buffalo has not been in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through the connections she developed as Buffalo’s only full-time disability reporter, she received a news tip that Buffalo didn’t have an ADA coordinator. This led to Watkins’ investigative report detailing how the city was in violation of the law. Watkins and her team went to City Hall to investigate, finding out the city of Buffalo hadn’t had an ADA coordinator for almost a year, and that forms required by law were 10 years outdated.
People with disabilities were publicly speaking out about the lack of an ADA coordinator for months before WBFO broke the news, but no one was listening. When Watkins’ story went live, the city responded within days, issuing an apology, and committing to change. As a disabled person, Watkins wants her community to be heard, and she is thankful that WBFO is there to share these stories. She says this investigative reporting is essential to move communities toward justice and equity, and not just for the disability community.
“People think disability reporting is niche and covers a small group of people, but if we don’t all talk about the intersectionality of justice and equity, we’re failing,” she said. “The disability community is one of the most intersectional communities. It doesn’t matter what your age, race, gender, or sexuality is, you can be disabled or become disabled at any time. We are the largest minority group and the one minority group that you can join at any time in your life.”