Three points assume critical significance in discussing the relevance of community media and people with disabilities: the scope and limits of mainstream media; the relevance of community media based on the principles of sensitisation, participation, management and ownership; and the need to desist from pursuing an ‘us and them’ approach between community and mainstream media. Instead, a collaborative and strategic approach is warranted.

Underlying these three pointers is a more fundamental question: what do we want or need the media for? Often the criticism directed at mainstream media springs from a lack of sufficient coverage or a lack of understanding on their part. But is coverage the central issue confronting us, or do we need to look at larger issues? If the media is to bring about qualitative social change, then we need to go beyond the issue of coverage. We need to view media in the context of strategic alliances and as a partner. It is here that the role of community media takes centre-stage.

If media is to bring about qualitative social change, then we need to go beyond the issue of coverage. We need to view media in the context of strategic alliances and as a partner. It is here that the role of community media takes centre-stage.

 •  The language of ability
 •  This minority is invisible Community-based media, in a nutshell, is media of, for and by the community. While it may not have the reach of mainstream media, it certainly has more depth and interaction because of its inherently participative character. In many cases, the community members are both producers and participants. Consequently, the media technology used is also appropriately targeted by and for the community. These factors enable substantial scope for sustained feedback. In many cases, community media has played an influential role in generating mainstream media interest and participation.

The case of Daricha (see box below) serves as an appropriate point to discuss why we need to move beyond the parameters of media coverage to the domain of media partnership and explore the relevance and role of community media for sustained social change. First, it addresses the concern about coverage that mass/mainstream media provides to people with disabilities in particular, and development in general. A study conducted by Shangon Dasgupta of the Centre for Development Learning in late 2000 confirms this point. According to the study, “If development news can be defined as information that has social consequence, then we clearly have a long way to go.”

The study indicated that newspapers like Times of India, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald devoted only around four per cent of a total of 24 pages to development issues. The study’s specific analysis on issues related to people with disabilities yielded similar trends. No news item pertaining to people with disabilities appeared on the front page. They appeared from pages four to 12 and were restricted to event-based coverage. “No serious discussions on issues pertaining to people with disabilities appeared.” By and large, notwithstanding some exceptions, the trend would appear to have persisted in the more recent past. Underlying this was another fact that concerned the community. When the mass media focused on an individual with disability s/he was portrayed larger than life evoking sentiments of sympathy rather than empathy.

But is this so surprising?

Mainstream media – despite its reach – has limitations on space that impose restrictions on depth. Apart from disabilities, issues like HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, poor farmers, child labour, the tribal, minorities jostle for limited space on a daily basis. Perhaps this is why the packaging tends to be ‘larger than life’ and emphasises the ‘extraordinary’. In sharp contrast, community media has the advantage of interaction and depth because of its participative nature. Let me illustrate this with a personal example.

A little more than a year ago, I used to regularly write a development feature for the New Indian Express. On the occasion of Disabilities Day, I took the opportunity to plug the issue of access. Given the occasion, the article generated quite a few letters to the editor. Compare this with Kumar’s story which was broadcast on AIR Bangalore as a part of VOICES’ effort to participate in a global campaign – ‘VOICES without frontiers’. The programme was put together by people with disabilities after they participated in a workshop on community radio. Kumar had become severely physically challenged after he had met with an auto accident. The programme, based on his experience (he featured as the key protagonist) was significant on several fronts. First, it generated a response from a physically challenged listener. She called AIR Bangalore and tracked Kumar’s contact number, and the window to a friendship opened. Another listener heard the programme and sponsored a telephone kiosk and also provided appliances like calculators, etc. The result enabled Kumar run a telephone kiosk.

The lesson from Kumar’s story lies not so much in the media mechanism used, but in its community-centric character. People with disabilities and their participation drove the story’s course. Their direct engagement also facilitated the listenership of a people with disabilities community network that, in turn, prompted community action. Both Daricha and Kumar’s story confirm that community media through strategic collaborations can pave the road for social action. Further, they also (as Daricha often did) play a role in sensitising mainstream media to community needs.

Technology to the rescue

Daricha was a year-and-a-half long video project (2001-2002) that centred on the interface between technology and disability empowerment. It was a partnership between TMG TV channel, VOICES and People with Disabilities. It involved a weekly programme where the protagonist was a person with disabilities who had been empowered through technology. Technology could be an instrument of change and could range anywhere between callipers and computers. Its aim was to showcase how people with disabilities could and had empowered their lives through technology.

One episode was about Jayalakshmi and Nagarathna, both visually challenged, who work at the HMT watch-making unit in Bangalore, debunking the myth that people who are blind cannot work at tasks that require a high degree of manual precision. They are both recognised as efficient and valuable employees by their supervisors. A visually challenged medical transcriptionist shares, in another episode, his belief that technology brought him in line with the mainstream. Using special software that reproduces text into sound, Justin has a foothold in a cutting edge field and is recognised as the best team member by his manager.

Nagesh Prakash, profiled in another episode on the show, has two fingers on each hand. His occupation is to modify motorised three-wheeler vehicles to suit individual disabilities. Manjunath is polio stricken from the leg down. He runs a DTP centre and rides to work on a three-wheeler modified by Nagesh.

Chip Kengery, the founder of Pro Vision Asia is the person who brought them together. Pro Vision Asia, Bangalore, runs vocational training workshops for people with disabilities as Chip believes that rather than depend on charity, it is better to earn one’s own way.

Notwithstanding the fact that TMG was a niche channel, the series generated considerable interest and participation from people with disabilities and raised questions about access and inclusiveness and was, on occasion, quoted by the mass media. Daricha started off as a five to seven-minutes programme, but within a year each episode had grown into a 22-minutes infotainment based package that had something for the entire family. Many programmes were inspired by feedback from viewers.

Source: VOICES for Change/Daricha

Ultimately, however, the success of community media is dependent on community management and ownership. It is here that the rub could come in. Community media experiences that work towards sustainability reflect these features. An example, linked to VOICES’ work, is the Namma Dhwani community cable audio initiative in Budikote village, Kolar, Karnataka. Here, the farmer community run a cable audio station, producing and cablecasting programmes for two hours every day – an effort which caught the interest of the Washington Post to advocate the cause of community radio legitimacy in India. There are other examples from other sectors of community media that offer learning points for people with disabilities.

Ultimately, community media’s inclusive characteristics need to be embraced – if we are committed to communities who are at the periphery of media moving to the centre.