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Off the beat: Reporting on four wheels

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AUGUST 26, 2012

I was told upon coming to UC Berkeley that I should take a reduced course load — learning how to live halfway across the country in a wheelchair would occupy enough of my time.

After one semester of following that well-meaning advice, I decided my life was a little too mundane, so I promptly disregarded it, enrolled in 18 units and joined The Daily Californian.

I encountered the kind of ridiculous problems that a physical disability often poses as soon as I entered Eshleman Hall, where the newspaper’s office was then located, for my first staff meeting. For one thing, I could reach every button in the elevator except the one for the sixth floor — of course where the office was. That required me to nonchalantly pretend the elevator had malfunctioned when someone found me in it with no button pushed — which was a frequent occurrence over the next two and a half years.

The meeting began, and as the news editors explained our duties as reporters, I had what I can only hope was an invisible panic attack. What had I done to myself? I couldn’t be a journalist — not the kind I wanted to be, anyway. I couldn’t type on a regular computer, I couldn’t write down quotes while running after a source, I couldn’t even hold a phone up to my ear. I’d been a writer for my monthly high school newspaper, but after that staff meeting, it was clear that the experiences were hardly comparable.

I was far too embarrassed to tell anyone any of this, however, so I approached one of the editors and asked if I could report and write from my dorm room. He said yes, and I rushed home to find my first assignment already in my inbox.

As the fear subsided, I reasoned out how I would do it — because I would do it. For phone interviews, I would use speaker-phone and record the call. For in-person interviews, I would pray to all the journalist gods that the source’s office was wheelchair-accessible and that I wouldn’t get stuck in any elevators. Theoretically, if all my sources got back to me by early afternoon, I would have enough time to listen through all the interviews, transcribe the quotes I needed, and write the 540-word article by my 5 p.m. deadline.

Of course, I’m not sure what planet I was living on where I thought all my sources would get back to me by early afternoon, but somehow, I managed to make deadline — most days, at least. I loved the adrenaline of it, but more than that, I loved what journalism was.

I admired how it succeeded in telling stories that had not been heard and how it could create a connection between a reader like me and anybody in the world. I was intrigued by how technology wreaked havoc on and fundamentally improved how we tell and understand the news. There was no other job that allowed me to write, talk to interesting people and travel, all while satisfying my insatiable desire to know everything first.

There are still stories that I have not yet figured out how to cover: the protests where a tape recorder is all but useful, the stories that aren’t accessible by public transportation, the breaking news stories where speed (and accuracy) is paramount. And as a news editor last fall, my slowness presented a slew of other challenges: I couldn’t retweet fast enough, eating in the office was an awkward affair and breaking news practically gave me heartburn.

But there are stories where alacrity with a keyboard is far less important to the reporting process, such as in-depth articles that rely on cultivating close relationships with sources — which I tried my hand at during my three-semester tenure as a science reporter.

Now, as I enter my senior year and begin the terrifying search for future employment, I face the same fear I felt that day three years ago as a newly hired employee of the Daily Cal. I feel a persistent doubt that I will actually be hired in the real world, as does any college graduate when her industry of choice is currently laying off experienced and talented employees left and right. But I know something that I did not know that day — that my disability is not a prerequisite for failure. It will certainly complicate things, as it already has, but it doesn’t make any fate absolute. I very well may fail as a journalist, but if I do, there will be a host of other reasons to account for it.

I have fallen in love with a profession that requires fast note-taking, faster typing and the ability to run anywhere at a moment’s notice. My crooked hands and lack of biceps, my 12 word per minute typing speed and my longstanding enmity with stairs cannot convince me to give it up.

Contact Claire Perlman at [email protected]

AUGUST 26, 2012