How one of the UK’s most famous voices is helping build a more accessible workplace
Corie Brown, a continuity announcer for Channel 4 in the U.K., is known for her tenacious voice and feisty personality” – but her big voice didn’t help at all when she was trying to get Jenny Lay-Flurrie’s attention at Future Decoded, an October 2019 Microsoft event in London where the two would share a stage for an interview.
“I will never forget her running down the backstage corridor, yelling after me, until someone reminded her I was deaf,” said Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer. “You’ve got a deaf girl interviewing a legally blind woman, which is funny on its own. But Corie and I were chatting afterwards, and I told her one of my problems is voicemail. People call me all the time and leave me voicemails, even though my voicemail actually says thank you for calling, but please don’t bother leaving a message. Send me an email, shoot me a text. A couple days later, after I’d returned to the U.S., she’s professionally recorded new voicemail messages for me. ‘This is Jenny’s phone, Jenny’s deaf, she’s not going to answer. Thank you.’ We cried laughing.
“I don’t get voicemails anymore.”
That episode is just one example of how Brown empowers others who have disabilities. Because of an early exposure to technology and her talent for radio, she’s been able to achieve professional goals that include being chosen from an applicant pool of thousands for her first job at the BBC. But she’s used her voice beyond that to advocate for others as founder and co-chair of 4Purple, Channel 4’s disability staff network.
Brown, who’s been at Channel 4 for almost two decades, was one of those who spearheaded the network’s efforts to better reflect its audience on and off air.
“People want to see themselves. The diversity of thought makes you stronger, more profitable; and so the more different voices you have internally, the more likely you are creating content people externally can identify with,” Brown said.
Like other off-camera talent she can walk around with relative anonymity, until she talks at length with someone. Then maybe they recognize her voice, which on Channel 4 fills that junction from the end of one program to the start of the next one.
But even then, they’re not likely to suspect the role Brown has played in opening doors for people with disabilities.
“In the build-up to our coverage of the Paralympics in 2012, we were in a situation where lots of people had to up their game, from a disability perspective. It was a time of seismic change,” Brown said. She began to be more vocal about breaking down barriers in the workplace. “You have conversations with friends in the pub, but this was the first time I’d really talked to someone at work about what life was like for me, with limited eyesight. It was unexpectedly time to stick my head above the parapet. Before, I didn’t want to be perceived as different or judged to be less capable. In the build-up to the Paras it felt like everything was shifting.”
Paul Sapsford manages the announcer team at Channel 4. He said Brown has “made disability in the workplace a positive topic for discussion and has really helped move up the diversity agenda.”
Sapsford has been at Channel 4 since 2007 and while he says Channel 4 has always had a positive outlook on disabilities and diversity, the Paralympics really ramped up the internal conversations.
“It was an extraordinarily powerful event for us externally and internally. It made everyone in the organization think deeply about our coverage and what that meant to us,” says Sapsford, who made it a point to increase diversity on his team. “We hired more disabled employees and made them feel welcome. Everyone’s needs are different, so you have to get it right.”
Sapsford had met Brown before she came to Channel 4, when she worked for the BBC and he was a network director and then an editor.
He said his first impression of Brown was that she was “bright, committed and full of enthusiasm,” and that since then she’s “increased confidence, which has come from experience and from challenging perceptions of disability in the workplace. She found a campaigning voice and uses it effectively. Corie’s attitude is an important part of taking this company forward.
The U.K. embraced the 2012 Paralympic games, thanks in large part to Channel 4’s marketing campaign, which dubbed the athletes as “superhumans” and the traditional, more famous Olympics as a “warm-up” to these competitions. Eighty-three percent of those people surveyed after the Paralympic games in 2012 agreed that Channel 4’s coverage had improved the perception of people with a disability.
“They were phenomenal ads that changed stereotypes and perceptions,” said Lay-Flurrie, who is British and remembered how the ads were a breath of fresh air for the disabled community. “We felt included in everything they did. You never get that.”
“The atmosphere in the channel was electric,” Brown said. “We were riding on a high, but I and a few others started to think that the public perception was different than how we were as an organization, internally. ‘Hang on, are we really as good as we are on-air?’ Somehow we have to become more confident about disability.”
The channel formed an internal diversity task force that tackled inclusion issues in general and in 2016 Channel 4 engaged a disability workplace specialist, who affected many positive changes during his tenure.
“Behind the scenes and on-air, we put forward our best efforts,” Sapsford says. “You can’t have all that focus on Paralympians without it affecting every department at Channel 4. We had a platform to build on now. We took that experience to mean that anything is possible.”
This was a stark contrast to when Brown started working for Channel 4 in 2001, when nobody was talking about workplace adjustments – screen readers and magnifiers, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, assistive software, etc. – for people with disabilities. In the U.K., there are government funds to subsidize these adjustments, to discourage employers from seeing cost as a reason to not employ someone. Brown didn’t know about this Access to Work benefit until 2009.
“The only reason I heard about it was because they were offering mini health checks, and the nurse mentioned it to me. When I told her I didn’t know about it, she nearly fell off her chair,” she said. “It was the start of an awakening.”
Everyone’s needs are different, so you have to get it right.
Brown started taking advantage of that benefit. Previously, she’d brought to work her own assistive equipment – she uses a screen reader, which reads text aloud, and screen magnification. In her job she often works in live transmission. In broadcast television everything is timed to the second. Every event has an end point, every graphic has a fixed duration. To keep in sync, she gets a verbal countdown from her directors – this removes the challenge of needing to read a script and watch the screen at the same time.
Brown also asks for presentations ahead of meetings and introductions of participants at their outset – accommodations that make meetings more inclusive and productive. She feels that being able to ask for what you need isn’t a sign of weakness – “it’s actually really empowering for everyone”.
Channel 4 uses Microsoft Office 365 and Windows 10 – both of which Brown calls out as rich in accessibility features. She uses Microsoft Word for scripts. Whilst her colleagues print out their scripts, Brown reads on-air using a tablet running an autocue app with a large high-contrast font, reflecting a comfort level with technology that stretches back to her childhood.
Brown has spent all her life adapting to a “sighted” world. With their own lived experience of blindness, her parents decided early on she would get opportunities they didn’t – starting with mainstream schooling, versus going to a specialized school.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Brown said. “Some kids have very particular needs, but you’re going to go out and live in a big wide world. The sooner you’re mixing, the better. And of course, the shared learning experience is empowering for fully sighted peers too. It’s really important everybody is given the same opportunities.”
“Her school had a resource center for the 17-18 children who, like her, were blind or had low vision. This was back in the 1980s, so they worked with the first incarnation of a scanner that read books out loud. She took typing lessons at school on “proper old banging typewriters” and was one of the children who tested a “turtle” – a precursor to the mouse. Later, she’d write on a word processor.
Her father, a computer programmer, used all kinds of gadgetry, so technology was very much a part of their daily lives.
Besides the tools she uses at work, she likes using the Microsoft’s Seeing AI app in her daily life.
“I really like the instant text handwriting recognition feature to capture handwritten cards – especially at Christmas!” she said. The Microsoft Soundscape app is one of her favorite navigation tools, as it features 3D audio and is especially useful when coming out of the Tube (London’s subway system) at a confusing junction.
While she’s been comfortable with technology pretty much her whole life, she now hopes to make it easier for others to use and ask for it.
Sapsford said Brown is making a difference at Channel 4 through her visibility in the organization, by speaking out on the challenges faced by existing and new employees, and by demanding attention from executives and heads of departments.
The only barriers are our thinking.
Famed for taking risks and challenging perceptions, one of Channel 4’s most enduring legacies from the Paralympic coverage in 2012 is “The Last Leg”. Hosted by “three guys with four legs” it’s now one of the network’s flagship shows. It began as a post-Paralympics round-up, but over the years has evolved into a satirical, “no-holds barred” topical news program. And Channel 4 has continued its coverage of the Paralympics.
Channel 4 thinks others could learn from its experience – and success.
“I think it’s about having the right attitude and the willingness to want to make changes,” Sapsford says. “The only barriers are our thinking. If you break down those barriers, there are no hindrances. We should make it work and we do make it work. We all have the same goal: we want to be the most inclusive, most diverse broadcaster in the U.K. I think here, genuinely for a long time, we’ve had the attitude of, we’re making a difference. We will continue to drive to do better.”
Originally published on 1/20/2020 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft except where noted.