Persons Living With Disabilities Self-Directing Their Own Stories

Abu Majid
Caribou Digital
Published in
6 min readMay 16, 2023

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This is a guest blog by Abu Majid, Storyteller at Story x Design

As a multimedia producer at Nairobi-based Story x Design, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating on four Caribou Digital research projects since October 2020. When Caribou Digital reached out in February 2022 asking to expand our participatory video storytelling methodology to meet the needs of digital platform workers living with disabilities, we had the opportunity to rethink our processes, from training, to filming, to the accessibility of our final edits.

An earlier blog by Story x Design Director Miranda Grant outlines our original participatory storytelling methods and offers tips for those interested in this filmmaking process. This blog reflects on our experience of collaborating with persons living with disabilities to create short documentaries about their lives and how we adapted our methods to fit their needs. We recount our design process, learnings, successes, and contingencies to barriers encountered.

This research, co-led by InAble and Caribou Digital and in partnership with Mastercard Foundation, aims to understand the experiences and challenges of young people living with disabilities and engaging on platforms for work. With the support of InAble and Caribou Digital, we designed open-ended questionnaires to elicit authentic reflections on the challenges faced and strategies employed by platform workers living with disabilities. Our agile approach allowed us to stay nimble, learn from participants, and adjust as required throughout the process.

Three key adjustments to our process

  1. Adapting the project design to ensure access for all. In order to make our collaboration with persons living with disabilities beneficial to them, we tweaked some of our supporting tools (i.e., film practice manuals, questionnaires, film prompts) for ease of use to all participants.
  2. Working with interpreters and aides to accommodate multiple abilities. With the great support of a sign language interpreter and individual aides, we were able to help each participant identify and express the stories most important to them through a mix of in-person and one-on-one narrative and technical skills training. This hybrid mentoring approach helped participants gain confidence in their abilities to self-direct their own stories.
  3. Diversifying post-production. Our versatile post-production, leveraging WhatsApp video / voice calls / voice notes and regular carrier calls, but also importantly in-person training, enabled us to stay in close touch with the participants who faced different types of challenges creating their content.

Adapting the project design

1. Adapting resources

Our participatory self-shot video diaries approach was developed in 2020 as a countermeasure to the COVID-19 lockdown. The framework requires the deployment of equipment and intensive multimedia skills training to all participants, where success depends on participants’ comprehension and willingness to contribute on their own time. So this process can be time and resource intensive. However, even after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, we decided to carry on with the self-shot video approach as participants expressed their eagerness to tell their own stories and willingness to take up the role of self-directing.

As per our usual process, we distributed a small smartphone production kit to each participant. But made a few adjustments to accommodate those who took part.

The phones were preloaded with:

  • Six instructional videos on the downloadable VLC phone application. These instructional videos were embedded with a voiceover (VO) feature that defined and detailed basic film terms and techniques. The VO not only navigated participants with visual impairment through the content but also offered relatable examples for all to try. See a sample Story x Design instructional video here.
  • A readable softcopy instructional manual for the native TalkBack assistive application for both the visually and hearing impaired.
  • An audio instructional manual for the visually impaired participants and their aides.
  • Hardcopy instructional manuals for all.
  • A softcopy questionnaire and prompt document readable with TalkBack apps for all participants.

2. Working with aides during skills training and filming

We gathered with five of the six participants and their aides in a conference room in Thika Town, 44 kilometers from Nairobi City, a central location for all in attendance.

Together with participants and aides, we explored the self-shot video diaries format, examining proper camera orientation, sound capture, lighting, framing, and many more good film practices. Ongoing virtual mentorship provided participants with the support necessary to overcome technical and creative challenges over the course of production.

The close collaboration with interpreters and aides was key to enabling transparent communication with participants, in particular about the use of participants’ images and published videos. With clearly drafted agreement and image release forms, participants with their aides as witnesses, read, understood and after being satisfied, signed onto contributing to the project.

Participants and aides were compensated for their work on this project. Participants received ongoing payments to purchase internet bundles for uploading large media files throughout production, as well as a one-time payment on project completion. Aides were provided with per diems for their efforts in supporting filming.

3. Diversifying post-production

A key addition to this project was Monica Onyango, a sign language interpreter who helped translate footage submitted by the participants with hearing impairment. This enabled the post-production team to transcribe and edit subtitles to build a story that honored the contributors.

In one case where one of the visually impaired participants could not manage to find help in filming and sending more footage, we successfully sought her consent to use her voice notes as voice overs to missing segments in her story. This was in line with our desire to create a safe, accommodating space that offered an equal platform for expression.

Challenges and contingencies

We recognized that there would be challenges that we had not faced before. Although the six participants all come from one country and one time zone, and had experience navigating digital platforms, none had experience self-directing for video or taking part in a collaborative multimedia project of this scale.

Beyond the usual challenges in supporting the production of self-directed videos, here are some specific challenges people with disabilities faced.

  1. The need for in-person support. In addition to an initial in-person training, participants required one-on-one mentorship and refresher sessions throughout the duration of the project. When internet connections failed, team members needed to visit participants with visual impairment in person for troubleshooting and automatic upload restoration. Similarly, when capturing B-roll proved too challenging for participants, we traveled to support, while taking great care to follow participants’ self-direction and maintain the participatory project design.
  2. The availability of aides. Even with per diems on offer, most aides were unavailable on occasion, particularly because most aides selected by participants were fellow students, and others had full-time jobs. Consequently, production was often halted as the visually impaired participants waited for help.
  3. The authenticity of participants’ stories. We wanted to highlight participants’ authentic techniques of navigating the digital world to find work and understand their challenges. However, we refrained from asking questions beyond what participants revealed, allowing them to authentically share their successes and obstacles, instead of only emphasizing their disabilities.

Self-determination

The most gratifying measure of achievement for all of us is the fact that the expressions of all participants were not dictated, directed, or curtailed. At each stage of the project, participants had full control of their stories and authority on what to feature in their final videos.

All contributors stated that they felt liberated and supported throughout the projects, which made even the most difficult moments feel like blips in the project’s timeline.

To those looking to produce user-generated content in collaboration with people from all walks of life, we hope these learnings serve you well. There are many measures to evaluate a film, documentary, or piece of text, but no number can ever be placed on the impact of people feeling seen, listened to, and moved.

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Abu Majid
Caribou Digital
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Multimedia Producer & Story Mentor at Story by Design