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Journalist with cerebral palsy shares his journey telling people’s stories

William Sangster, Te Rito Journalism cadet

‘How can a journalist tell stories if he’s non-verbal’?

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

After a year telling people’s stories, many of them covering the disabilities community, Te Rito Journalism cadet and Tongan-Kiwi William Sangster is due to graduate alongside his fellow journalism cadets this month. He shares about his experiences in the last year, as a reporter with cerebral palsy.


I never considered journalism because I believed I wasn’t good enough to be in the field.

Cerebral palsy is a disability that affects my verbal communication, dribbling, walking and motor abilities. I have been underestimated all my life.

In 2004, I was in the news after being injected with botox and receiving three times the right amount of the paralysing drug. It landed me in the hospital for months.

William Sangster, age 6, pictured with his mother Lonili Lauaki and father Karl Sangster after he was injected with botox. It was supposed to help him stop dribbling. Instead it stopped him from swallowing. Photo / Dean Purcell

The main reason I was drawn to journalism was the hope I could tell stories for disability communities and influence the tone - with more positive stories about people with disabilities.

My cerebral palsy can be a barrier to communication. How would I gather news? How would I tell stories?

I knew there would be these questions and hurdles to overcome if I wanted to establish myself as a journalist.

In May 2023 I was offered a training cadetship with the Te Rito Journalism project, which trains diverse and bilingual journalists for newsrooms around Aotearoa.

I had been super nervous and excited about the opportunity to interview for it. Even after the offer, I continued to doubt if I deserved to take part.

They called me on the phone to tell me about the offer because they forgot I was non-verbal.

So they then emailed me the details.

I felt scared but my family supported me.

My best friend motivated me and believed in me so I pursued it 100 percent.

Over the past year, I have learned a lot about journalism, the media industry and myself.

Meeting the other 11 cadets in the programme was wonderful.

They have helped and supported me and I know they will change the industry landscape with their unique perspectives.

Challenges: ‘How can a journalist tell stories if he’s non-verbal’?

There were many barriers throughout this year - notably my communication, which was the main one.

How can a journalist tell stories if he’s non-verbal?

I had to come up with creative ways to interview people - sometimes it was email.

Sometimes I would book a Zoom meeting and then use the chat box to ask my questions.

Other times I would use face-to-face texting on my phone.

It frustrated me, at first. Some days you just want to pick up the phone and do a quick interview to improve or finish off your story.

Another challenge that I battle with is social anxiety.

Being a journalist is social and talking to people that I had never met was scary and tested me at times.

Dealing with hate comments regarding my stories and my voice was pretty tough.

I had some low points during the year and many days when I felt like I had imposter syndrome.

My grandpa also died during the year, adding to my challenges. Some days I felt like a burden.

The highlights

As each story developed, my confidence grew.

I began to own my power - my disability - and I tried to tell each story carefully: addressing critical issues like employment shortages for people with disabilities, funding and accessibility.

A huge milestone was being one of the first disabled journalists to do a news bulletin story at Whakaata Māori, using subtitles.

Of all my stories, my favourite was about Tomislav Jurisich, a Croatian student with Down syndrome who performed at Polyfest in the Tongan group for Marcellin College.

Sharing his journey was special to me - not only because going back to my old high school was a full-circle moment for me.

But also seeing Tomislav’s smile light up and his gratitude towards me after the story ran made me feel emotional.

“Thank you, William, for sharing my story,” he said.

‘It has given me purpose’

Being on the Herald’s What the Actual social media team for two months was an incredible experience. I made more than 20 reels just being myself and got to showcase my presenting and editing skills.

Another favourite memory was covering the Polyfest, being at the Tongan stage and using my phone to interview students. It was an experience I will never forget.

This year has gone by fast. I am proud of my achievements, the countless stories and reels I have made. My confidence has grown.

Being in journalism has helped me discover my potential. My fellow cadets and mentors have had an impact on me that will be forever-lasting.

I thought I had an idea of what this opportunity with Te Rito would mean for me, but it was completely different - it has given me a purpose.

It’s bigger than myself. The disability communities need light, they need voices, and their stories need to be amplified on these bigger platforms.

If I can help one person this year tell their story authentically and accurately, then I feel my job is done. Breaking barriers in the industry feels pioneering.

I hope others in the community will see my path and feel able to tell their stories too.

So, do I think I belong in this space, in journalism, after a year? I say hell yeah!

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