It would be so nice if journalists would stop using weird synonyms for “disabled” … like handicapped, mentally challenged, and wheelchair-bound. We say it all the time, but they keep appearing in news stories. Just say “disabled” and leave it at that.
Now that we have that out of the way, there are two other ways journalists can improve coverage of disabled people and disability issues. These are, I think, a bit more important:
1. Always look into the potential systemic, structural aspects of seemingly individual stories.
Personal stories of adversity, struggle, and triumph are appealing, but a lot of the problems disabled people face have their roots in laws, policies, and practices that affect other disabled people, too. Yet, many stories about disabled people fail to even address ways that individual disability problems might be solved in more permanent, systematic ways. This reinforces the rather lonely and discouraging idea that dealing with a disability is a solo endeavor. It also gives cover to people and institutions that perhaps should be doing more to make life better for all disabled people.
Example: The story of an Austin, TX high school student with Cerebral Palsy who raised over $80,000 to install push-button automatic doors at his high school. It’s a legitimately uplifting human interest story, but a reporter might have asked why the school wasn’t paying for the modifications, since accessibility is part of schools’ responsibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
2. Never print or air a story about disabled people without talking to and quoting disabled people.
The principle here is “Nothing about us without us.” It is a phrase with a long lineage in the disability rights community, but it is just as applicable in journalism. Normally, reporters will at least try to get a direct quote from every individual named in a story, to get their perspective on the issue and not just another person’s impression of their perspective. When it comes to disability stories, however, the standard seems to slip. It’s quite common in stories about disabled people to never hear directly from disabled people. Instead it seems to be considered acceptable to have parents speak for disabled children or youth, and agency staff to speak for “their clients.” It is true that a few disabled people can’t speak for themselves, but that is a very small number if you allow for “speaking” through non-verbal or adaptive means. Most people with intellectual disabilities, too, have meaningful things to say about their lives and experiences. In fact, a reporter at times may be in a unique position to give a public voice to people who are, intentionally or not, often left out of discussions that have a direct impact on their lives.
Example: TV coverage of the Bilodeau brothers, the Canadian Olympic Freestyle skier and his brother, who has an intellectual disability. Frederick, we are told, is a huge fan of his Olympian brother Alex. On camera he seems like he could have meaningful, specific things to say, but he is never interviewed, and none of the reporters even mention any attempt to speak to him directly. This happened the same way over multiple interviews with the athlete and the rest of the family, over two successive Winter Olympics. There is every indication that Frederick absolutely does idolize his brother and loves watching him win. The point is that he has never voiced those feelings to the world, in his own words, and we don’t know why.