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Understanding and Reporting on Disability

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This item is reprinted from the National Centre on Disability and Journalism's web site Suzanne C. Levine is executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism. She founded NCDJ in 1998 based on a gap between what she experienced in photographing within the disability communities and what she saw represented in the mainstream news media. Levine is also a freelance photographer and has a disability. She earned her master's degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University.

Opportunities for good, accurate reporting on disability are being missed.

The most frequent stories are, for example, features about a child who gets to go to camp, coverage of a fund raising event or the super athlete in a wheelchair who climbs the mountain. These stories are typically "inspirational" or evoke feelings of pity.

The missed stories can be hard-hitting, difference-making journalism, the kinds of stories that keep government accountable and people honest. These stories are being missed because society's assumptions about disability aren't considered when disability becomes a news item.

Missed Stories

Why are stories about disability issues being missed? The answer, according to some mainstream news media reporters, is that there is no easy answer.

Bob Egelko, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covers the courts and legal issues does not have specific disability experience. Yet he reports on disability when it comes through the courts.

Through years of reporting Egelko says that with disability it is "impossible to find a monolithic voice because they are complex issues."

According to Buffalo News assistant managing editor for features Sue LoTempio, who uses a wheelchair, the news media is lazy when it comes to the disability issues. "We like to do easy stories and Jerry Lewis' story is a really easy story to cover or to write. And I think they have a kind of mindset that 'OK, we've covered the telethon, that's all we have to do' ... It's very difficult to get anybody to look at the breadth of the stories that are important."

But even when reporters try to get a disability-related story in the news, it can be frustrating. Jennifer LaFleur, a former computer-assisted reporting editor at the Post Dispatch in St. Louis who is currently a McCormick Tribune Journalism Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says she has met resistance when it comes to reporting on hard-hitting disability issues.

"I think most newsrooms see disability reporting as having no underlying issues, that there's no politics involved, no public policy issues that need to be looked at. Nothing!"

Dateline NBC correspondent, John Hockenberry, who uses a wheelchair, gets to the point by saying: "Disability is viewed as on the fringe of society and on the fringe of journalism."

Cultural Context

Why is disability viewed on the fringe and how does this affect coverage?

The first step is to begin to understand how society views disability, because like other diversity issues, society shapes our personal assumptions.

In general, disability is viewed with fear, discomfort and loss. It is stigmatized and the emphasis is on correcting and curing disability.

"On the deepest level, disability brings up visions of our mortality. So, there's some baseline fear. There's a fear of disability that reminds people of the corruption of the body. The disabled body is decomposing before your eyes. There's a real underlining fear of death -- death and corruption," says medical anthropologist Devva Kasnitz, who has a disability and is a faculty member for Disability Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Liz England-Kennedy, a medical anthropologist at who recently completed her dissertation at the University of Arizona, specializes in chronic illness and disability.

Stereotypes about people with disabilities often come from the fact that American culture emphasizes what and how much a person can produce, England-Kennedy says. As a result, non-disabled people have a variety of assumptions about people with disabilities.

"They see the disability first and don't really necessarily look beyond it, to the person," says England-Kennedy who has a close family member with a disability. "There's an emphasis on medicalization, an emphasis on correcting situations, on curing, on what you can do to normalize. There's also a tendency in this culture to assume that a person doesn't know how to help themselves if they have a difficulty."

Fear coupled with the assumption that disability is only something to get rid of, leads to stereotypes that England-Kennedy and others identify as, the "cripple;" the charity case; the victim; the demon; the "supercrip;" the person with a disability and the concomitant gift; and the survivor.

These assumptions about disability can work their way into reporting.

"Usually the problem is the reporter is imposing their own attitudes," says Joseph Shapiro, a National Public Radio correspondent in health, disability, aging, family and other social issues. A source with a disability may tell a reporter "'I'm trying to do what I want to do. ... I'm trying to live my life, I'm not trying to be an inspiration.' And then the next line, the reporter comments 'nevertheless ... so-and-so is an inspiration,'" Shapiro says. "It's not listening well. (The problem is) going in with too much of a preconceived notion."

As writers of the first draft of history, it is incumbent upon journalists to recognize their own cultural assumptions, and then go get the better story, the more accurate story using good old-fashioned journalistic tools.

Finding Missed Stories

LoTempio of the Buffalo News says the problem needs to be addressed on two fronts: staffing and a broadening of ideas about what makes the story.

"We have to get more people with differing disabilities into the newsroom. We create a climate that those of us with disabilities who do work in the business don't feel that we can't push for it," she says.

Journalists can also look for disability issues in all stories that they do.

She points to stories about unemployment, which often cite that the highest unemployment rate is among African Americans.

"The group that's higher -- are disabled people. So they need to know that when they're reporting their regular stories, that there's a segment of the population that has to be included," LoTempio says. "It's not like, go out and do a story about the disabled and their employment problems. It's when you do a story on unemployment don't forget that segment of the population. ... So it's kind of an integration of sources."

The Chronicle's Egelko says, "Beyond the obvious -- learn as much as you can."

LaFleur, who does not have a disability, says getting to know advocates from different disability groups helps keep reporters up to date on key issues.

"I think when we do cover disability issues, we tend to focus on mobility impaired. So get involved in the deaf community and the blind community. (People who are) blind have totally different issues when it comes to transportation problems," she says.

Shapiro, who does not have a disability, suggests making use of what already exists. "Go to more resources. And stylebooks have changed, too. Don't say 'wheelchair-bound,' don't use the terminology of pity."

Accurate, fair and diverse reporting on disability can take place. The first step is to be aware of how society, and ultimately how you view disability.

Listen to what sources say and avoid self-censoring. Know there is more than one point of view and find it.

The payoff can be satisfying and lead to groundbreaking stories.

After moving to the Post Dispatch, LaFleur broke her leg and experienced the city's inaccessibility. This spurred her to begin talking with local disability activists to find out what the most pressing disability issues were in the area. "They said transportation was really a big issue here and that's what we should look at. We did," she says.

Her story prompted a federal investigation into the local transit agency.

"The story ended with good results and things happening from the journalism side."

Suggested Reading:

  • "The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age," edited by Jack A. Nelson, Greenwood Press.

  • "No Pity," by Joseph P. Shapiro, Random House, Inc.

For more information contact: National Centre on disability and Journalism (Educating to Increase Accuracy, Fairness and Diversity in News Reporting), 944 Market Street, Ste 829, San Francisco, CA 94102-4019; Voice: 415-291-0868; Fax: 415-291-0869; Email:; Web Site: