How the News MediaHandicap Those with Disabilities

It’s a good month when the usual reporting on disability is balanced by even a single good story. Those months are few and far between, but in May The New York Times gave me reason to hope that thoughtful, stereotype-free stories about people with disabilities can actually see the light of day.

But before we get to that, let’s first note a few high-profile media events that took place in May that illustrate the status quo:

First, a weekend host on National Public Radio actually used the term “confined to a wheelchair” while introducing his interview with actor Olympia Dukakis. He was referring to a character in her new film, “Away From Her,” but fictional character or real person, that term is demeaning. Why? Because using a wheelchair, no matter what the medical condition, allows the person the independence of movement. The term is also inaccurate because no one stays in a wheelchair 24/7, which is what “confined” implies. Though still used by many in the medical field, the term has long since been replaced by those more sensitive to the power of language. (Note to NPR: Try “uses a wheelchair” instead. Notice a difference in tone and level of respect?)

Also receiving a dart is the venerable Editor & Publisher, which in May published a story with this headline: “Deaf Photog and Blind Editor Overcome the Odds Together.”

“Overcoming the odds” is one of several troubling formulas that journalists choose when writing about people with disabilities. The others are, sadly, making people into heroes, objects of pity or sources of inspiration. None of those formulas will ever give a full and accurate portrait of a person with a disability because it crams the individual into some preconceived notion of what his or her life is like (but rarely is).

The E&P story focused on the coverage of the Amish schoolhouse shooting by the Lancaster, Pa., newspaper New Era. Managing Editor Pete Mekeel directed the newsroom’s efforts and the front page featured a photo, taken by photographer Andy Blackburn, of the police removing the killer in a body bag. These experienced newsmen deserve praise for the excellent work they did on that horrific story, but do their physical issues have any relevance to their skills and talent as newsmen? Why not honor them simply as journalists, not disabled journalists? (Note to E&P: People with disabilities go to work every day and perform well. They don’t do it to overcome anything; they need the paycheck.)

The New York Times, thankfully, set a high standard last month for what coverage of disability issues should — and can — be.

The May 15 sports piece, “An Amputee Sprinter: Is He Disabled or Too-Abled,” was groundbreaking in its depth and sophistication — and darn interesting as well.

In the piece about sprinter Oscar Pistorius, “who calls himself the fastest man on no legs,” reporter Jere Longman explores the controversial and complex question of what it takes to be a “real” athlete: record-breaking times or natural limbs?

Pistorius runs with technologically advanced prosthetics that some fear may give him an unfair advantage over racers with their own legs. He competes in the Paralympics (for athletes with disabilities), but wants to crash through that barrier and compete in the Olympics.

That request, as Longman reports, has the athletic world spinning.

The reporter resists all the usual traps in his piece: He neither pities nor praises the sprinter. And he doesn’t set him up as extraordinary in any way except for his athletic talents.

The piece delves deep into the high-stakes world of athletic competition. Through interviews and deep reporting, it probes the widely accepted practice of “separate but equal” — people with disabilities have their competitions, other athletes have theirs. But, the story asks, should it always be that way?

There’s a lesson there for journalists who automatically gravitate to the victim, hero or inspirational story formula when writing about people with disabilities: Those formulas usually imply “separate but not very equal.”

Perhaps these excerpts illustrate that point:

From the Times:

Pistorius is also a searing talent who has begun erasing the lines between abled and disabled, raising the philosophical questions: What should an athlete look like? Where should limits be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete? Would the nature of sport be altered if athletes using artificial limbs could run faster or jump higher than the best athletes using their natural limbs?

From Editor & Publisher:

What makes this great reporting even more remarkable are small details about these two key players: Blackburn is deaf, and Mekeel is legally blind.

But don’t ever expect either man to use his challenges to gain sympathy. Both Blackburn, 42, and Mekeel, 55, say they can do their jobs as well as any other editor or photographer, with news instincts and quick responses being more important than hearing and 20/20 vision.

Notice how the Times story views its subject as a newsworthy athlete, while the one from E&P writes about the disabled journalists. Notice the difference in tone — one is sophisticated and smart; the other, gee-whiz, isn’t that great?

Despite what was said on NPR, journalists need to stop “confining” their coverage of people with disabilities to the old formulas. Rather, they can take the approach outlined in another fascinating story in the Times called “Clearly, Frankly, Unabashedly Disabled.” To put it succinctly, tell a story “less (about) overcoming and more (about) ‘just being.’ “

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