March 14, 2006

Far too often, stories that cover people with disabilities fall into familiar categories. They include stories that show the disabled as:

  • Inspiring

  • Overcoming physical or mental challenges

  • Developing “super-human” skills intended to negate a disability

  • Victim of a disease or the medical “miracle” du jour
Invariably, the stories use words like suffers, afflicted, different. My personal favorite: special. (Could it be that people with disabilities are special just for being alive?)

Add this type of coverage up. What message hits you between the eyes? What I hear is that being disabled means being a sad, helpless victim whose goal is to inspire others.

Sounds harsh? Consider the last few stories your media outlet ran that dealt with a person with a disability.

  • Did you assign it because it was meant to inspire readers or tap into feelings of pity? (Think the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon.)

  • Did you run the story because you needed some “good news” on your pages?

  • Was there a solid news angle?

  • Was it a slow news day?
The Daily Messenger of Canandaigua, N.Y., story that moved on the wires a few weeks ago serves as a good example of the stereotypical coverage editors and reporters are too often drawn to. The newspaper reported on 17-year-old Jason McElwain, the team manager of the Greece Athena High School varsity basketball team, who was asked by his coach to suit up for the last game.

When the team opened up a big enough lead, Jason, who has autism, was sent in, and with four minutes left in the game, scored 20 points.

“The crowd, the team, the coaches went wild,” reporter Mike Bailey wrote. “Even the opposing players were happy for him.”

Such is a tale that editors love. It’s happy news, it’s inspiring, and it’s sports, the great human equalizer.

Here’s what the story didn’t tell us: Did Jason’s high school accommodate him and educate him properly? How was Jason treated by his teammates — as an equal or more like a mascot? Is the guidance office at Jason’s school helping him plan his post-high school education in the same way as the other students?

Of course, the story that moved on the wires wasn’t meant to do anything other than cover that game. But it does illustrate how easy it is to go after the “inspirational” piece and how much more reporting is required to tell the fuller, more important story.

Issues of disability ought to be incorporated into traditional beats. Let me give you a few ideas about what I mean:

  • Have your education reporter take a look at whether students with all types of disabilities are being integrated into school life outside the classroom. Are they encouraged to join after-school clubs? Do they try out for the school play? Are they in the chorus and the school band? If not, why not? And if they do stay after school, are the after-school activity buses accessible, or do those only run when the bell rings at the end of the day?

  • Assign a story on your transit beat that looks into how accessible the public transportation is in your city/town. If the buses have wheelchair lifts, do they work? Check to see if the elevators at subway stops are also functioning. How are persons with sight and hearing disabilities accommodated? If your locale uses a para-transit system, how difficult is it to get a ride?

  • People with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate of any minority group in the nation (close to 65 percent, according to the last Census). Have your business reporters check the local numbers and find out why local employers aren’t hiring workers with disabilities. Is it an issue of training or accommodation or both? Once in the door, does a disabled employee have an equal shot at promotion?

  • After the Katrina experience, every newspaper should look into the issue of emergency preparedness. Find out if your local government has a plan to evacuate disabled citizens in case of a hurricane, flood, earthquake, etc. If there is no such plan, the public should know.
Those are certainly not the inspiring or motivational stories that we usually write, but they are much more important. Did you notice that they don’t necessarily fit into the health/medicine/science beat, which is where disability stories traditionally are assigned?

Fact is, there are 49 million Americans (or one in five) who have a disability, and they have many stories to tell that have nothing to do with their medical conditions. Most of those stories go to the heart of discrimination and second-class treatment in a society that is uncomfortable with physical differences.

To get at these stories, we first have to put away the stereotypes. Then we must decide that as much as we crave “good” news, and as much as we want to give our readers inspiring stories, it’s time to go after the harder stories — the ones that reflect the reality of being disabled in America today.

I’d like to hear your ideas on disability coverage. Post your feedback here or e-mail me at

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News