July 24, 2015
Andrea Dalzell, 2015 Ms. Wheelchair New York, participates in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade, Sunday, July 12 in New York.  (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Andrea Dalzell, 2015 Ms. Wheelchair New York, participates in the inaugural Disability Pride Parade, Sunday, July 12 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Like many reporters who end up covering disability issues, it’s not my beat. But I’ve made my share of mistakes­­ and seen enough of the mistakes other journalists make to be able to come up with this list of some basic mistakes to avoid, and links to other sources if you want to dig in deeper.

Talk to people with disabilities.This seems simple and almost absurd to mention. But I’ve seen plenty of stories include quotes from social service providers, academics and politicians and leave out people with disabilities. A mantra in the disability community is “nothing about us, without us.” Keep that in mind when reporting.

Don’t forget people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.  Many policies, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), cover a wide range of disabilities. But in practice, people with these types of disabilities are often left out. When examining how a policy is working, don’t forget to look at full spectrum of disability.

Watch your words:  The most basic rule is to use people first language. For example, “people with disabilities,” not “the disabled.” Also be aware of language that implies a negative, for example “wheelchair bound” or “suffers from.” When in doubt, as a person how they identify. Visit here for a more robust style guide.

Beaware of accommodations: When setting up an interview, be sure to ask if there are any accommodations you might need to provide. Do you need to arrange for a translator? Will the space you are meeting in be accessible? You may need to allow extra time for the interview if the person uses a translator or has slow speech.

Communication: If someone uses a translator, talk to them, not the translator. Do not talk about them in the third person. If someone has a speech impediment, never pretend to understand what they said if you don’t. It may feel uncomfortable to ask someone to repeat themselves, but your most important responsibility is to hear what the person has to say.

Be aware of tropes and stereotypes: Common tropes include a “heroic person overcoming a disability” or a “violent person with mental illness.” When you find yourself telling a story with this narrative, stop and check yourself to see if that is really what it is about. Ask yourself if there is more nuance you can include.

Other Resources:

A guide to data on disability from ProPublica reporter, Jennifer LaFleur

National Alliance for Mental Illness is a good starting point for mental illness issues, many places have local chapters.

Americans with Disabilities Act page, is a good place to start if you are doing a story on the anniversary.

The institute for community inclusion, is a good starting point for state level data on disability.

As the Americans with Disabilities Act turns 25, The Poynter Institute, Access Living and ADA25 Chicago are putting on a two-day workshop designed to provide journalists with the skills they need to describe the impact of the law and document where people with disabilities still continue to be excluded. The McCormick Foundation is funding the effort. If you are interested, Apply here.

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.

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