SPJ Diversity Tips and Tools

Diversity notes from SPJ, March 2003.

Covering Disability Issues

By Beth Haller, Towson University

When most reporters think of diversity, they think of ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation. Usually they overlook the largest minority, which accounts for about 20 percent of the U.S. population: people with physical and mental disabilities.

Whether you are writing about voting trends, unemployment statistics or the economics of aging, there is a disability angle to uncover. When the school district builds a new elementary school or when the downtown hotel renovates, for example, ask if the buildings comply with federal law. Are they accessible to people with disabilities? In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, most reporters missed stories about the failure of building evacuation plans to include wheelchair users. In the 1994 California earthquake, journalists didn’t report that disaster relief centers used inaccessible shelters and turned away deaf people due to lack of interpreters.

Too often, journalists see disability solely as a medical story or an inspirational feature story. These misrepresent the disability experience as uniquely tragic or pitiful, instead of a part of everyday life.Disability advocates want reporters to consider how society itself creates disability, through architectural, occupational, educational, communicational, and attitudinal barriers to people who are physically different. They say society is what is broken and needs to be fixed, not individuals with disabilities. How can reporters do a better job?

Improve sourcing. Seek out people with disabilities as sources, not just as subjects. Many disability organizations, such as the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., Not Dead Yet in Chicago, and the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., can discuss topics at the national level. Many federal offices focus on disabilities, and each state has an independent living center that can suggest sources in the community. In addition, independent organizations represent almost every type of disability, ranging from the United Cerebral Palsy Association to the National Association of the Deaf.

Examine your biases. If you feel you don’t understand the disability experience, try covering disability issues more, rather than less. Focuson society’s barriers and pertinent disability issues, such as the number of inaccessible voting places during election season or the desire of some blind individuals to have a Braille ballot so they can vote in privacy like everyone else.Start by becoming aware of your own feelings when interacting with a disabled person. Often able-bodied people bury fears about someday coping with a physical or mental disability themselves. This can lead to stories about tragic figures and inspirational “Supercrips,” who supposedly deserve kudos for getting on with daily living. Both are inaccurate. “Being told that you’re inspirational when you’re doing something ordinary is an assault on your self-concept,” explained HolLynn D’Lil, a wheelchair-user, in Mainstream magazine.

Check terms. Language is a hot button for people with disabilities because commonly used terms often do not represent their experiences. Wheelchair-users, for example, explain that they are not “bound” or “confined”; in fact, wheelchairs allow people mobility and independence. Journalists need not look much farther than The AP Stylebook for some guidance. For more in-depth help, use the online style guide created by The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University (http://www.ncdj.org/styleguide.html).

Know your history. People with disabilities have been pressing for civil rights since the 1960s. Journalists should know about the society-altering pieces of legislation that have resulted so far. The three most important laws include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The Rehabilitation Act, first enforced in the 1980s, prohibits disability-based discrimination in federal employment, federally funded programs and services, by federal contractors, and in electronic and information technology used by federal agencies. IDEA guarantees free and public education to U.S. children and young people with disabilities.

The ADA expanded on the Rehab Act. The U.S. Department of Justice summarizes it this way: “The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” It also mandates telecommunications devices for the deaf and phone relay services. Except for some small businesses and organizations who do not have the financial resources to comply, the ADA applies to most of U.S. society.

The ADA is an ongoing civil rights, government, business, legal, education and even sports story. Many business groups and organizations did not want to comply with its requirements. For example, the Professional Golfers Association unsuccessfully tried to block Casey Martin’s use of a golf cart from the PGA tour by claiming walking is integral to golf. Many of the stories about the case were models of balanced disability coverage because reporters sought out perspectives from both the PGA and Martin. That’s all that people with disabilities ask: that they be included as news sources so they can tell their side of the story.

Below is a sampling of disability sources from the SPJ Diversity Toolbox. For more, please go to the SPJ Rainbow Sourcebook and Diversity Toolbox, an online database of qualified experts on key news topics from populations who have been historically underrepresented in the news: people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities. This valuable tool makes it easy for journalists to improve news accuracy and quality by broadening the perspectives and voices in their coverage (http://www.spj.org/rainbowsourcebook). The Diversity Toolbox provides a comprehensive set of links to resources and institutions on the web. Accompanying essays offer principles and strategies for improving stories from conception on through to reporting and writing.

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