Journalism with a Difference-Poynteronline
People with disabilities want to see themselves in your coverage. Consider these tips for ways to do it right.
By Susan M LoTempio
Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas-Lawrence
Society of Professional Journalists' Diversity Toolbox
National Center on Disability & Journalism
The most frustrating part of my job as a readership editor is hearing people complain that they don't read the newspaper because there's nothing in it that reflects their day-to-day lives.
Here's the irony: I have the same complaint.
I'm a wheelchair user who has worked in newsrooms for 30 years. And, not for lack of trying, I haven't had much success getting stories written about the things that affect me -- and people like me -- every single day. Things like:
Access to public places;
Subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination;
Poor medical care; and
Lack of recreational opportunities.
One in five Americans has a disability, according to the last census. That number may mushroom, as baby boomers hit their 60s and face the life-changing health challenges that come with aging.
Still, most reporters shy away from writing stories about disability. They think they're too hard to do. Reporters worry they'll say something during an interview that might offend a person who appears fragile. They worry about getting the jargon and medical terminology right.
Many editors don't assign stories about disability because they're "downers" -- the opposite of "inspirational" stories, which are perceived as good news.
In-depth coverage of disability issues requires no more effort or skill than any other story. First, do your homework. Then report, ask, research and report some more.
On the homework side of the equation, let me offer some guidance.
Understand who falls under the definition of disabled.
A person with a disability is generally defined as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities" -- such as working, caring for one's self, walking, seeing or hearing -- has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.
How do you interview a person with a disability?
The basics apply. Conduct the interview in a place that's convenient for both of you. Ask if there's any special arrangement that needs to be made (a site with no steps or a sign-language interpreter). Be open, honest and don't be afraid to ask the obvious. That's certainly more productive than ignoring something that might affect the quality of the interview. Also:
Focus on the person you are interviewing, not his or her disability. Speak directly to your subject, not to his or her companion or interpreter.
Ask before giving assistance. Wait for the answer before doing anything (such as pushing the wheelchair that the interview subject is using).
When talking to someone with a hearing loss, face him or her and don't cover your mouth.
When meeting an interview subject with a visual disability, identify yourself verbally. If he or she has a service animal or guide dog, don't praise, pet or talk to the animal.
A wheelchair, or other assistive device, is part of a person's body space. Don't lean on or touch the wheelchair, unless the person asks you to.
How do I know the right words to use?
The words a journalist uses can either reinforce stereotypes or help to correct them. These guidelines should help you use the correct terminology. But if you're in doubt, ask the person you are interviewing for the terms he or she prefers.
Avoid emotionally charged (and inaccurate) words, such as suffers from, afflicted with and victim.
Emphasize the person, not the disability. For example, use man with epilepsy, not epileptic, woman with diabetes, not diabetic.
Avoid generic labels like the deaf or the blind. Instead, use people who are deaf, or children who are blind.
Don't use condescending euphemisms or "cute" terms like handicapable, mentally different, or physically challenged.
Never use cripple when referring to a person. And don't use confined to a wheelchair. Instead, use person with a disability or person who uses a wheelchair.
Beware of the word special. It is too often used to describe separate, such as special buses for the disabled or special bathrooms. It's more accurate to write separate buses (or bathrooms) for the disabled. Even more important, avoid referring to people and children with disabilities as special. It is considered patronizing and condescending.
Non-disabled is the appropriate term for people without disabilities, not normal, healthy or whole.
And one last suggestion: When doing stories about disability, talk to people with disabilities.
Sure, that seems obvious. But you'd be surprised at how often reporters talk to those who "speak for" people with disabilities -- doctors, teachers, researchers and bureaucrats -- but never to those at the center of the story.
One of the most degrading stereotypes is that we can't speak for ourselves. Journalists can certainly help change that misperception.