The Times’s inaugural disability reporting fellow shares how one of the best ways to improve disability reporting is to talk to more disabled people.
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When Starbucks opened a “Signing Store” in Washington, D.C., in October 2018, some of my well-meaning friends sent me articles on the subject, remarking on how “cool” it was. As a hard-of-hearing woman, I saw it differently: Although I was happy to learn that Starbucks was trying to be more inclusive, to me, hiring people with disabilities isn’t a big news story — and neither is a corporation making one store accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. I felt that the real story was how some of those workers had master’s degrees, yet they had trouble finding jobs elsewhere because of their disability. (I ended up covering that topic in a two-part series for NPR.)
Many articles about people with disabilities make it seem as if it is exceptional when they do things that nondisabled people do, such as get jobs, go to prom or compete in sports. It’s not. These articles “otherize” disabled people and cast their stories as “inspiration” for nondisabled people. Reducing disabled people’s lives into simplistic narratives about overcoming barriers to do ordinary things often misses the fact that society created those same barriers in the first place.
In my role as the inaugural disability reporting fellow for The New York Times, a role I’ve held since June, I aim to shift the way that the news media reports on and writes about disabled people. Some of my work dismantles long-held stigmas and negative attitudes that many people have toward disability — such as the flawed idea that having a disability is inherently bad or is limiting. I’ve never felt that my disability has made me “less”; instead, my disability is an important part of my identity and has given me a different perspective to offer the world.
A crucial part of reporting on disabilities in a nonproblematic way is picking stories that are actually newsworthy, not stories that turn people with disabilities into spectacles for nondisabled audiences. When considering a story idea, I ask myself: Why is this newsworthy? What are disabled people saying about this? Am I framing this story in a nuanced way that looks at the broader context?
Any time I’m writing an article that affects a group of people with certain conditions or disabilities, I always reach out to multiple people living with the condition and include their voices in the story. This ensures that there’s room for differences of opinion or experience — disability needs to be covered in an intersectional way that includes people of various races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, ages and economic backgrounds. This feels like a basic tenet of journalism — to include the voices of the groups that are affected by whatever issue you’re writing about — but I often see stories about issues that affect people with disabilities that don’t quote a single disabled person. Disabled people are sometimes sidelined as sources in favor of nondisabled researchers or doctors. Although these voices can enhance the story, they shouldn’t replace the voices of disabled people in a story that involves their community.
I sometimes get asked, “What’s the best way to interview someone with a disability?” I don’t approach a person with a disability any differently than I approach a nondisabled person. The only thing that might change is my communication style, depending on what disability my source has. For example, I make sure a source with an intellectual or developmental disability is aware of what that person is consenting to with an interview, and I ensure that my questions are easy to understand. If I’m interviewing a source who is not able to speak, I’ll email my questions as opposed to conducting the interview in person or over the phone.
Reporters also have a tendency to ask for interviews “as soon as possible,” if they are on tight deadlines, but for some interview sources, chronic illness flare-ups can make it impossible to do an interview on the same day of a request. I try to give my sources as much time as I can, and I make it clear that I understand their health is the priority.
When I’m actually writing, language is important: When I interview people with disabilities, one of the first things I do, if their disability is relevant to the story, is ask them how they prefer to be described. Some people, like myself, prefer identity-first language, such as “disabled person,” while others prefer person-first language, like “person with a disability.” (The preference can depend on a range of complicated factors, including what disability they have and their relationship with their disability.) I don’t use terms that make it sound as if someone is a “victim” of a disability. I don’t say someone is “afflicted” with a disability; I simply say they “have” a disability. I also don’t use terms like “wheelchair-bound,” “birth defect” or “homebound.”
While disability itself isn’t a bad thing, some people don’t want to be identified by their disabilities, whereas others may consider it an integral part of who they are.
One of the hardest parts about reporting on disabled people is that there are so many different types of disabilities and their experiences vary widely. I’m not an expert on every disability, but the key to being a disability reporter is to acknowledge that — and listen to those who are.