Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Stories Should Focus on Person, Not Disability

I came across this story that I wrote in July of 2003 and felt like it was worth sharing again in this space as a reminder of something that is often over-looked:

There are over 54 million people with various types and degrees of disabilities in the United States according to Ann Morris, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independent Living, Springfield, Mo.

However, there is also a growing need for the news media to do a better job of portraying what it means to be disabled.

"If the disability is not part of the story, don't bring it up," said Morris. "And, if you do bring it up, don't sensationalize it by saying a person is 'afflicted with', 'suffers from', or is a 'victim of' a particular disability."

Morris also sees opportunities for the news media to show people with disabilities as active participants of society and to be a driving force in changing how society views them.

"What I would like to see is journalists talking more about how we value disabled people or showing examples of this, like writing about the expenditures being made toward ADA compliance," said Morris. "Instead of writing about a disability, focus on issues like accessible transportation, affordable health care and discrimination."

According to Dr. Chris Craig, assistant dean of education services at Southwest Missouri State University, the greatest need in news coverage is for the media to put people first.

"Talk about the person, not the disability by putting people first, with phrases like, the man who is blind, instead of focusing on the fact I am blind. If you have to mention the disability, be sure the story shows the disability is only one characteristic of the whole person," said Craig.

Another concern expressed by the panel is the tendency for the news media to portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman. Portraying people with disabilities as superstars raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should achieve this same level.

"Don't overstate the accomplishments of a disabled person because it gives the impression they are unusual when the fact is there are millions of very intelligent and successful disabled people," said Craig. "Overstating accomplishments, or writing about a disabled person's super achievement, can also give the impression that what they are doing is something other disabled people do all the time. Both of these are problems in the media."

Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with nondisabled people in social and work environments helps to break down barriers quicker than the Americans with Disabilities Act can.

"Laws don't change the hearts of people," said Craig.

Jami Johnson knows first hand the impact ADA can have but also the impact that people with disabilities can have when given a chance.

"Jami served on an MSU advisory board to bring about changes on the campus after the ADA went into effect," said her mother Cathy Johnson. "News stories at the time focused on the fact that she has muscular dystrophy and was serving on this committee instead of focusing on what she and the rest of the committee was accomplishing on campus."

Craig, Morris and the Johnsons were on a panel at a workshop entitled, "A Guide to the Americans with Disabilities Act," which was presented July 22, 2003, in Springfield, Mo., by the Society of Professional Journalists Southwest Missouri Chapter (SPJ).

What has been your experience reporting on these types of issues?


Blogger sideshow said...

Interesting and couldn't agree more! I'm new to whole the blogging thing but was inspired of by the "Ashley" or "Pillow Angel" story and how FoxNews broke the story with such a horrific display of sensationalist journalism...

Here's the link to my blog, would love to hear your thoughts:


6:01 PM, January 09, 2007  

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