Disability Narratives & The Media

As a journalist, and as a person with a disability, this subject is of particular interest to me. Having been a part of the industry since 2015, I can tell you two things from experience.

Stories that involve disability, in any of its many contexts, are notoriously well received by most editors. At least that’s been my experience, I haven’t had a single editor throw a story back in my face and say “nobody cares”.

Quite the opposite in fact. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a story about disability rejected.

The second thing is that context matters, background research matters, and an understanding of the long-held frustrations within the disability community is a must. That takes time, something that the news business typically does not have, but in doing so, you’ll quickly learn that language matters when stories do get published.

A phrase such as “suffers from” is a great example. It might be easy language, but it’s also inherently assumptious and places the entire life of the disabled person under an assumed cloud of suffering.

The reality is that most disabled people don’t suffer from their disability. Dealing with the toxic disability support system? Now that might be something we suffer from, but it isn’t the be all of our daily lives, because it implies the majority of us don’t have one.

As a journalist, former public speaker, current radio host, boyfriend, son, nephew, et cetera – I can assure you there is much more to life than the wheelchair in which I sit.

It’s imperative that news stories published by us in the mainstream media about disability are respectful and accurate. It’s also worth noting that journalists, and this is a mistake I’ve made in the past, aren’t always great at thinking about how a person with a disability may wish to be described.

I wrote one particular story last year, calling someone featured in my story a “disability advocate”. In my mind I thought it was ok, then I saw a tweet from the Chief Exec of a major disability organization that inferred my very article framed that particular person in what she called an “ablest narrative”.

It then dawned upon me, if ableism is to be present in how we the media report on disability, then we should probably have a look at addressing it. Simply relying on the ideology that reporting on a news story involving people with disabilities brings to light the issues impacting that community, and therefore brings about some change, is a flawed approach to have in my view.

If not, there will be a growing distrust between the disability community and the media. In our reporting of the news, and it’s also true that this goes well beyond just stories impacting people with disabilities, we need to slow down a bit and think about the wider contexts that are put in place because of the language being used.

None of that was done in some of the media coverage this week surrounding basketballer Thomas Abercrombie and his children, who also happen to be on the Autism spectrum.

Let’s hope more care is taken next time.

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