Criticism and the Vatican, Part Two: Adventures in Bad Reporting

I wanted to specifically address something I’ve noted seems to be a bit of a recurring theme in how newspapers are handling the reporting on child abuse cases involving Deaf boys. I think the best way to illustrate it is just to throw some pull quotes at you:

…their reports fell on the deaf ears of hearing people. 1

Somebody has to tell the First See when it’s blind — and mute — to deaf children in America and Italy. 2

There’s a lot more where that came from, but I don’t think that I need to belabour the point, do I? And I swear I’m not picking on the Times, it was just such an easy shot.

There are a broad assortment of problems with this. The first, of course, is ableist language, something which we talk about a lot here at FWD. That ‘deaf ears’ usage is an extremely common way of saying ‘decided to selectively ignore information.’ So common, in fact, that when I do a search for ‘deaf ears’ on pretty much any newspaper site, I get a whole slew of results.

In this particular case, it’s an ableist language double whammy. ‘Deaf ears’ is offensive and irritating in and of itself, but when it is being used to trivialise reports about sexual abuse of people with disabilities, it honestly has me seeing red. And I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense, I mean it makes me so angry that I actually see coloured spots at the edge of my vision and I am afraid that I’m going to pop a capillary.

The media apparently thinks that sexual abuse of children with disabilities is something to pun about. Hardy har har, Deaf children were raped! That’s hilarious! And it’s not just the Times that is doing this. Every single report I’ve read has made some variation on the ‘deaf ears’ joke. Often multiple articles published in the same publication on the same day, as though the editors think that the same pathetic joke is just soooo funny that they can go ahead and use it twice, and sometimes it appears twice in the same article. My daddy always taught me that you shouldn’t use the same metaphor twice in 800 words because it makes you look uncreative, is all I’ll say about that.

Which, you know. It shouldn’t surprise me that this is treated as a laughing matter, given that sexual assault of people with disabilities in general is ignored by the general public or treated like something which doesn’t happen. Despite the fact that we are twice as likely to experience sexual assault, that rape is endemic in institutions, that women are sterilised so that they cannot get pregnant, which would reveal the fact that they are being raped, rape of people with disabilities is rarely talked about. When it is, it’s often in joking terms, and people say things like ‘why would anyone rape someone in a wheelchair, they’re gross,’ as though rape is about sex when it is, in fact, about power, the exercise of power, the manipulation of power.

What this kind of language does is reinforce the idea that sexual assault of people with disabilities is a joking matter.

It’s not.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

6 thoughts on “Criticism and the Vatican, Part Two: Adventures in Bad Reporting

  1. I used to believe the hype about the NYT (from people who hated it) but the comment section and now this tripe makes me think the haters are full of it. It’s not a bastion of progressive liberalism. (Comments on an article about working moms in Germany were both racist and sexist!)

    I’d expect it from the Post or the Daily Fail.

    But punning about sexual abuse?

    Of course, one could argue the first one is just a figure of speech and they weren’t thinking of the very real DEAF victims… but someone approved this.

    How many times will PWD repeat the stats about abuse and rape and how many times will it be ignored?

    A rich white girl (emphasis on girl – maybe a teenager) must be abused before anyone will care. At my mom’s old school, another special ed assistant used a flyswatter on the kids when she got mad at them. A “high-functioning” black girl (she could talk about what happened) was ignored. But bruises on this rich white girl?!

  2. How anyone could pun when they’re writing about sexual abuse is beyond me. Simply inexcusable.

  3. I just wanted to say:
    1. This was a very well-written blog on a totally horrifying subject. Like, sometimes when something is so beyond-the-beyond, I find it hard to even express the issues, so thank you for spelling it out.
    2. The Vatican continues to make me hate them, more and more, and the newspapers — the reporters that wrote that crap and even more their editors who tweaked and approved it — should … see, here, I’m at a loss for words. I can’t even think of what would be a fitting punishment or way for them to come to grips with what they’re doing. It’s just utterly appalling.

  4. One of the nastiest spats the boyfriend and I have had involved the use of ableist language – in that case, references to sight (short-sighted, blind, and the like) used to infer failure to plan or percieve.

    He didn’t get why it was wrong until I pointed it out, and the spat got as bad as it did because he thought I was being condescending when really I was shocked – he understood why ‘lame’, ‘spaz’, and ‘retard’ were problematic, but sight-related ableist language seemed like good metaphors to him.

    Within a few hours, we were able to actually talk about it, and he did get it, but it was one hell of a shock to me that someone who picks up on sexist language and a lot of ableist language could be so willing to defend other ableist language. It still makes me wince to think about that conversation, even though I know that most of it was him getting defensive rather than him thinking about it and still defending the position.


  5. ‘Fell on deaf ears’ has always been a clanger that made me see red. Even when it refers to hearing people.

    Especially so when it refers to deaf people, like this is amusing.

    And in this case … I’ve just been so, so, so knotted up with anxiety since I heard about this, because I might be verbal, but speech is not natural to me. And when I’m scared, I can’t speak. I can’t. I forget all of the oral training I’ve ever had and I start trying to sign, and only to sign, and so many people take that as a cue to pin down my hands.

    And the what-if-it-were-me, disabled Deaf woman, if it were me, too, just plays on and on in my head, and my heart breaks because it is me. This is talking about me, too, I don’t even have to imagine it, I just remember, and I feel so small, and I can’t say anything.

    Thank you for this.

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