Today In Journalism: Do You Feel Special? Well? Do You?!

Content warning: This post includes a discussion of an article that frames disability in extremely patronising, offensive, and infantalising objectifying (note) terms. There will be selections from said article quoted for the  purpose of criticism and discussion.

I’ve been noticing an uptick in really, really bad articles about disability lately. I was puzzling last night over why the mainstream media has suddenly taken an interest in disability, and someone pointed out that the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is rapidly approaching, which means that we can probably expect more really bad articles about disability in the US over the next month or so.

I suppose it’s too much to ask that the media consider contracting people with disabilities to write articles about disability, or that the media consider educating its journalists so that they can cover disability more effectively and appropriately. Oh, wait. No it’s not. There are, after all, style guides published by professional organisations providing information about how to cover disability. It’s not like people with limited experience have no resources to use when preparing articles on disability. They are just choosing not to use these resources.

We read so you don’t have to.

Up today, ‘Inside the life of a person with disabilities,’ a feature that recently ran at an Ohio ABC affiliate. This article and the accompanying video read like the journalist closely read haddayr’s ‘Plucky Cripples Don’t Let Lack of Bingo Card Stop Them‘ and my guide to talking about disability in the media, took careful notes, and then deliberately tried to hit every possible offensive trope. Really, my hat is off to Susan Ross Wells, the reporter who prepared this piece. It takes remarkable talent to be able to fit all of this into one short local interest piece. This a journalist who will be Going Places, I can sense it.

Here’s the lede:

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you couldn’t see or if you were confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk. It’s a reality for people living with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean these special people can’t lead happy, fulfilling lives.

I am rarely surprised by things in the media anymore. I pretty regularly think that I’ve seen it all. And then one of my Google Alerts has to deliver something on a whole new level, like this article. This lede manages to hit variations on ‘She didn’t let her disability stop her!’ ‘Confined to a wheelchair’ ‘Special’ and, of course, ‘…proving you can achieve anything if you really try!’ all in two sentences!

The article profiles an institutionalised woman with disabilities, making sure to tell us that her mother thinks of her as a ‘joy’ and informing us that the mother feels like ‘placing’ her daughter was, well: ‘the hardest thing that I ever had to do, but it turned out to be the best thing that I did.’ Life in institutions is grand, the article suggests. A barrel of fun times, all the time.

And, of course: ‘She has brought so much out in me as a person, as a mother. She’s brought such joy.’


People ask, sometimes, why we are so angry about depictions of disability in pop culture and the media. Why we can’t just be happy that disability is being covered at all. Articles like this, depictions like this, do absolutely nothing to promote social equality for people with disabilities. They do absolutely nothing to dispel harmful myths and stereotypes. They do absolutely nothing to humanise us. As long as nondisabled people are the ones covering disability for the media, we are going to continue seeing disability framed in these terms. Is it any wonder that ableism is rife when stories like this are the models for thinking about disability, interacting with people with disabilities, and talking about disability that most people encounter?

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'.

10 thoughts on “Today In Journalism: Do You Feel Special? Well? Do You?!

  1. I was most annoyed at the depiction of institution life. You’re led to believe that the institution is really the best “home” for disabled people, regardless of how in reality most people in institutiosn lead empty lives and may not even get the basic care they need.

  2. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. PLEASE, could someone write an AWP on “special?” That word makes my blood boil.

    The extent to which people automatically associate “disability” with brokenness enrages me. To give a personal example, I’ve had a bit of an issue trying to get my own parents to accept me calling myself disabled. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own problems with the term and its assumption of a default state for humanity, but it’s as if my parents have never heard of invisible disabilities—they outright rejected it at first, claiming that my combination of autism + OCD isn’t enough to truly merit the word, and they used scare tactics to claim that I’d never get a job if I defined myself that way. (And even though they rejected this notion when I brought it up, I couldn’t help but sense that they wanted me to regard myself as different from “real” disabled people—that is, what people traditionally think of as disabilities, such as limited bodily or sensory capacity.) After having finally found an understanding voice yesterday in my therapist, I’ve reiterated what she said to my mom and gotten her to come around more to it, but I don’t know if my dad will ever accept it. I mean, I love my dad, but I think he just has this sense of inflated pride about me since I’m his only child, and he doesn’t want to see me as anything “deficient,” I guess. And I understand how the modern phenomenon of diagnoses popping up like mushrooms is somewhat scary to Boomers like my parents, but I hope they can overcome their fear of the unknown.

    But back to what you were addressing, s.e.—of course such language makes disability activists do an automatic facepalm, but to think that the vast majority of our population (which I’m sure included myself before I became aware of my mental state) has no problem treating disabled people as means to ends. It’s more than infantilization—which I find to be kind of an ageist term anyway—it’s objectification, pure and simple.

  3. What immediately infuriates me about this article (and the accompanying TV news clip) is that the journalist assumes there are no disabled people in her audience. I don’t have to “imagine for a moment what it would be like” to have a disability. I’m sure that blind people and wheelchair users, whose disabilities are specifically mentioned in the first sentence, would be still more offended, since the journalist explicitly excluded them.

    Also, Mindy Hopkins, the actual person being profiled here, doesn’t get to speak very much. If you watch the clip, the reporter asks her what movies she enjoys, but directs all of her questions about Mindy’s life, disability, and institutionalization to her mother. Why didn’t she ask Mindy how she feels about living in an institution?

  4. Cat, you’re absolutely right, ‘infantalising’ is indeed ageist word use; to say that treating adults like infants is dehumanising is to suggest that infants are not human. That was very poor word choice on my part and I apologise. I’ve edited the post to reflect that—’objectification’ is more appropriate, more accurate, and not marginalising to boot!

    Zoe, YES! That is one of the many things that irked me about this article, and someone else brought this up when I was talking about it in another space yesterday. I believe that the mainstream media is under the impression that we don’t actually follow the news.

  5. @Zoe: What immediately infuriates me about this article (and the accompanying TV news clip) is that the journalist assumes there are no disabled people in her audience.

    YES. THIS. This is something that irritates me in a lot of discourse about disability— the implicit belief that nobody with a disability is actually participating in that discourse.

    For another example, I’ve seen several autism experts who give speeches, yet who don’t even consider the fact that any members of their audience might themselves be autistic. (No, I don’t need any help imagining what it’s like being on the spectrum; however, I could use some help imagining what it’s like to be neurotypical!)

  6. Thanks, s.e.! It’s not that I’m some babies-are-everything pro-lifer (heaven forbid) but ever since I was a little kid I’ve always resented people who don’t respect younger people’s opinions, particularly since with my late birthday I’m often the youngest person in a lot of situations. (Now I have to be really careful not to start gloating and being a general jerk when I do have the opportunity to speak with people younger than me.)

    And Zoe, I really think that situation is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You see, if the interviewer were to do the exact opposite thing and only ask disabled people about their disabilities and nothing beyond it, we’d accuse that person of oversimplifying and we’d show as a counterpoint that ALL people with disabilities have lives beyond their mental/physical limits. You’d think they’d want to address both sides of the coin in interviews, but no, the vast majority of TAB/M folk really haven’t caught on to that.

  7. I know a particular cringe-worthy phrase around here is “xie suffers from…”

    I do suffer from the pain. I do have fun at times, I laugh and do stuff I like. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think that if I were profiled, my watching Bollywood (reading those subtitles!) despite the pain would be *sniff, sniff* inspiring.

    Of course, “suffering from” would be less problematic if they talked to us.

    K and X met at their school’s disability center – both are majoring in French. X has z, and says zie doesn’t think of zer disability as something to xie “suffers from – it’s just a part of my life.” K says “Oh, I suffer from y, but my main problem is trying to get X to watch Bollywood with me!”

  8. “Imagine for a moment….” those are words to loathe. One cannot imagine the depth and scope of what living with a disability is until one becomes a disabled person, and even then it is hard to imagine living with disabilities you don’t have.

    People need to get it in their heads that they don’t need to imagine what it is like to be disabled. They need to pay attention to what a disabled person might tell them about the world that they live in and respect us as fully human as they.

  9. I admit I used to use the word “special” too, but I’ve learned to stop using it, as it would make my blood boil too.

    And I’m sick of glamorizing institutions and thinking that we don’t deserve anything (such as decent benefits, but that’s another post altogether.

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