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?