Today In Journalism: Simply Overcome

As soon as I saw the headline ‘Local overcomes disabilities‘ pop up, I knew this article would be worthy of a ‘Today In Journalism’ feature at FWD, because, folks, this article has it all. I’m not going to blame Judy Sheridan, the author, for the title, because most journalists don’t write their own headlines1; the honour for the title clearly goes to the editor of the Weatherford Democrat, a publication that I’m sure has a fine, upstanding, and meritorious history.

The ‘overcome’ narrative is a common and pervasive one and it annoys me to an extreme degree. So, based on the title alone, I would have had a brief snark, but then, right there in the lede:

The locals know Ray Magallan, a cerebral palsy victim who has walked aimlessly down city streets for years, fighting frustration, anger and utter hopelessness…

I had a brief moment of bemusement imagining cerebral palsy cornering Magallan in a dark alley and taking his lunch money, I confess.

The thing about terms like ‘suffers from’ and ‘victim of’ is that if someone self identifies with them, that’s fine. But when they get used as generic terms to refer to people with disabilities in general, it sets a precedent. It tells people that disability is suffering, and that people with disabilities are victims. The reason that we ask people to use neutral language when talking about disability is not because we want to tell other people how to feel about their disabilities, but because we don’t want to tell nondisabled people to think negatively about disability.

This is an important thing, when talking about language. There’s a big difference between identifying with a term and using it, and using a term in general to refer to everyone like you, or, in the case of nondisabled people, using a term you’ve heard someone use as self identification to refer to everyone like that person. If the media presented disability in neutral terms, ‘The locals known Ray Magallan, a man with cerebral palsy who…,’ it allows readers to approach the article with neutrality. But here, from the very start, the subject of the article is a victim.

Maybe if disability wasn’t routinely framed this way, it wouldn’t be such a frightening identity, and people who find the word upsetting or frightening would view it with more neutrality. As a facet of identity, rather than an all-consuming tragedy. In our recent discussion on ‘special,’ commenters brought up the fact that many people are afraid to use the word ‘disability,’ and children in particular are socialised to fear it, which is why disability euphemisms are so widespread. It’s easy to see why people would shy away from identifying with disability when all the narratives they see inform them that disability is a tragedy and that people with disabilities are victims.

The rest of the article hits all the keywords…’challenge,’ ‘inner strength,’ ‘students who are challenged,’ and, of course, our old friend ‘overcome.’

I like the idea of including people with disabilities in local community profiles, to remind readers that we are members of the community too, and to show people that we do things in the community, but inevitably, these stories always just leave me really angry, and really sad. They are so objectifying, and so dehumanising, and they leave readers with terrible messages about disability, disabled identities, what it means to be disabled.

It would be so very easy to write one of these profiles well. Why can’t anyone seem to do that?

  1. You do know that, right?

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'.

5 thoughts on “Today In Journalism: Simply Overcome

  1. I’m so disappointed in this article; I couldn’t find “inspiring” or “inspirational” anywhere. [sigh] Sorry, just couldn’t resist.

    I was once the victim of one of these attacks of journalism. The headline was something like “Local woman tireless advocate for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” No joke.

  2. You’d almost think that journalists get their entire picture of disabled people from other journalists’ stereotypical articles, though it’s implausible that no journalists actually know any disabled people personally. That makes me think that even when journalists DO have personal experience, there is something about our society’s attitude to disability that makes journalists scared to approach the subject in any other way.

    And that societal attitude is twofold: a lack of understanding of disabled people’s worth/diversity, combined with a guilt about feeling this way. It’s that guilt that, as you mention, makes euphemisms like ‘special’ so rigidly adhered to; that makes ‘disability’ so loaded. Where ‘disability’ is seen as intrinsically negative, and where society half-realizes there’s something wrong with this, but hasn’t really dealt with the subject, you’ll get stereotypes which society (including journalists) has convinced itself *are* the only “proper” way to approach us.

  3. The journalistic resources are there; the AP Style Book, for example, has deprecated “overcome” and “suffering from” and “wheelchair bound” since 1985. The Poynter Institute is a journalism school funded by a newspaper magnate (back when such still existed). Here are sixteen excellent columns by Poynter’s Susan LoTiempo on why and how not to use disabling language.

    One more reason to avoid “suffering from” language are the limits it imposes on the currently enabled. Moving from enabled to disabled is hard enough; stigmatizing the identity makes the trip even harder.e

  4. the AP Style Book, for example, has deprecated “overcome” and “suffering from” and “wheelchair bound” since 1985

    Wow. I knew it was discouraged by the AP, but I didn’t realize it was for that long. That makes this sort of thing particularly inexcusable.

    On a related note, a while back I managed to spot an article in The Guardian which violated of their own style guide, referring to someone “suffering from” a disability. I e-mailed them about it– and they actually replied and revised the wording of the article online!

  5. And that, of course, should be “which violated their own style guide,” not “which violated of.” How appropriate that I’d make a typo while referring to The Guardian. ^_~

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