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 headlines; 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?