Tag Archives: disability tropes

Today in Journalism: Oh, I’ll Redefine Something For You, All Right

The Wall Street Journal has apparently been so sad that it’s been missing out on all the potential in disability reporting that it decided to go right for a bingo, do not pass go, do not collect $200. And I would like us all to issue a round of applause to Ben Rooney, because he has either created the most masterfully brilliant piece of parody I have ever seen, or he really studied up on bingo cards to produce this gem of a piece, ‘The Woman Who Redefined Inspiration.’ You can guess right from the title that this article is going to be awesome, right?

It’s a profile of Caroline Casey, a disabled entrepreneur who, among many other things, went on a trip around the world with a disabled crew, and, people, this story has it all. Inspiration! Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do! My parents didn’t tell me I was blind so I had no idea! And, of course, this absolutely beautiful line:

What makes her extraordinary is that Caroline Casey is blind.

Ayup. She’s not extraordinary because she’s a woman who has completed highly competitive academic programmes notoriously difficult for women, what with the more or less constant sexism. She’s not extraordinary for organising an around the world trip, which is no mean feat. Nope. She’s certainly not extraordinary for being a savvy and adaptive entrepreneur who  has designed programming used internationally. She’s extraordinary because she is blind1.

The focus of this story is her disability, and the disabilities of the people on her team:

Yes. A blind woman raced five laps at nearly 200kph (125 mph). And it gets better. She was racing against another blind person. Oh and her co-driver had no legs.

We are reminded, again and again, that you can do anything if you try hard enough, and that disability is simply a personal barrier you can overcome. If you can’t become an international entrepreneur, you personally are clearly doing something wrong. This narrative comes up so much, the ‘I won’t let anyone tell me no’ narrative. It neatly erases real-world barriers presented by society that individuals cannot do a damn thing about. Barriers like this very article, which casts disability as a personal tragedy you can surmount with a bit of elbow grease.

Her accomplishments as a businesswoman and her commentary on disability are is stuck way down at the bottom because that bit’s boring:

“Working with business you have to understand how business works. Worthy is not a business plan. So if business transforms its views around disability, then it is done. Disability will be done.”

For her technology is one of the key drivers. “It is one of the most empowering things there is for the community. Take Twitter for example. Deaf people can take part in a conversation. eBay has made disabled entrepreneurs, there is voice activated software. We can now use technology to have a life. It is one of the critical drivers. Unfortunately Facebook is not fully accessible for people who are blind but it is better than nothing.”

Casey wants to reframe the way people think about and contextualise disability and she’s especially interested in promoting job opportunities, autonomy, and independence. She even corrected the reporter on his language usage! But, again, we’re reminded that she’s only worthy of coverage because she’s blind; talking about social attitudes to disability, discussing the lack of opportunities for people with disabilities, that’s not the hook or the main interest. The thing the WSJ is counting on to get readers interested is ‘wow, let’s all gawk at the blind person!’ Doing a straight profile of an entrepreneur creating opportunities for people with disabilities and mentioning that she’s blind is out of the question, of course.

Which is a pity, because the work Casey is doing is important, it’s awesome, and it should be more widely covered. She’s confronting social attitudes and providing meaningful alternatives to that those attitudes; for people who want to devalue disability, she’s saying ‘ok, well, you’re going to be left out of changes in the business industry, as more PWDs become businesspeople and start changing the status quo.’

…her task is no less challenging than the race. It is to change the way society behaves by changing the way it thinks.

Well, yes. And articles like this remind me of exactly how much work has to be done here.

  1. Does this mean I am half extraordinary?

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?

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.’

Inspiring!

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?