Tag Archives: journalism

Today in Journalism: The Disabled

Usually I relish picking apart a crappy article in the news for this feature, but today, I want to take a moment to rant about a phenomenon so widespread in the media that I don’t feel fair singling out one poor journalist for my ire. I’m cruel, but not unreasonably so. Also, I had a hard time picking between so many examples, but the first explanation makes me sound like a nicer person, so let’s go with that, ok? Excellent.

‘The disabled.’

Almost every time I read an article covering disability in some way or another, this noxious turn of phrase comes up. ‘The disabled’ say this and ‘the disabled’ do that and ‘the disabled’ feel this way about something. It’s a dehumanising way of referring to people with disabilities, as though we are a vague, collective mass that all think, behave, and act in the same way. It assumes that our experiences are shared and universal. ‘The disabled,’ you know, they are all alike.

This is not the first time this subject has come up here. Anna wrote about it in June.

This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.

So did I, for that matter.

We are not a monolith. Or a collective noun. Nor are our disabilities the sum total of our identities.

Every time I encounter this phrasing, I am reminded that people think we are interchangeable, that we do not think and act independently, that we are just a kind of amorphous mass over there somewhere. You know. The disabled. I need look no further than the comments section of this very site to know that people with disabilities do not, in fact, agree with each other on everything. That we do not, in fact, have the same lived experiences. Nor do we conceive of disability in the same way, have the same ideas about how to address issues we deal with in our daily lives. I, for example, cannot be interchanged with commenter Astrid. Astrid and I even share some disabilities! But we are not members of the Borg.

People treat us like we are. It is assumed that accommodations are one size fits all, for example, which has real world consequences for people who need accommodations. Writing off an entire group of people with a collective noun is a neat way to shove them in a box and not think about them, and when that collective noun is in widespread and acceptable use (a number of journalism style guides approve ‘the disabled’), society internalises the attitudes that go along with it.

The media seems to  have learned that it’s not ok to say ‘the women’ or ‘the gays,’ referring to an entire group of people with a collective noun, like they are a flock of sheep. It has been suggested that this is not very helpful, that it tends to strip people of their humanity. Yet, the same has not been extended to people with disabilities. We are still ‘the disabled,’ viewed as a generic collective, in most media outlets. Exact phrasing varies from journalist to journalist and some are better about it than others, clearly making a conscious choice to humanise us by using a more appropriate phrasing when referring to members of the disabled community.

‘The disabled’ is not just a problem because it’s a reminder that people think we are all the same. It is also a reduction of our identities to our disabilities. And people feel free saying it about individual disabilities, too. ‘The bipolar.’ ‘The borderline.’ ‘The paraplegic.’ And so on. This framing reminds us that this is all we are; that our identities consist wholly of a single noun. You can aspire to nothing in life because you’re ‘the disabled.’

Asking people to say ‘person with…’ or ‘disabled person’ sounds nitpicky. It sounds fussy. We get challenged on it all the time. But it’s not unreasonable. It’s a request that people consider the fact that a huge percentage of the population is disabled, and there’s no way that, say, 20% of the people in the United States think, behave, and feel in exactly the same way. We are all individuals. We are all different.

We are not ‘the disabled.’

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: You Used the Wrong Lede

In Houston, an autistic student is being denied accommodations and his parents took the school district to court to fight. However, they ran out of money and were forced to drop the suit. The student, Chapuka Chibuogwu, remains at home, not receiving an education, because his parents didn’t have the financial clout to pursue his legal rights. This is a story that plays out in communities across the United States every day, with school districts pouring money into fighting suits filed by people who are only asking for the accommodations they are entitled to under the law.

Enter the media, which decides to frame this case in a number of, shall we say, interesting ways. Chibuogwu’s parents are immigrants, and there’s a heavy focus on the ‘broken dreams’ narrative going on here, with a side of ‘all immigrants can succeed if they try hard enough’:

Dreams brought Kenneth Chibuogwu to America and in time determination brought many of those aspirations within reach.

“I worked hard. I came to this country with nothing,” says Kenneth.

This is a common element I see in stories about problems immigrants encounter in the United States. There’s a myth here that this country welcomes ‘the right kind’ of immigrants, people who work hard and keep quiet, and these stories frame problems as simply personally unfair, rather than as evidence of more systemic issues. They remind immigrants that they just need to try and they will succeed in the United States, since obviously things like racism don’t present any obstacles at all to members of the immigrant community. These stories present the United States as a fundamentally fair, free place, as the pinnacle of human achievement, and makes sure to grab pull quotes to reinforce this:

“There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country,” added Neka [Chibuogwu’s mother] of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators ending in stalemate.

In this case, the school district turned around to sue the parents to demand repayment of the legal expenses it incurred fighting the original suit, and when it lost, it appealed. This isn’t personally unfair. This isn’t about broken dreams. This is evidence of a systemic problem. When a school district is so opposed to accommodating students that it retaliates with countersuits when people attempt to get the district to comply with the law, that’s indicative of deep, sustained ableism.

And, of course, this article includes lines like ‘…a child who will spend each and every day of his life challenged with autism.’ Never is Chpauka Chibuogwu himself represented, except as a shadowy figure at the fringes of the story. Interviews with both parents are present, but he is firmly relegated to the sidelines.

This quote is illuminating:

“What they are trying to do is send a chill down parent’s spine about advocating for their children,” says Louis Geigerman, president of the Texas Organization of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates.

Note that Geigerman doesn’t say ‘this case is being used to threaten disabled students who need accommodations.’ Not ‘this case is designed to send a clear message that disabled students are not deserving of accommodations,’ not ‘the fact that this school district is fighting this hard to deny accommodations is illustrative of some serious problems with our education system.’ No. It’s about the parents.

Now, obviously, a child being denied accommodations in school is probably going to have trouble self-advocating, for a variety of reasons, ranging from ageist attitudes to perhaps not having access to information about self-advocacy to being around people who refuse to communicate on the student’s terms. So, clearly, parents play an important role in securing accommodations for disabled children and in forcing school districts to comply with the law. However, the complete erasure of the student in this case, and in most cases like it, is really frustrating. It’s a reminder that people with disabilities are defined by the people around them, rather than existing as individuals.

The only direct reference to the student is this editorial line thrown in at the end of the story:

As for Chuka, he’s now fourteen, attends no school and for five years hasn’t received a single minute of the free and appropriate public education that is his right.

That should be the centre of the story. The denial of education to the student should be the focus. The fact that the school district is violating the law should be the focus. Persecuting his parents with lawsuits is definitely part of the story, and it’s an important part, since the decision to attack his parents for fighting for accommodations is illustrative of the way the district views disabled students, but the story isn’t framed that way. The story is framed as a hardship for the parents, with the student as an afterthought. ‘As for…’ is the line you use when you are making a throwaway comment. This student is not a throwaway.

Today in Journalism: Overcoming Adversity! Inspiration! Disability Tropes! It Must Be Tuesday

The Daily Gazette out of Colchester wants to apprise us of some ‘inspiring’ stories. No really. ‘Entrepreneurs’ inspiring tales are recognised.’ Says so right in the headline, so that’s one bingo square gone. Two people are profiled in this article, which includes ‘overcoming adversity’ in the first line (bingo square number two gone), and it’s the second profile that’s of interest to me.

Jim Ramplin was ‘made redundant’ from his job as a mechanical engineer in 2008, and he chose to get training as an horologist so that he could start a new career repairing clocks. Given the economic problems many nations are experiencing right now, a lot of people are being forced to change careers and come up with new ways to support themselves and this is a narrative playing out all over the world as people are released from their jobs and must find new ways to support themselves. Some are successful. Some are not. It’s a highly competitive market for jobs right now. It’s interesting to see which of these stories newspapers choose to cover; generally, they want to find some kind of hook to draw readers in, like a banker becoming a janitor. In Ramplin’s case, he’s of interest because he’s a polio survivor.

Yet another news article breathlessly reporting that, did you know, some people with disabilities like to work? And that, when people with disabilities who are working lose their jobs, they have to go find new ones! Wow, they really are just like real people. Such articles typically elide the barriers to employment for people with disabilities, like ableism in hiring practices, inaccessible workplaces, and of course poverty traps created for disabled people; if you receive government benefits, working puts your benefits in jeopardy, forcing many people who want to work to remain unemployed or underemployed.

Almost always, employment for people with disabilities in articles like this is framed as a personal problem; people just need to ‘overcome’ their disabilities and then they will be able to find work. The social barriers encountered while seeking work, everywhere from trying to go to college to get training for a job to trying to deal with workplace harassment, are simply not discussed or even acknowledged. This allows readers to rest secure in the idea that skyrocketing unemployment rates among people with disabilities are our fault because we’re not trying hard enough, and that there’s nothing they can do to confront unemployment in the disabled community. Not their problem.

Tiptree Clocks, his business, appears to be thriving, so kudos to him for finding a niche market and exploiting it, for being able to make a living when a lot of people are struggling. Clearly he’s a savvy businessman, and that’s got absolutely nothing to do with his disability. These articles aren’t talking about what makes a good entrepreneur, though. They’re not profiling people because they’re good at business, but because they have personal traits that make a convenient hook for an article.

This story frames people like Ramplin as having ‘grit and determination’ to ‘turn tragedy into triumph.’ The tragedy in the framing of the article isn’t his job loss, but his disability.

In another profile, Ramplin says:

I’ve never let my disability beat me. If I’ve wanted to do something I’ve always gone ahead and done it – I’ve always been independent. I also have diabetes and I do occasionally get back pain, and if I’m not feeling too good I just stop work and rest and then go back upstairs and carry on, which is the advantage of being my own boss.

It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t view his acquired disability as a tragedy, and it’s quite noxious that the media keep framing disability as a tragedy when many of us do not feel that our lives are tragic. This quote is a bit supercrippy, but it’s notable that he discusses creating accommodations for himself and alludes to workplace barriers for people with disabilities, although he doesn’t address them directly. Being able to stop and rest is not a benefit provided to very many disabled employees and the only way many people with disabilities can get workplace accommodations is by being self-employed, being our own bosses.

News articles about work and people with disabilities so commonly inhabit this patronising space which often leads me to feel like the writer feels that we are, for the most part, unemployable because most of  us aren’t capable of ‘overcoming’ our disabilities. Since employment is often treated as the only viable way to ‘contribute to society,’ such articles underscore the idea that we aren’t contributing anything to our communities unless we’re working. Very rarely do I see journalists confronting the social attitudes that make it difficult for us to obtain employment and stay employed. I guess that wouldn’t make for such a feelgood article.

Recommended Reading for August 10, 2010

Wheelchair Dancer at Feministe: On the Cover [trigger warning for discussion of violence]

Regardless of how disability plays out in Aisha’s world, the vast majority of readers of TIME live in a culture that understands disability as tragedy. As shocking. As among the worst things that can happen to you (bar death). Mainstream American culture thinks it knows disability and knows how to read it. Ms. Bieber has a history of photographing disabled bodies[. . .]But the work she does in the Real Beauty series does not come through in this photograph — perhaps because of the context and placement of the image. Here she (and or the editor) uses Aisha’s disability to trade upon the readership’s sympathies and their horror: this and other unknown kinds of disability are a direct result of the US departure from Afghanistan. This is not about Aisha; it’s about the message of the article.

Cripchick at Cripchick’s blog: tell me who i have to be to get some reciprocity?

don’t feel the way white supremacy creeps into your life and plops itself in the center?

in the last wk, white ppl have:

  • told me how to rearrange my words as to be more approachable.
  • made my need to have ppl of color time about them.
  • asked me invasive medical questions about my body.
  • thanked me over and over for teaching them about oppression.

Cara at The Curvature: Disabled Student Assaulted on School Bus; Bus Driver Watches and Doesn’t Respond [trigger warning for description and discussion of severe bullying]

Most readers here who have ever ridden a school bus will have at some point been on at least one end of bullying and harassment. Many will have at different points throughout their childhoods and adolescences acted as both bullies and victims — myself included among them. Big news stories since I stopped riding a school bus have left me with the impression that little has changed. School buses are places where bullies, harassment, and violence thrive. And as all current or past school bus passengers know, students with disabilities, particularly cognitive or intellectual disabilities, are especially vulnerable.

Daphne Merkin at the New York Times Magazine: My Life in Therapy

This imaginative position would eventually destabilize me, kicking off feelings of rage and despair that would in turn spiral down into a debilitating depression, in which I couldn’t seem to retrieve the pieces of my contemporary life. I don’t know whether this was because of the therapist’s lack of skill, some essential flaw in the psychoanalytic method or some irreparable injury done to me long ago, but the last time I engaged in this style of therapy for an extended period of time with an analyst who kept coaxing me to dredge up more and more painful, ever earlier memories, I ended up in a hospital.

William Davies King at PopMatters: In Defense of Hoarding

To be sure, a special label like compulsive hoarding seems required by many of the heart-rending cases they recount, people neck-deep in the slough of their despond, overwhelmed by more whelm than can be weighed. But sadness and dysfunction are hardly rare or new. What is new is the social imperative to ram open that front door. Bring in the wheelbarrows, the commanding case worker, and the camera—especially the camera, which enlists us all in the drive to evacuate these cloacal dwellings. Reality TV rolls up its sleeves, puts on the rubber gloves, and hoards the evidence while [authors] Frost and Steketee stand alongside the labyrinth, notepad in hand, giving that Skinnerian nod.

Today in Journalism: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…SUPERCRIP!

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good Supercrip narrative, which is why I settled down with a bowl of Chex Mix to enjoy this delicious piece, ‘Provo woman finds blessing in hardship,’ originally published at Mormon Times. This delightful local profile of a woman with disabilities who doesn’t let her disability stop her! has got it all.

Tragedy struck! She’s inspirational! She refused to give in! Miracles! Determination! You can do anything if you try! Seriously, I think this article managed to hit every single square on the disability bingo card. I’d like to commend Doug Robinson for coming up with a tough act to follow. I’m sure I couldn’t possibly find another article even close to the amazingness of this one. It is just not possible. The world would collapse if there were two, you know what I’m sayin’?

Writing about the Supercrip stereotype at Bitch, Annaham said:

The myth of the Level Playing Field holds that American society gives everyone—no matter what their background or present circumstances—equal chances to succeed, and that most of the problems that marginalized groups have traditionally faced have already been solved. All folks have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, and their success will be imminent! Therefore, if there’s a Level Playing Field, there is no reason that people with disabilities can’t do superhuman things and succeed. Of course, the Level Playing Field is not real (hence its mythic status). Yet, many people who are effectively not marginalized regularly tell those who are that they, too, can “make it” if they just work hard and/or visualize their success. And so Supercrip remains the exception that many abled folks like to bring up; using similar logic, non-fictional Supercrips throughout the ages—along with many other people from marginalized groups who have “made it”–supposedly “prove” the existence of the Level Playing Field.

This profile of a woman with disabilities hits all of these issues right on the nose. Readers are reminded again and again that she refused to give up, refused to listen to doctors, insisted on doing things ‘the hard way.’ She used a manual chair instead of an electric one. She pursued a degree in singing even though her mean voice teacher said her voice was ugly. She won’t sit back and live high on the hog of government benefits, nosiree, she’s not the handout-taking type.

If you just try hard enough, you can accomplish anything. You just have to want it enough. These narratives are particularly pervasive in US society, where we are trained from a young age to believe in the American Dream and Bootstraps and other cultural myths so internalised, we often don’t even recognise them when we express them. Many of us believe, on some level, that people who work hard get what they deserve, and people in trouble got there because they didn’t work hard enough. These attitudes contribute directly to resistance when it comes to combating discrimination, because apparently if we just tried harder, ableism and discrimination would go away.

Curiously enough, she doesn’t mind handouts from G-d, just things like antidiscrimination laws and government benefits. This emphasis on spirituality is not a terribly surprising thing to see in a Mormon publication, but the piece is rife with references about how ‘blessed’ she feels, and it sets up a classic and unbeatable narrative: Why can’t you be more like her? She’s not angry and bitter like you! Why can’t you just get a job already? She did it!

“I was told a long time ago by a friend that feeling angry will stop your progress,” she says, “that if you feel sorry for yourself, if you’re going to feel bad, just give yourself 10 minutes, and then it’s over and you go on. Some things you can’t change.”

Quotes like that never get used to beat us up and remind us we’re being bad people, of course. They never are weaponised in the form of demanding questions asking why we can’t be more like that nice, inspirational lady who doesn’t let her disability get her down. Women like this are never pointed to as role models and are never used to abuse the rest of us for not just being better good cripples.

Depictions like this are actively harmful. As Annaham pointed out, Supercrip narratives are also extremely common. The media loves stories like this and eats them up, presenting them to readers and viewers with a pre-packaged narrative that everyone knows and understands because they have seen it before. When nondisabled people encounter the same story over and over again, they expect all people with disabilities to be like this, and they find the reality, that we are unique individuals with different types of attitudes and bodies and approaches to disability, highly unsettling.

These narratives hinder conversations about disability discrimination, and for many disabled readers and viewers, they are highly alienating.