Media's crippling coverage misses real story of disability experience

Why do the media continually use the same ill-fitting and inaccurate phrases such as "wheelchair-bound," "afflicted" and "special needs," that the disability community rejected long ago? Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs1/bayha1999.html.

What is it about disability that makes the media so uneasy? With rare exception, the media use the same shopworn stereotypes to portray people with disabilities - the pitiable cripple; the courageous and inspiring hero; the broken person who'd be better off dead, unless, of course, there's a cure just around the corner.

Why do the media continually use the same ill-fitting and inaccurate phrases such as "wheelchair-bound," "afflicted" and "special needs," that the disability community rejected long ago?

"Disability is still such a negative stereotype," said Bill Stothers, former editor and publisher of the disability magazine Mainstream and a 30-year veteran of newsrooms in Canada and the United States.

Stothers, who uses a wheelchair, said deeply entrenched fear of disability has created both inhospitable newsrooms and perpetuated negative coverage of disability issues by the media. "I've seen little positive change over the years," he said.

So when the American Society of Newspaper Editors voted in October to expand its Mission Statement on Newsroom Diversity to include people with disabilities, along with women, gays, lesbians, older people and people of color, it seemed to be a positive step. But the move has raised concerns and criticism, especially among disability groups.

"I don't see a genuine commitment to truly covering disability," said Leye Chrzanowski, president and executive editor of the Disability News Service in Virginia. The ASNE statement reads, "The newsroom must be a place in which all employees contribute their full potential, regardless of . . . physical ability or other defining characteristic." Chrzanowski said that seems to cover only people with physical disabilities.

Veronica Jennings, diversity director at ASNE, said the mission statement does include people with all types of disabilities in the catch-all phrase of "other defining characteristic."

Even with the broadened diversity statement, "Our money, staff and programming will be focused on race and ethnicity," said Gilbert Bailon, chair of ASNE's Diversity Committee and vice president and executive editor at the Dallas Morning News. "That's where we want to put our limited resources."

ASNE uses its one full-time staff person and modest budget to conduct an annual census of how many ethnic and racial minority journalists are employed in newsrooms across the country, which this year counts women for the first time. Bailon said it is possible ASNE's diversity programs will expand in the future, but for now, that is not the plan.

"Newspaper editors could make a big difference," said Stothers, adding that if any meaningful change is to come from an expanded diversity effort, "the same programs set up for other groups should also be available for people with disabilities."

Media coverage of Christopher Reeve provides abundant examples of how the media still gets disability coverage all wrong, focusing as it did on whether the former "Super Man" would walk again.

The coverage made many members of the disability community wince because stories about heroic people with disabilities striving to overcome their tragic fate have been rehashed ad nauseam. This story angle obscures the civil rights message the disability community has articulated the past 20 years.

The crux of that message is that disability must be viewed in a wider context than merely the personal struggle of individuals. When the discrimination faced by people with disabilities is seen as a collective struggle of an oppressed minority group - granted, a group that faces oppression in different ways and for different reasons than other minorities - the dynamics of the discussion change dramatically.

Betsy Bayha is director of the Technology Policy Division of the World Institute on Disability (betsy@wid.org).

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