John Loeppky and Julia Métraux at Poynter:
The common message from disabled journalists in the industry is for nondisabled reporters to acknowledge that disability, like other identities, is interwoven into their subjects’ lives and that this is especially true during a time of such medical uncertainty, with anxiety over unknown long-term health effects looming. One of those journalists is s.e smith, a writer and a deputy editor for publications like Talk Poverty, Bitch, The Nation and Rolling Stone.
“Disability has such a bearing on every aspect of our everyday lives that it is ludicrous to act like it won’t touch pretty much every story,” smith said. “You see this, even with reporting on COVID, which you would think it’s like a disability issue. I’ll do a Ctrl F and search for disab(ility) and like nothing comes up, and that tells me that that reporter is not doing the work. Probably because they don’t know that they should be doing the work because their newsroom isn’t training and supporting them properly.”
But COVID-19 has opened up opportunities to report on disabled aspects of the ongoing health crisis in a way that the community has been speaking about for decades. Sara Luterman is a freelance journalist for publications such as NBC, Vox, and The Nation. She said a piece that she wrote in August is an example of how disability issues can reach a broader audience and not be limited to a one-off feature or beat reporting.
This lack of stories where disability is a regular aspect of reporting reflects a distinct lack of care when it comes to nondisabled journalists writing about the community. Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, said that one way nondisabled reporters go awry is in their choice of words that devalue the subjects of stories.
“Nondisabled reporters continue to use euphemisms such as ‘special needs’ or ‘preexisting conditions’ when what they’re actually referring to is disability,” Wong said. “What are people so afraid of? Nondisabled people may also have implicit bias that disabled people have lives that are tragic or are of lower quality that aren’t worthy of treatment or care.”
The National Center on Disability and Journalism, at Arizona State University, is one place that journalists can look to for tools to improve their disability reporting. Kristin Gilger, director of NCDJ and interim dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication told Poynter that some NCDJ’s resources include its Disability Language Style Guide, lists of disability organizations and experts and a “Reporting on Disability” checklist.