How Journalists Cover People with Disabilities: A Necessary Critique

Tuesday marked International Day of Disabled Persons, but you probably did not  know that. It was also Giving Tuesday and Kamala Harris officially dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, which are two stories you most likely are aware of. Both of these stories are important and undoubtedly newsworthy, but the fact that most people did not  hear about International Day of Disabled Persons represents a greater issue in the media. 

The media chooses to focus on one type of coverage when it comes to people with disabilities: inspirational stories. The term ‘inspiration porn’ refers to pictures and stories of disabled people where they are deemed inspirational just for existing. The term was first made popular in 2012 by Australian Activist Stella Young in her editorial and 2014 Ted Talk.

Inspiration porn articles serve to inspire nondisabled people and make them feel better about their own lives. It prompts thoughts like: ‘if a disabled person can do their homework, you can do your homework too. If you are having a bad day, just know that it could be worse – you could be living with a disability.’ 

In her Ted Talk, Young mentions how she deliberately uses the word porn because it implies “objectifying one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” In this case, disabled people are objectified for the benefit of nondisabled people to feel good about themselves.

In the media, inspiration porn seems to be the only way journalists consider people with disabilities in their reporting. For instance, typical headlines include “Heartwarming video captures successful ‘promposal’ between two high school students with Down Syndrome” or “What A Hero! 14-YO With Cerebral Palsy Pins Down His Opponent During A Wrestling Match” where people with disabilities are celebrated simply for doing normal, everyday things.

Nondisabled people read these stories, feel inspired, and share them on social media. These people often have good intentions when sharing this content, similar to the journalists who write the stories. However, covering and sharing these types of stories creates a pattern of objectifying disabled people and fails to adequately report on this minority group – which happens to be the largest minority group in the United States. 

“These charity stories not only perpetuate disability stigma but also objectify people with disabilities by focusing solely on the disability, rather than accepting the source as a multi-faceted human being,” said disability journalist David M. Perry. 

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, inspiration porn articles significantly outnumber stories about actual issues facing disabled people. So, what can journalists do to fix this glaring gap in the media? 

To start, journalists should focus on real issues facing the disability community. How do children with physical disabilities handle public school gym classes? What type of workplace discrimination exists for disabled people? How does the constant discussion of ‘Medicare for All’ in the 2020 Presidential election affect individuals with disabilities? 

Many news publications published ‘comprehensive’ articles and guides with ‘everything you need to know about Medicare for All,’ while completely failing to mention how the 48.9 million disabled people in the U.S. would be affected by the Presidential candidates’ plans. There are countless under-reported stories that journalists could cover related to the lives of disabled people that do not simply applaud this minority group for doing the bare minimum. 

Of course, if a disabled person does something outstanding or innovative, cover it for your media company. But if the story centers around a disabled individual getting asked to prom or getting a college degree, it is probably not something that needs to be reported on. 

As Young stated in her Ted Talk, “I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.” 

The second thing journalists can do is “cover disability communities using the same fundamentals of journalism [they] would use to cover any other group.” For instance, get to know your source and do not assume that a disabled person can not speak for themselves. Ask them how they feel about certain terminology and for their version of the story. 

In addition, avoid framing a person’s disability as a tragedy or misfortune. Let the person explain the circumstances of their disability and build your story from there. 

Journalists should also be careful with how they are wording stories about the disability community. The National Center on Disability and Journalism has a great style guide with appropriate and inappropriate words to use in stories centered around the disability community. 

One more thing: journalists should not adapt their writing to include the thoughts I have outlined to seem heroic or woke. Journalists should adapt their writing because it is the humane thing to do. Treat disabled people like human beings, rather than tools to make nondisabled people feel good.

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