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Home > Publications > Quill > Reporting on Disabilities: Putting People First


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Reporting on Disabilities: Putting People First

by Rebecca Tallent

Pam Henry of Oklahoma City was a journalist who counts among her accomplishments her work as a pioneering female radio news reporter and being the first female reporter and anchor of WKY-TV (now KFOR-TV).

In her more than 30 years in the industry, she was an award-winning electronic news reporter, producer and news director; shortly after her 2002 retirement, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. In her professional life, she avoided any focus on herself.

What most of her listeners and viewers usually forgot or never knew was that she was also the first person with a disability to work as a television reporter in the state. At 14 months old, Henry was diagnosed with polio; her experience representing the face of the disease as the 1959 National March of Dimes Poster Child and encountering the news media made journalism intriguing to her as a profession.

Henry said she recalls one specific instance in which her disability put her in danger while reporting, an instance not reported by her station or other news media.

“When the National Finals Rodeo was held in Oklahoma City, I got to do a news profile story on bull rider Larry Mahan,” Henry said of one incident. “I was standing on the rodeo dirt floor when a bull went wild. A cowboy ran over to me, picked me up and sat me down behind the metal gate in safety.

“In each case, my limited mobility was a potential problem. Kind and attentive people jumped in to help me in each instance, and I got the story. Occurrences like those all through my life have made me an optimist. And helpful people have contributed to my television and radio news career.”

People first in news

Now chairwoman of the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Committee on Disability Concerns and using a wheelchair full-time, Henry said she believes reporters have done a good job of covering people with disabilities since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, but she said reporters need to look at the person first in their story.

“It is natural for a journalist to shorten ‘people with disabilities’ to ‘disabled,’” she said. “Many people with disabilities don’t mind, but many do. That is one of the main issues the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Committee on Disabilities has learned to stress.

“A person with a disability is a person first … and he or she has a disability. Especially in a headline, that distinction is seldom made. Personally, the word ‘crippled’ makes my stomach turn … probably because I was a child who walked with braces and crutches. The term ‘crippled children’ applies to many fine hospitals, but I am glad that the term ‘crippled’ is not used as much as it was in decades past.”

Henry said many reporters are nervous when they interview a person with a disability because they haven’t been exposed to people with disabilities.

“All of my life I have noticed that people who are easily able to look past my crutches are those who have a relative or a good friend with a disability,” she said. “I would suggest that reporters jump into getting to know their subjects with disabilities as people. People with disabilities have a lot of experience in getting through the awkward moments, and they will help reporters in getting comfortable.”

Disabilities advocate Marshall Mitchell agrees with Henry, adding that he wants journalists to do their jobs. Mitchell, who teaches disabilities studies at Washington State University, said he wants all journalists to investigate disabilities before writing about the subject.

One area in which Mitchell said journalists need to improve their reporting is in the vocabulary. He strongly agreed with Henry about the words used, especially in headline writing. A headline he recalled from the Austin American-Statesman read: Wheelchair gets Ph.D.

“We’ve changed the language for every other group, so why not for people with disabilities?” Mitchell asked. “When writing about us, they say we suffer from our disabilities. We suffer a whole lot more from the way people treat us.

“There was a news story where the reporter said a ‘wheelchair-bound’ person fell out of their chair; well, they weren’t bound in too well, were they? The reporter didn’t even understand what they had said.

“One of the best things the ADA did was to put our issues on the radar screen. Before that, people hadn’t heard of Section 504 (the federal disabilities law). People may not know much about the ADA, but people do know there is one. The problem is that (ADA) doesn’t add terminology. It just made journalists more conscious of people, but they are still reporting using bad terms and descriptions.”

Henry said that in her view, the news media has done a good job of covering the ADA and its consequences.

“That, I think, has been a positive outcome of the law’s passage,” she said. “The news media has been exposed to issues faced by people with disabilities. As the issues are explored by the media, there is greater understanding of the need for the law and the goals of people with disabilities. In my experience, only property owners are scared by ADA, and it isn’t necessary because so many modifications to eliminate architectural barriers aren’t very expensive.”

The ‘super-crip’ angle

Mitchell and his wife, Lori Rowlett, said they feel the media tends to play the “super-crip” angle, which takes two forms: the person who does extraordinary things, or the person who does ordinary things but receives extraordinary credit. For example, they said a reporter did a story about a high school tennis player who uses a wheelchair, giving her extraordinary credit for playing in a chair.

“People can play in chairs,” Mitchell said. “The better story would have been on the school’s varsity tennis team and her part of the team. The fact that she is on the varsity tennis team is a story, not the fact she uses a chair and plays.”

Rowlett, an adjunct professor of women’s philosophy at WSU who uses a wheelchair, said too often the media goes for the “super-crip” story rather than looking at the individual or the issues. She said many issues, such as employment and insurance for people with disabilities, are largely ignored by the media.

“There is the whole case of sports in particular,” she said. “Look at the Paralympics, which were not covered at all in this country.”

Henry said she is not opposed to inspirational pieces of extraordinary people who make a difference in the lives of others, but she cautions reporters about taking an inappropriate angle for the story.

“If the news story is about the person’s disability, I think it is appropriate to show or tell about the person’s physical appearance,” she said. “If the subject happens to have a disability, it’s really not part of the story. In that case, I don’t think the disability has to be hidden, but it doesn’t have to be highlighted, either.”

Mitchell said reporters should understand there is a hierarchy of disabilities in the public’s perception that stems from how the disability occurred. If the injury or illness came from war, on the job or from a disease, he said it is more acceptable than any other injury, which may have been caused by a person’s lapse in judgment.

There is also a hierarchy within all of the community, he said.

“There are the physical disabilities, which get the most attention; then the hidden disabilities, such as pain or a learning disability, the ones where most people think the person is just trying to beat the system; finally there are the mental illnesses, which get virtually no attention.”

Mitchell said that reporting on people with disabilities has not improved since passage of the ADA because journalists still use words that are inaccurate and damaging.

“Unless they have been taught, they don’t know any better,” he said. “The angle they take is to emphasize the disability as a story, not just as part of the story. They seem to think that we are miserable and asking when is the cure coming.”

Rowlett agreed, saying the news media seems to portray people with disabilities as waiting for a cure.

“(Reporters) always want magic cures, they want people like Christopher Reeve, a newly disabled person who was in denial,” Rowlett said, shaking her head. “They think all we live for is to be cured.”

Better reporting comes from understanding

By better understanding the ADA and the issues of people with disabilities, Henry said, the news media can do a better job for their communities.

“Progress in eliminating architectural, social and economic barriers to people with disabilities is news,” she said. “The impact of the ADA is news. Covering these issues will help people with disabilities have better and more productive lives. And that will make the United States a better country.”

Henry said reporters need to get to know their subjects as people first in order to better tell the story.

“I believe that good reporters identify with the subjects of their news stories,” she said. “It is true of a subject with a disability, or different socio-economic background, race, religion or nationality. A good conversation with a person with a disability can lead to a great deal of understanding.”

Rebecca Tallent is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Media at University of Idaho.

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