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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Diversity Toolbox

Same rules apply for those with disabilities

By Rebecca Tallent

Note: Special thanks to the Texas Department of Developmental Disabilities and Easter Seals for their insights on reporting about disabilities.

Reporters interview all types of people. Unfortunately, when it comes to people with disabilities, reporters often make unconscious mistakes that can ruin an interview.

How? It’s easy, and usually unintentional.

For example, a reporter interviews a person with cerebral palsy and refers to the person in the interview as a victim. Or the reporter fails to take into consideration physical access to a neutral location for the interview, one not easily accessible by someone with mobility issues. Or a reporter stands over a person who uses a wheelchair, invading their personal space and looking down — not at — the person.

My personal favorites are reporters who raise their voices and speak loudly and slowly to someone who has a vision impairment or who uses a hearing aid. It is an obnoxious, condescending technique that often results in a premature end to the interview.

An overlooked statistic (and story) is that one in every five Americans has some form of disability.

Beyond research, check your own prejudices and stereotypes about the individual and the disability. Do you see the person as “pitiable” or as an individual? Do you think of the person as a “super person” for doing something everyone else does, but the difference is they have a disability? Do you consider that people with disabilities want opportunities, not charity?

Where to Find Disability Issues

Disability issues are everywhere. Topics include:

•How advances in technology change lives of people who live with disabilities.

•How educational access allows for an improved career path.

•How national campaigns (such as “The R Word” and “Think Beyond the Label”) affect local impressions.

•Local shortages in health care or housing for people with disabilities.

•Government cutbacks in services for people with disabilities.

•Affordable insurance segregation.

•Disability angles in all types of stories, such as fashion, cooking, government and home improvement.

So how do you prepare for an interview when the interviewee has a disability?

First, unless the interview will be held at the person’s home or office, check the surroundings. In addition to the usual issues you look for in a location, think about background noise, distractions, accessibility, and whether the person needs additional assistance such as a sign language interpreter. Reporters should plan for additional time to conduct the interview if the person uses an interpreter or communications device (such as a computer voice) or if they speak slowly.

Once the interview time arrives, greet the person as a person. Shake hands, even if the person uses artificial arms/hands. If interviewing a person who uses a wheelchair, do not stand over him; sit at the same level so he can look you in the eye. If interviewing a person who has a vision impairment, make sure to identify yourself and your location. If the person has a hearing impairment, check to see if she has one side that has better hearing.

Sometimes the most difficult thing for reporters to remember is that people who live with disabilities rely on their own skills and abilities just as anyone else. Do not try to do things for the interviewee (such as pour a cup of coffee) unless you ask first. When someone does ask for help, listen carefully or ask for instructions.

One of the most common mistakes reporters make is they may not speak directly to the person or they may avoid eye contact, focusing more on a family member or interpreter. This could make the interviewee feel left out of his own interview. Speak to the person and do not be afraid to ask direct questions, just as you would in any other interview.

People who live with disabilities understand people are human, so it is normally fine to use common expressions such as “did you see that?” or “did you hear?” when doing the interview, even if the person’s disability would prevent her from doing so.

When speaking to the person and writing the article, reporters should try to avoid words with negative connotations. These words include “victim,” “crippled,” “afflicted,” “normal” or “nondisabled,” which implies that people who live with disabilities are not normal. Also avoid speaking of the person only as a medical condition. Another common mistake is to use clichés such as “unfortunate,” “poor,” “deformed,” “retarded” and other patronizing words.

Reporters and editors should make sure the person is referred to as “disabled,” not “handicapped,” and that the individual — not the disability — is featured. Unless it is relevant to the story, a person’s disability shouldn’t even be mentioned. Most importantly, news people should select words that accurately reflect the person and his or her condition without judgmental connotations.

Seeking other voices, including those who are disabled, can lead to wonderful stories and surprising insights about any community.

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