Monday, April 5, 2010

The media's struggle with disabilities

As we've mentioned before, restaurants, airlines, and other companies tend to struggle when it comes to dealing with a person with a disability. One line of work we haven't touched on yet is the media. And believe me, despite working in the journalism field, the media is not exempt from my disdain!

There are three phrases found in almost every article about a person with a disability. And each of these statements drives me up the wall. Let's examine them individually:

"Suffers from...": As in, "Daniel suffers from Spina bifida." Another example can be found in this article that popped up on my Google news the other day. Let's see...I enjoy watching sports all day, go on long walks/wheels when the weather is nice, and hold down a nice job. Am I really suffering? In the article I linked to, 9-year-old Kaitlin is a member of the cheer leading team. Is she really suffering?

To me, suffering is a mindset. So if somebody truly is suffering from a debilitating disease, a journalist has every right to convey that. However, when it's used in every article about every person with a disability, the phrase loses all relative meaning and becomes practically useless.

"Confined to a wheelchair":
When a kid asks me "How do I sleep?" I can shrug that off and laugh about it. But when an adult assumes that I'm sitting here all day, and can't get out of my chair, I want to cry about it. Seriously, I'm sitting here "stuck" in my chair all day? Not only that, but the only other time I ever see the media use the phrase "confined" comes when they talk about a prisoner being in "solitary confinement." Are they comparing a person in a wheelchair to a prisoner? If so, we have bigger problems than even I thought. This leads me to the final phrase...

To me, this is another lazy way for journalists to tell the reader that we, in fact, use a wheelchair! It's not hard to say, "Daniel uses a wheelchair for mobility." I understand space limits, and know that "wheelchair-bound" is two words while my example is a whopping six words. But if it means we can help shatter an incorrect stereotype, I'd like to think that a reporter can spare four words somewhere else.

It is easy to focus my anger on the journalists themselves. However, to me, this issue is much broader and begins at the very roots of the journalism tree. I went through a 4-year, intensive journalism program at one of the top journalism schools in the nation and they never once mentioned how to describe an individual with a disability. How are journalists supposed to understand that these phrases are not only hurtful, but inaccurate, if they are never taught otherwise? Therefore, only once we re-educate our current journalists and pass these messages along to the next generation will we begin to see the necessary changes in the media's treatment of those with disabilities.


Bethles said...

Aside from "Daniel uses a wheelchair for mobility," are there any other phrasing examples that you would like to see used more in mainstream media?

Daniel said...

Hey Beth,

I think it's tough. Obviously, "uses a wheelchair," is the easiest one for the media to use. Also, just saying "Daniel has Spina bifida..." would be the most inoffensive thing to say as well. To me, the media doesn't have to get cute or overly descriptive in these situations.

The key here is that I'm not "in" a wheelchair, I "use" it sometimes. There are many instances where i'm just hanging out at home and not using the chair. So I'd just like journalists to portray that accurately.

Haddayr said...

This is one of the most frustrating things about being disabled: reading stupid, lazy news stories.

A bunch of us created a bingo card out of it, so at least the next time you read an annoying, lazy, and offensive article, you can feel as if you've won something:

And while we were at it, we created one for Stupid Shit People Say:

Kevin Rak said...

I tend to say "wheelchair user," i.e., "My sister is a wheelchair user." It's succinct, accurate, and non-judgmental.