A Really Big Problem

Journalists don’t handle disability-themed stories well. It isn’t just the words they use ... like "wheelchair bound” and “handicapped” ... it's that they rarely report what disabled people, themselves say. Disabled people are always in the third person. We don’t do things. We have things done to or for us.

"Acme widgets hired 10 disabled people", not, "10 disabled people got jobs at Acme widgets".

We hear how mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, teachers and care workers feel about "their" disabled people. Reporters almost never ask disabled people how they feel about their family, friends, and service providers. Or, if they ask, we don't know about it because the disabled person's voice is usually missing or severely minimized in the story that is reputed to be about them.

"Marybeth loves going to the Murgatroy Center!” A reporter hears this from Dad, and it is relevant to report because Dad is part of the story. But does the reporter ask Marybeth how she feels about going to the Murgatroy Center? Most often non. Yet, reporters are supposed to be skeptical. They’re supposed to get direct quotes and double-check the validity of claims.

This problem is what set me off about how Alex and Frederic Bilodeau were covered … for the second time … during this year’s Winter Olympics. We heard all about Frederic from everyone imaginable, except for Frederic. It seems like an especially acute problem with stories about intellectually disabled people. Are there perceived issues of consent? Do families and agencies shield intellectually disabled people? Or, are reporters just too lazy or scared to make the slightly greater effort to do a meaningful interview with someone who talks strangely, or who may take a bit longer to assemble her thoughts?

It is a widespread, remarkably consistent failure in journalism today. I suspect it has a huge and mostly unexamined effect on how we are viewed. Maybe there ought to be some new journalistic ethics rules for disability stories.