Kudos to Susan M LoTempio for her essay “How the News Media Handicap Those with Disabilities.” Writing for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, LoTempio rightly skewers “feel good” stories about overcoming disabilities and takes writers to task for using language that reduces people to pitiable stereotypes. She targets a recent NPR report using the phrase “confined to a wheelchair” as inaccurate and disrespectful. She launches a dart at a story in Editor & Publisher bearing the headline: “Deaf Photog and Blind Editor Overcome the Odds Together.”
“Overcoming the odds” is one of several troubling formulas that journalists choose when writing about people with disabilities. The others are, sadly, making people into heroes, objects of pity or sources of inspiration. None of those formulas will ever give a full and accurate portrait of a person with a disability because it crams the individual into some preconceived notion of what his or her life is like (but rarely is).
LoTempio also offers laurels to a New York Times story about amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who wants to compete in the Olympics. He uses carbon blades instead of feet. (See my earlier post here.)
A comprehensive discussion of troubling stereotypes in the media would take more time than we’ve got, but here’s a recent nominee of mine:
USA Today’s story “Despite Down Syndrome, sons compete — and win,” in which the writer profiles a single woman with multiple sclerosis who adopted four children with Down syndrome. The usual upbeat quotes about “doing your best” and winning medals in the Special Olympics are highlighted. It’s hard to imagine the writer finding a less typical, and more stereotypical, subject for a story. If the writer has ever encountered a person with a disability before, or has any concept of what their lives may be like, it’s not apparent here. My favorite quote: “Not surprisingly, Teri, a single parent, is considered a minority, if not an exception, for doing what she does.” No, do you think?
Susan’s essays can be found here.