More than 1 in 4 people living in the United States has a mental or physical disability, according to a 2018 report from the Census Bureau, which collected the data in 2014.
Media reports, however, hardly reflect the fact that 27.2% — or 85.3 million people — nationwide are living with disabilities. Stories about people with disabilities often fall into two broad categories, says Kristin Gilger, who is director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) and the associate dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
The first category is what Gilger calls “inspiration porn” — stories about people with disabilities throwing the winning pass for the high school football team or being named prom queen, for example. “It’s well-intentioned, but those stories also can be very exploitative and they are very limited in really getting to the heart of how people live and what they think and how they’re affected by what’s going on in our civic life,” she says.
The second category consists of crime stories, which sometimes mention mental illness — a narrow slice of the kind of coverage the subject deserves. “We still have some work to do in the range and sophistication of [mental illness] coverage,” Gilger says.
Gilger says the lack of disability coverage might stem from a lack of representation in newsrooms. “We haven’t done a very good job of hiring people particularly with physical disabilities, who might need some kind of accommodation in the workplace — people who use wheelchairs, for example, or have hearing or vision limitations or any number of other things,” Gilger notes. “If you don’t have those people in your newsroom, you’re not likely to do a very good job of understanding and pursuing stories that are relevant to those populations … If you’re not comfortable with the coverage area, you just don’t know enough about it, it’s not likely that you’re going to pursue it.”
Amy Silverman, a journalist and NCDJ board member who, in 2018, updated the center’s Disability Language Style Guide, echoes Gilger’s sentiment. “I think that disability is really intimidating to people,” she says. “First of all, because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. And second, because it’s something uncomfortable to think about.”
To help journalists improve their coverage of people with disabilities, we’re sharing four key tips from Gilger and Silverman.
Tip #1: Let people with disabilities speak for themselves.
Gilger says one of the biggest areas where disability coverage could improve is in its sourcing: “We’re often talking about people who have [a] disability, and we aren’t talking to them,” she notes. “We talk to experts. We talk to academics. We talk to doctors. We talk to family members. Sometimes we talk to medical specialists. And often we don’t talk to the one person we really should be talking to, which is the person who has the disability.
“Sometimes that’s not always possible, depending upon the disability and the level of communication skills. But usually it is. And I think maybe because we have this discomfort when it comes to doing this kind of work, sometimes we’re talking to everybody but people with disabilities.”
When interviewing someone who has a disability, Silverman suggests taking the following steps:
- “Make sure that you treat the people you’re interviewing — no matter whether they have a disability or not — with as much respect as possible.”
- “Never assume that just because somebody is identified as having an intellectual disability, they can’t communicate with you.” Silverman says she has sat in on reporters’ interviews with her daughter Sophie, who has Down syndrome. “I’ve had a lot of people that want Sophie, my daughter, and me to do stories, and [they] just ask me the questions,” Silverman says. “And then they’re embarrassed when Sophie interrupts because she wants to talk.” Silverman adds that if you’re talking to a person who has difficulty speaking, it helps to have someone who is familiar with the interview subject’s speech patterns present to help that person communicate.
- Be mindful of “hidden disabilities,” Silverman says. “Somebody may have a hidden disability that you don’t know about — they may be hard of hearing and they may not want to admit it, or they may have trouble seeing, or a motor issue that slows things down for them. And so, as a journalist, you want to keep all of your senses heightened so that you can adjust.”
Tip #2: If you’re not sure how to describe a person with a disability in a story, just ask how the person would like to be characterized.
“The very first thing you should do, as a journalist or a person in general, is ask the person you’re writing about, ‘How do you want to be referred to?’” Silverman says.
Gilger adds that asking people about their disabilities can help journalists better navigate an interview and improve the accuracy of their reporting. For example, if you’re not sure how to greet people who don’t have full use of their hands, ask them.
Says Gilger: “People often feel reluctant to ask the person with the disability, ‘So, tell me about your disability — are you completely blind, are you partially blind, what is your medical diagnosis?’ Those are hard questions to ask. Sometimes you’re just not in a position, or it’s not appropriate, to ask those questions. But often you can just simply ask the person.”
If your interview subject isn’t able to express a preference, Silverman suggests asking a caregiver.
As a general rule of thumb, Silverman says the norm has shifted toward “person-first language” — for example, saying “a person with epilepsy” rather than “an epileptic.”
“One way to show respect is simply to put the person before the disability,” Silverman explains. She says that there are some exceptions to this — for example, in the autism and deaf communities, many prefer to be called autistic or deaf. The NCDJ’s style guide has guidelines for how to refer to various disabilities.
For example, for people who use mobility equipment, the NCDJ guide recommends “someone who uses a wheelchair” along with an explanation of why, rather than “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.” Those terms do not put the person first, the guide notes. They “also are misleading, as wheelchairs can liberate people, allowing them to move about, and they are inaccurate, as people who use wheelchairs are not permanently confined in them, but are transferred to sleep, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.,” the guide adds. These recommendations conform to AP style, the guide specifies. Each entry includes a comparison to the Associated Press’ Stylebook recommendations, if applicable.
In a few instances, the NCDJ style guide contradicts the AP stylebook. For instance, the NCDJ recognizes that some disability activists have reclaimed the word “cripple,” and allows for its usage if a person prefers to be identified as such. But, according to AP style, the term is “Considered offensive when used to describe a person who is disabled.”
Silverman recommends opening up a conversation on the term in question: “It’s never a bad idea to have a respectful conversation about language in the newsroom, and I think about any topic. The worst thing is just to not talk about it at all.”
“Language keeps changing, and what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable or what’s considered offensive or not considered offensive, keeps changing, and that’s a little intimidating,” Gilger adds. “In the guide we try not to be too finger-pointing or too dictatorial about it… we don’t want to be the language police.
“I think the important thing is for journalists and other writers and communications professionals to simply ask themselves the question, what are they options here? And think through, perhaps with the help of the guide, what they want to do.”
The NCDJ also suggests avoiding contemporary terms like “diversability” and “differently-abled,” which can be interpreted as condescending or avoiding the issue. Silverman emphasizes “coming up with neutral language that allows you to move past that word and into the conversation… That, I think, is the reason why so many people in the disability community prefer the term disabled,” she says.
One more noteworthy point: once you know the terms your source would like you to use, make sure to use them consistently — even if it means avoiding words and phrases that could help search engines find your story online.
“People-first language does not work well with SEO [Search Engine Optimization],” Silverman notes. “We understand that that could be a real challenge, but we also really caution that the headline is the first thing that people see and, too often, the only thing that people see if they’re retweeting an article or something like that. So it’s just really vital that people be sensitive when they’re writing headlines, and maybe sacrifice SEO or that snappy play on words in favor of accuracy and respect.”
Tip #3: Include people with disabilities in stories that aren’t explicitly about disability.
Stories about people with disabilities shouldn’t be limited to coverage of life with a disability, Gilger says. “It’s including their voices in government coverage and sports coverage and features coverage and health coverage — everything we do.”
The benefits of diversifying your sources to include people with disabilities are numerous, Gilger explains: “It just gives you a much wider range of sourcing, which is a good thing for journalism. It might lead you to some other very interesting stories that you might not have otherwise considered.”
She suggests that as you expand your source list, remember that mentioning a person’s disability in a news report is only warranted if it is relevant to your coverage.
Tip #4: Broaden your coverage of stories about disability.
“Consider doing a wider range of stories,” Gilger says, pointing to the range of journalism projects focusing on disability that have won the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability. Among the first-prize winners are a 2018 Kaiser Health News investigation titled “Nowhere to Go: Young People with Severe Autism Languish in Hospitals” and a 2017 Chicago Tribune investigation into mistreatment of adults with disabilities in Illinois group homes.
“It’s a rich area and still somewhat untapped,” she says. “There’s a lot of data that can contribute to that kind of investigative reporting. For example, the enforcement of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the changing attitudes about ADA. There are a lot of government expenditures that deal with disability, whether that’s children in schools, or access to housing for people with disability, or accessibility in buildings and support for people who are elderly. Many elderly people have some sort of disability. Most of us will end up with some sort of disability. So there’s a lot of government money that goes into these areas that are ripe for someone to look at.”
This tip sheet adheres to NCDJ style guidelines, which recommend “it is best to use language that refers to the person first and the disability second. For example: ‘The writer, who has a disability’ as opposed to ‘the disabled writer.’”
For research on people with disabilities, read our summary of recent scholarship on how the Affordable Care Act improved access to health care for some Americans with disabilities, but not all. We also have summarized research on disability rates across the U.S., whether convenience voting reforms boosted participation among voters with disabilities, and how special education placement varies by race.