Disabilities in the News | Missing the Mark

Despite the fact that nearly 20 percent of the US population and 15 percent of the world’s population have disabilities, very little news coverage is provided for issues concerning people with disabilities. We know from existing research that media representations shape the perceptions we have about cultures with which we do not have personal experience, and these representations (and resulting perceptions) are not always positive. In the case of disabilities, mainstream news media largely ignores issues of importance to the disability community and when stories are covered, the constructions of people with disabilities are often very narrow, either presenting members of this marginalized community as helpless, in need of charity, or representing one of a few select disabilities such as Downs Syndrome, someone using a wheelchair, or more recently, autism spectrum disorders. This past week, two very different articles about issues of disability were presented by ABC News/Good Morning America and Al Jazeera America.

Read Ohio Dad’s Tear-Jerking Letter to Newlywed Daughter With Down Syndrome” 

Source: ABC News/Good Morning America

The first article titled, “Read Ohio Dad’s Tear-Jerking Letter to Newlywed Daughter With Down Syndrome,” from ABC News wasn’t the worst article I’ve read about people with disabilities, but there were a few glaring issues. This article shared a story about a father who had written a letter to his daughter with Down Syndrome on her wedding day. While ABC should be commended for including a story portraying a person with a disability participating in a common life activity (a wedding) which many people assume is not a viable life option for people with disabilities, there is one noticeably absent participant in this story: the woman with the disability, Jillian. It is revealed in this story that the father was approach by another media outlet, themighty.com, to write about his daughter with a disability getting married. Oddly, as the story on ABC unfolds, not only are the subjects of the story, Jillian and her new husband Paul (who also has a disability), not including in telling the story, at the end of the story the father reveals that he has not actually given the letter to Jillian. This left me wondering if Jillian was unknowingly part of a news story about a letter from her father on her wedding day of which she has no knowledge? It makes the entire story seem like more of a story to get clicks than to bring awareness about the abilities of people with disabilities.

In addition to Jillian and Paul being absent in the process of telling their own story, the article also does very little to provide context to why the father is writing this letter, other than revealing briefly that many people assume people with disabilities cannot accomplish the same things neurotypical people can accomplish. I think if Jillian and her husband had told their own story about struggles with cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities it would have provided an opportunity to challenge the readers own assumptions or beliefs about people with disabilities.

Title: “Public schools disturbing conflation of race and disability
Source: Al Jazeera America

The second article titled, “Public schools disturbing conflation of race and disability,” while not perfect, does a far superior job covering an issue of importance to the disability community than the ABC News article above. Given the weight of this topic and the depth that would be required to understand the full extent of the issues, I thought the article was a great introduction to the topic and provided an abundance of links to previous research findings, statistics, and existing laws, which provided readers the opportunity for a deeper understanding of the issue of race and special education. The article also attempted to not point to just one issue of race that affects special education, but tackled several different angles, including identification, discipline, quality of resources and treatment, and how advocates would like improve the system.

Unfortunately, like much of the media coverage about disabilities, the author of this article did not seek out and include the input and experiences of students with disabilities in reporting on this issue. By including the stories from students themselves, I think the story could have been far more powerful in conveying the issues than just a listing of statistics and studies. These improvements would have created a really stellar piece of reporting on a very important issue for the disability community.


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