Reporters raise their hands to ask questions as President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Washington.
( AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzania Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Over the past few weeks, we've been having conversations about the state of the media in the United States, from the total of covering protests for black journalists, to how public media is reckoning with its own systemic racism. Today, as we continue our coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we're going to look at how journalists have been covering the disability bit, and whether or not that has changed in the decade since the ADA was signed into law.
About one in four adults live with a disability in the United States, yet that's rarely reflected in our news coverage, and when there are stories about people with disabilities, they often perpetuate stereotypes. That's something our next guest has written about for the Columbia Journalism Review. Wendy Lu is a News Editor and Reporter for HuffPost. Wendy, thanks for being with us.
Wendy Lu: Hi, Tanzina. Thanks so much for having me.
Tanzina: In the 30 years since the ADA has passed, have you seen notable change in how people with disabilities are covered?
Wendy: Yes, I think that we've seen some slow progress, but it is getting better. One thing that I've noticed that news outlets are doing better at is using neutral language, for example, instead of using terms like "wheelchair-bound," they say "a person who uses a wheelchair," or "a wheelchair-user." We're moving away from a term like "the disabled," which takes the humanness away from the person who actually has the disability to people with disabilities or disabled people. Either one of those works.
People identify differently. Some people prefer identity-first language, so centering the disability as part of their identity, or people with disabilities, which is person-first language. There's still some discussion even just day-to-day about which terminology is better. Essentially, everybody feels differently, and it's always important to ask how that person identifies.
Something else that we've been seeing a lot over the last five years or so, and it's still prevalent is inspiration porn which it's a genre of reporting where people with disabilities are treated like inspirations for doing really simple tasks. It's part of this trend of only writing about disability in good news like cool, positive news. That's something that it's very surface level and often takes space away from stories that go deeper into things like access and opportunity and can also perpetuate a lot of stereotypes.
Tanzina: There's a common trope in media coverage of people with disabilities called "inspiration porn." I want to hear a clip about this from the late comedian and disability rights activist Stella Young. This here is from a TED Talk that Stella gave in 2014.
Stella Young: I use the term porn deliberately because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. In this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you so that we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person."
Tanzina: Wendy, how common is that kind of news coverage?
Wendy: I would say it is still quite common. Oftentimes, it starts in local news outlets, small communities that cover this, and then sometimes, these stories explode and then bigger news outlets like CNN will pick it up from the smaller outlets and it starts going viral online. We still see this quite often, I would say.
Tanzina: What about the role of language in disability coverage? It's something we think and talk about a lot here on the show. How should journalists be thinking about language? You mentioned a little bit about asking people how they prefer to be identified but are there other words and phrases that do more harm than good?
Wendy: Yes. Like I said, wheelchair-bound or calling people 'the disabled' is really harmful because it really implies that people with disabilities are just stuck automatically. For example, like I said, with wheelchair, when you say wheelchair-bound, that implies that that person is just stuck and the wheelchair is keeping them tied down when actually it provides freedom.
I think language like this can be really harmful. It's viewed from the sense of the non-disabled perspective that being disabled or not healthy or having health conditions is automatically not the norm when, in reality, people with disabilities are an actual community with its own history and culture and there's pride in being disabled. I think a lot of our language doesn't quite reflect that oftentimes.
Tanzina: Is there anything that journalists should be doing better in their disability coverage?
Wendy: Yes, absolutely. I would say, actually, talking to people with disabilities, I think so many stories about disability rely on interviews with parents or caregivers or their teachers, friends, mentors. Of course, those perspectives are very important and have their place and time. Every story that's about disability needs to have some voices from actually disabled people.
That can give us some urgency and narratives about our own community and ensure that that provide those perspectives from our own lived experiences. Another thing I would say is, for example, one other thing about that was making sure that we provide disabled voices so that those stories are told with more complexity and sensitivity and depth from the get-go.
Tanzina: Wendy Lu is a News Editor and Reporter for HuffPost. Wendy, thanks for joining us.
Wendy: Of course, thanks so much for having me.
Tanzina: If you have suggestions on how we can improve our coverage on The Takeaway when it comes to disabilities, let us know by giving us a call at 8778, My Take.
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