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The media are failing disabled people

The media are failing disabled people

Lucy Webster explains why – and how they can do better

One in five people in the UK is disabled. That makes us – by far – the country’s biggest minority group. But you wouldn’t know it, at least not if you watch the TV news, read the newspapers or skim online media sites. In fact, if you take the media as your guide, you would be completely convinced that there’s only a few disabled people around – and that precisely none of us work, have families, or contribute to society (except the Paralympians, of course). 

Journalists can and must do better. But clearly, just paying lip service to media diversity – having one disabled presenter, for example – is not going to fix the abject failure to represent disabled people properly. Rachel Charlton-Dailey, editor of The Unwritten, an online publication by and for disabled people, says the core issue is that disability is still seen as “niche”. “Disability is just confined to the health pages,” she says, and editors think that if they’ve included a story about a disabled person, they have ticked the box for at least a few weeks.

This meant that during the pandemic, vital stories went unreported. From failures implementing the shielding programme to “do not resuscitate” orders being imposed on learning disabled people, stories that were literally matters of life and death for us never made the front pages. Two-thirds of people who died in the first Covid wave were disabled; how many lives could have been saved if journalists had treated disabled people as worthy of coverage, and if the decision to ignore us had been treated as political rather than inevitable?

So, what can be done? If we’re to move disability off the health pages and into – as Charlton-Dailey puts it – “sport, weddings, even bloody gardening”, editors and journalists need to reframe their understanding of what disability actually is. It is still unhelpfully thought of as a medical issue – a failure of a mind or a body. But that’s a false understanding that puts the “fault” for discrimination on disabled people themselves, and insinuates that the only way for disabled people’s lives to improve is for them to “get better”. In other words, it absolves society of its responsibility for ableism.

There is another way, which is to understand disability as a social construct, much as we now understand race or gender. If we can see and report disability as a social identity like any other, we can see it as obviously part of the society that creates it. From there, it naturally follows that we can report disability in all areas of news. Because the truth is disability has very little to do with medical conditions (just think about it: people who wear glasses have a medical diagnosis, but we don’t think of them as disabled), and everything to do with social marginalisation. It is time we reported it as such, looking at the ableist attitudes and inaccessible environments that, for example, keep disabled people out of work, rather than assuming disabled people are unable to hold down a job. In doing so, our reporting will become a much better reflection of reality – surely the aim of every good journalist.

This social understanding will prevent many of the worst tropes in disability coverage. The false idea of disability as a medical “problem” underpins the media’s absolute conviction that being disabled is an unqualified tragedy – that all disabled people lead lives of struggle and privation. This, in turn, means that disability stories fall into the same tired narratives, time and time again. 

Both Charlton-Dailey and Liam O’Dell, a deaf and autistic journalist, are determined that the media move away from the pity/inspiration dichotomy – where stories aim to make readers feel sorry for or uplifted by disabled people, often simply on the basis of those disabled people living ordinary, mundane lives.

O’Dell highlights the numerous stories about deaf children hearing for the first time. Meant to make you happy because the child will now avoid a terrible (obviously) life of disability, these stories obscure the fact that the moment is often terrifying and overwhelming for the child, and definitely do not engage with the question of why the child isn’t just allowed to be deaf. Again, our biases mean we do not tell the full story. We should be telling disability stories as they are, not how non-disabled people would like them to be. One of the most important things we can do is really listen to disabled people, and stop reducing them to objects of our pity or admiration.

If listening is important, so is getting right the choice about who we listen to. One of the most common signs of ableism in reporting is the privileging of non-disabled voices over the views and expertise of disabled people themselves. We do this all the time, whether it’s interviewing non-disabled charity staff or, most incongruously, the non-disabled parents of disabled children (this is acceptable if, and only if, you are reporting on something that only affects disabled children who are so young that, if they were not disabled, you still wouldn’t interview them). This is such a problem because it reinforces another ableist myth: that disabled people can’t speak for themselves. It’s also just lazy journalism, because it’s perfectly possible to interview disabled people, and they are the experts in their own lives. And, if you need a professional opinion, there are countless disabled people’s organisations which, unlike many of the big charities, are run by disabled people. Seek them out; they’ll be happy to talk to a journalist who knows what they’re doing.

Another way to encourage disabled people to talk to you is to have mastered the art of talking about disability. This is not to put you off – there’s no jargon to learn – but rather to encourage any willing journalist to think about the power of language to exclude or include, to perpetuate or tackle ableism. One of the first things is to use language that reflects the social understanding of disability reflected above. In the UK, the preference is to say “disabled people” rather than “people with disabilities” because the former reflects that disability is an identity while the latter can unhelpfully enforce the idea of disability being synonymous with medical conditions. (Disabled is something you are rather than disability being something you have.) 

And if we remember that being disabled is not a bad thing, we can avoid some of the most egregious language clichés. No one is “wheelchair bound”; many people are “wheelchair users”. People do not “suffer from” their conditions, but may perhaps suffer the effects of ableism and inaccessibility. These are obvious no-noes, yet they still crop up in copy on a remarkably frequent basis. But not all language rules are obvious or immutable – and can change according to personal preference and context. So, O’Dell says, the simplest way to avoid a faux pas is to do what journalists are supposed to be good at doing: ask. He stresses that we all know that assumptions are the antithesis of good journalism, but we make assumptions about disabled people all the time. “There are basic things we ask in an interview – your name, your occupation, your age, your pronouns. In the case of disabled people, ask them how they define and describe themselves. Because it’s just common sense that if you ask then you don’t fall into the pitfalls of wrongly describing their disability.” Once again, it comes back to listening properly.

Does all of this really matter? Yes. The media has a responsibility to reflect the society we claim to serve. Remember where we started, with that all-important one-in-five stat? That’s an awful lot of people who are either ignored or badly served by today’s news landscape. They, like everyone, deserve to see themselves – their experiences and concerns – covered accurately and fairly by journalists. If we fail to do this, we become one of the many ableist institutions that silence them – and we allow other parts of society to continue to look the other way.

Disabled people remain one of the most marginalised groups, in the UK and globally. They experience higher rates of poverty, domestic violence and hate crime, while enduring lower rates of education, access to healthcare, employment and social participation. This is a group that desperately needs the media to highlight these issues and challenge the decisions that create them. And with data from 2015 suggesting that two-thirds of people feel awkward talking to a disabled person, the media has a responsibility to normalise disability (yes, you guessed it, by interviewing those disabled gardeners). Representation can be a catalyst for social change on a much wider scale – but only if it is good representation that dispels myths rather than entrenching them.

Lucy Webster is a writer, political journalist and disability advocate. This piece was taken from the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long reads. You can pick up a copy in glorious, old-fashioned print in our shop at a special member price.

Illustrations Ben Jones / Heart