Journalists Reporting on Disabilities Need to Get it Right




Since this blog's inception a little more than a year ago, I notice inclusion, and the absence of inclusion, more and more. I find that I read blogs and news articles with a critical eye toward the author’s language choices in representing people with disabilities. I curate a collection of stories in special education and disabilities that I believe to be inspiring; and I initially sought to limit selections to only those stories where the authors & journalists “get it right” in language choice. Sadly, I realized that this might limit me in what I could choose.

I recently read an article which immediately stood out as an example that gets it right: “Eye gaze technology gives a voice to non-verbal speaker”. In choosing this title, the author could have written, “Technology gives voice to non-verbal boy” or even “Non-verbal boy can “speak” with special technology”. While each conveys more or less the same concept, the subtle difference demonstrated in the published title is powerful; every one of us is a speaker, we just do not all necessarily communicate in the same way. The young man in this article is authentically celebrated and not in any way lessened by his use of technology to speak.

Unfortunately, far too few journalists “get it right”. Some, like this: “V-I-C-T-O-R-I-O-U-S: Girl wins spelling bee despite autism, cerebral palsy” get it blatantly wrong, while others write positive articles with a line or two that less inclusion-minded readers might simply miss or ignore. Here’s a perfect example: “Blind can ‘see’ with Israeli-developed camera system”. This article about a fantastic advancement includes the line, “For years, researchers have been trying to figure out ways to harness sensor technology to assist people suffering from blindness and acute vision impairment, perhaps the most debilitating and difficult physical disability in a society that relies chiefly on visual cues.” 

Did you catch it? I take issue with the choice to write “people suffering from blindness and acute vision impairment”. While the article appropriately points out that vision impairments can be particularly difficult in a predominantly visual society, I think that it is presumptuous to assume that people who are blind “suffer”. The same message could have been easily conveyed by writing “people who experience unique challenges associated with blindness and acute vision impairment...”.   

Now go back to the title I deemed “blatantly wrong”. Can you see why?

How many of you would have noticed or been bothered by those lines? This is not judgement, but rather a call for increased recognition of the power of our words. We must train ourselves to notice even subtle messages so that together we can create a fully inclusive society.