Reporting on Disability: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated May 2024

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on disability published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

October 28, 2021
When reporting on disability, is it best to use person-first language (i.e. “person with a disability”) or identity-first language (i.e. “disabled person”)?

In a new interview with Poynter, Amy Sullivan, the lead author of the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s disability language style guide, gives the best answer to this question: “We should be continuing again and again, wherever we can, to emphasize that the most important thing is for the journalists to ask the person with a disability how they’d like to be referred to.”

I wanted to highlight this interview in this section because a) it’s the right answer to a common inclusive language question and b) it’s the general style guide philosophy we subscribe to at Reframe: describing a source’s identity should always start with asking that source to describe it themselves.

 

April 7, 2022
Where can journalists look for resources on reporting on disability?

Some excellent news inspired this question: the release of Hannah Wise’s toolkit for newsrooms to better serve the disability community, via the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

In addition to this comprehensive resource, journalists may also find the following educational:

 

July 28, 2022

In July, a video circulated of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris describing her appearance during a roundtable with disability advocates to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was sadly lampooned by Twitter users unfamiliar with the etiquette for introducing oneself in a way that’s inclusive of blind and visually impaired people.

What is that etiquette? VocalEyes has a thorough guide to inclusive self-description. Here are a few important pointers:

  • “Self-description provides information about the individual that non-blind people take in visually, and when done by everyone at a meeting or conference, gives the blind or visually impaired people present a sense of the diversity or lack of diversity of those speaking, on a panel or in the room generally.
  • Always start with your name, and organization if relevant.
  • Keep it to one or two sentences at most, and to important information. It’s a thumbnail sketch, not an oil portrait.
  • If you were arranging to meet a non-blind person in a public place who you have not met before, how would you describe yourself so that they could pick you out from the crowd?”
July 6, 2023

In The Open Notebook’s reported piece, “Eradicating Ableist Language Yields More-Accurate and More-Humane Journalism” reporter Marion Renault explores resources available to avoid ableist language and explains how the core principles of anti-ableism apply to journalism. It’s a feature-length read, but it’s a great start for anyone just learning about reporting on disability communities.

 

October 5, 2023

In case you missed it, Nieman Lab summed up a recent panel at the IMEDD International Journalism Forum on making newsrooms more welcoming for disabled journalists. Send this one to your team Slack channel.

 

February 8, 2024

National disability rights advocacy organization The Arc has published a journalist’s guide to reporting on disability in the context of the 2024 election. It makes a perfect companion to The Journalist’s Resource’s new explainer on the barriers faced by people with disabilities when voting. Send these around your newsroom as the U.S. primaries and caucuses continue.

 

May 16, 2024

The Harvard Business Review has created a three-part guide to handling chronic illness at work as part of its “Big Idea” series. I highly recommend taking a spin through it, whether or not you personally are experiencing chronic illness.

Must-Reads

The Tourette’s community is livid over the ‘TikTok tics’ media frenzy
Jessica Lucas, Input Magazine
In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a story called, “Teen Girls Are Developing Tics. Doctors Say TikTok Could Be a Factor.” The story itself got a lot of buzz and was picked up by other big outlets. But this Input Magazine report tells a different side of the story: that of the Tourette’s community and how they’re affected by sensationalist coverage. Understanding the impact of our reporting is a necessary skill for all journalists. Let this be a lesson learned.

The Surprising History of the Slur Beyoncé and Lizzo Both Cut From Their New Albums
Ben Zimmer, Slate
After Lizzo and Beyoncé released their newest albums, social media uproar led both to strike an ableist slur from the lyrics. How did such a word end up on the albums of huge pop stars? Slate has published an etymology of the term that clears it up.

Washington Post Design System: Accessibility Resources
The Washington Post has published their digital accessibility guidelines, including a handy checklist. News sites starting to implement the basic standards will find a lot to learn. (Looking for a deeper dive? Try the Web Accessibility Initiative’s free online course on accessibility fundamentals.)

Reframing Headlines

October 27, 2022

Earlier this week, Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz participated in a live televised debate. The fact that Fetterman is recovering from a stroke he experienced in May was front and center in a lot of debate coverage. His speech and auditory processing were affected by the stroke which, as much-discussed after a recent NBC News interview, means he has used closed captioning accommodations for such events.

Fetterman, showing the effects of his stroke, battled Oz in a hostile Senate debate

Of course one’s presentation during a live debate will factor into how audiences interpret the “winner” — Nixon vs. Kennedy taught us that. But journalists have an incalculable impact on public discourse surrounding political events. That’s why it’s important that we don’t put our thumbs on the scale by centering style over substance, as the headline from The New York Times’ live blog above exemplifies.

Fetterman’s recovery is part of his campaign story, so it’s no surprise its impact on a live debate would be part of the conversation. But, considering his primary care physician has attested to Fetterman’s fitness for office, a focus on his disability in coverage has very little purpose besides advancing harmful ableist narratives. As reporter Michael Hobbes pointed out on Twitter, this type of coverage also encourages voters to focus more on optics than impact.

A headline from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s live blog below gets it right by focusing on the issues and policies Fetterman and Oz discussed. That’s what debates are for, after all: determining candidates’ standings on the issues that impact voters — not their style of speech.

Pa. Senate debate: Fetterman and Oz faced off on economic issues, abortion in first and only debate