Nov 1 2012

‘Inspiration’ or Invisible

Media offer limited roles for people with disabilities

U.S. media had a soft spot for the 2012 Paralympic Games, featuring some 4,000 athletes with disabilities from around the world. Not that they thought people wanted to see much of them―NBC only aired a few hours’ worth, and no live coverage (AP, 8/23/12)―but the events “proved once again that whatever your obstacles, you really can accomplish almost anything with hard work and dedication” (Sacramento Bee, 9/14/12).

Paralympic Volleyball at London's 2012 games--Photo Credit: Ben Sutherland/Wikimedia Commons

Paralympic Volleyball at London’s 2012 games–Photo Credit: Ben Sutherland/Wikimedia Commons

Seeing people with, as NPR’s Melissa Block (8/28/12) put it, “all sorts of impairments” competing in events from archery to swimming was “inspiring a lot of people” (NBC, 9/4/12); these were “performances that deserve coverage and attention” (Boston Globe, 9/11/12).

Journalists singled out competitors like handcyclist Alex Zanardi, a professional race car driver who lost his legs in a 2001 crash; for the New York Times (9/11/12), Zanardi “seemed like a living parable for the triumph-over-adversity theme that infuses the Paralympics.”

But media that are happy to spotlight people with disabilities as inspirational icons are less attentive to those who are just regular folks trying to live their lives―much less the economic, political and cultural dimensions of the “adversity” they confront.

Most people with disabilities aren’t going to win a gold medal in handcycling. They might, however, want to catch a cab. But New York City recently approved a new standard model that can’t carry wheelchairs (New York Times, 9/21/12). They call it the “Taxi of Tomorrow.”

Washington, D.C., is late rolling out new subway farecard machines because, 22 years after the law’s passage, the transit agency failed to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (Washington Post, 9/20/12). The agency says it intended to add Braille and audio features…later.

A recent report (Washington Examiner, 9/26/12) revealed failures at the D.C. agency charged with investigating abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities. The agency explained (Washington Post, 9/27/12) many clients don’t report abuse for “fear they will end up in a nursing home if their caretaker is arrested.”

A New York Times (9/24/12) noted that the doctors who screen participants in the Special Olympics, the international event for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, “routinely uncover” evidence of unmet needs in basic areas like dental, eye and foot care. (“This is not news, though few people know it,” the paper declared cryptically.)

Ignored or an afterthought, underserved and ill-represented―this is more like business as usual for the more than 56 million Americans with disabilities. But the spottiness of media attention can’t help but imply that their needs are not an urgent concern. And repeated recourse to imagery about those who “overcome barriers” as if by sheer determination can’t help but suggest that any barriers are more personal than systemic.

Part of the solution is as simple as including people with disabilities in the conversation, not only but especially in coverage of the policies and programs that shape their lives.

The PBS NewsHour (7/26/12) distinguished itself with a segment noting that people with disabilities lost jobs at five

2012 Paralympics Torch Relay--Photo Credit: James Mitchell/Wikimedia Commons

2012 Paralympics Torch Relay–Photo Credit: James Mitchell/Wikimedia Commons

times the rate of others in the recession. Come time to discuss it, though, viewers got innocuous chat between Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and someone from the “U.S. Leadership Network,” focused not on discrimination or human rights but on “asking businesses” to do better.

Bill Clinton was credited for high-lighting the importance of Medicaid for people with disabilities in his Democratic convention speech. The program, which “has long conjured up images of inner-city clinics jammed with poor families” (New York Times, 9/6/12), actually spends more per capita on long-term care for people with disabilities.

Yet when some 300 disability activists occupied the Cannon House Office Building last year precisely to express their thoughts on plans for Medicaid, journalists looked away (Extra!, 7/11).

And there’s the rub. For corporate media, political agitation demanding improvements in the lives of all people with disabilities is not just a different and less interesting story than that of “heroic” individuals who can forever be asked the “secret” to their “positive outlook on life,” they’re at cross purposes, as suggested by this aside in a Washington Post (9/29/12) write-up of the Paralympics:


The event is not without controversy. British disabled groups are staging demonstrations this week to highlight government cuts and benefit reassessments being carried out by Atos, a private contractor that is also a key sponsor of the London Paralympics. But even that appears not to have dampened surging interest in the Paralympic competitions here.


The idea that the activists outside the event were fighting for exactly the same thing as the athletes inside seems so far beyond big media’s grasp.