Jul 1 1991

Media Miss the Disability Rights Issue

"Courageous Cripples" Instead of Access Activists

Two thousand people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990, for the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was the largest gathering ever of journalists for a disability story, most of whose reporting ignored the fact pointed out by a lonely Associated Press dispatch a few days earlier: that the White House itself lacks the accessible restrooms mandated by the act.

Instead, most of the stories had the “gee whiz” tone common to articles on not readily understood issues: “In a ceremony attended by the deaf and blind, paraplegics and a woman dependent on a ventilator for every breath, President Bush yesterday signed into law a landmark civil rights bill forthe disabled,” effused the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Gregory Spears. The lead of Don Shannon’s report in the Los Angeles Times came straight from the How Amazing! school of disability reporting: “There was an empty wheelchair in the back row and somebody said the occupant must have gotten up and walked on the waves of emotion” — a little like suggesting that blacks turned white at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

The coverage seemed to reflect a remark made by one of the reporters present: “This disability rights movement seemed to come out of nowhere.” If it seemed that way, it’s because the U.S. media have studiously avoided covering disability rights issues for years, in favor of the soft but ever-popular story of the courageous individual who hasn’t let disability slow her down.

Publishers love these stories because they sell. In its August 1990 issue, Life magazine featured Carmelo, a child with kidney disease. “Heroism, like gold, is where you find it,” wrote publisher Kate Bonniwell (11/90). “Life found it in Carmelo, a small boy whose afflictions made the sufferings of Job seem trivial.” The magazine focused on Carmelo being visited by a troupe of professional circus clowns — and, Life exclaimed, this literally saved Carmelo’s life. He put on weight and thrived.

In Carmelo’s case, Life had exulted too soon. Carmelo died less than three months after the photo spread appeared, despite the efforts of clowns to stop his kidney disease. But no matter how ridiculous, such stories are media staples.

Like stories of women who excelled at baking contests or blacks who were credits to their race, “cripple stories” have for decades provided the only glimpses many Americans have had of the lives of people with disabilities. What the public learns, unsurprisingly, is that disability is a personal problem, not a problem of social oppression — and that plucky disabled people who are heroic can overcome just about anything.

Such sugar-coated stories have received play at the expense of news stories about conditions disabled people face in this country: rampant job discrimination; the widespread failure of local and state governments to enforce laws requiring new buildings to be accessible; the failure of Medicare or Medicaid to support disabled people who want to stay out of nursing homes; the difficulties the disabled face in long-distance travel because airlines ignore a 1986 law requiring planes to be accessible. The “human interest” pieces replace coverage of disabled people’s decades-long fight against being shut out of the system, of being forced into institutions and nursing homes because of the lack of services in thecommunity.

Those reporters who do perceive disability rights as an ongoing, newsworthy issue get hassled by editors bored with the whole concept. One reporter was told by his editor that they’d “done the disability story” and suggested that another one wouldn’t be welcome for about a year. (About 43 million people in the U.S. have some form of disability.)

But reporters’ own perceptions of disability cause many of the problems incoverage. Nervous about disability themselves, they act more worried abouthow to refer to their sources (most activists prefer “disabled” over “handicapped” or euphemisms like “physically challenged” or “differently abled”) than about probing for real issues in interviews.

When Ken Emerson profiled Stanley Elkins, a novelist with multiples clerosis, in the New York Times Magazine (3/3/91), one can almost hear anaudible sigh with each description of his disability: “He’s wearing…a supporting splint on one leg, and clumpy orthopedic shoes…. His head sags between his rounded shoulders and his shoulders sag into his chest.” In a portrait, Elkins is “slumped stiffly…in a chair, his cane leaning against its arm…glaring at his younger friend.”

The profile mentions off-handedly that an earlier interview was canceled because, with Elkins’ wife out of the house, “there was no way he could have gotten downstairs and unlocked the door.” Why was Elkins trapped in a house he couldn’t navigate in? Why couldn’t he find an accessible house?Reporters rarely think to dig for issues because the simple fact of having a disability and living despite it seems story enough.