Nickie Coby (puppybraille) wrote,
Nickie Coby

Covering Disabilities: Untold Stories for Any Beat

Beyond Stereotypes: Untold Stories for Any Beat
Covering all the apects of your beat includes covering disability.

By Elizabeth J. Carr
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A few months after Jennifer LaFleur moved to St. Louis she broke her
ankle. Suddenly, the places she went as a Post-Dispatch reporter were
difficult to get into. Why was it so hard to get around? Weren't buildings
in the city supposed to be accessible for everyone?

She wanted to know more.

It was close to the 10-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities
Act ( , and LaFleur found a
features writer at the paper working on a story about a disabled theater
troupe in town. The two reporters joined forces.

LaFleur talked with people in the disability community and decided to do
audits on buildings in St. Louis. She audited restaurants, hotels and
public buildings. She also investigated the transportation there that
prompted a federal investigation of the transit system.

She looked into employment issues that some members of the disability
community faced, and the two reporters wove the whole story around the
theater troupe.

"I think serious disability-related issues are underreported," said
LaFleur, now with The Dallas Morning News. "We ignore policy-based and
deeper investigative stories that affect everyone, not just people with

There are many reasons reporters might be missing disability stories on
their beats, according to Suzanne Levine, the Executive Director of the
National Center on Disability & Journalism ( (NCDJ),
and Susan LoTempio, assistant managing editor for Readership at The
Buffalo News ( and a board member for the

Levine and LoTempio recently discussed some of those reasons at a Poynter
seminar. They attributed the lack of coverage to laziness, language usage,
lack of knowledge, and the feeling that there is just not enough time.

The inspirational story about the athlete who succeeds in spite of a
disability is the type of "feel good story" reporters tend to fall back
on, said LoTempio.

One of the reasons reporters may gravitate to stories like that is because
they are comfortable with the topic. "In talking with different reporters
that report on disability issues, I've been told that what happens in the
newsroom is it's either seen as a downer or it's very complicated," said

The problem, said LoTempio, is that "stereotypical" stories are one
dimensional. Stories that are inspirational or medical allow the media to
believe we've covered disability, when we haven't.

"Reporting about disability needs to be integrated in any area for any
reporter who wants to be thorough on their beat," said LoTempio.

One of the sticky situations reporters encounter concerning language is
when to include what a source's disability is, and whether it is actually
relevant to the story you are writing, said LoTempio, whose 30 years of
experience in newspapers and as a wheelchair user has helped shape her

When asked for this story why she uses a wheelchair she said: "Mentioning
that I am a wheelchair user is pertinent to your story because it explains
why I am interested in the issue of how media cover disability. But why I
use a wheelchair has no bearing on my opinions or credibility as a

Census 2000 counted 49.7 million people age five and over with a
htm) -- that's nearly one in five Americans. Think of how many people
that may include on the various beats journalists cover.

LoTempio said NPR's Joseph Shapiro
( does a
great job covering disability issues. "He covers everything from
government funding to government programs, to the returning soldiers who
have lost limbs and are learning to live with prostheses," LoTempio said.

"He has profiled activists in the disability community and investigated
the problems of disabled Americans (like insufficient housing subsidies).
He's good at news and features, and he excels at this because he uses
disabled people as his primary focus and his main sources. He's thorough
and respectful and I've not seen anyone else do a better job, as well as
stay on top of the news in the disability community like he does."

"I think reporters are under pressure to write a lot of different
stories -- but we need to do better to include people with disabilities,"
said LoTempio.

Doing better starts with doing your homework.

"Look for possible stories on violations, policy, investigations," said
LaFleur. "Talk to folks in the disability community. Get on mailing lists.
Follow folks through their days and see what barriers they run into."

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