How to Report With Care on Disability
Any time I’m writing an article that affects a group of people with certain conditions or disabilities, I always reach out to multiple people living with the condition and include their voices in the story. This ensures that there’s room for differences of opinion or experience — disability needs to be covered in an intersectional way that includes people of various races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, ages and economic backgrounds. This feels like a basic tenet of journalism — to include the voices of the groups that are affected by whatever issue you’re writing about — but I often see stories about issues that affect people with disabilities that don’t quote a single disabled person. Disabled people are sometimes sidelined as sources in favor of nondisabled researchers or doctors. Although these voices can enhance the story, they shouldn’t replace the voices of disabled people in a story that involves their community.
I sometimes get asked, “What’s the best way to interview someone with a disability?” I don’t approach a person with a disability any differently than I approach a nondisabled person. The only thing that might change is my communication style, depending on what disability my source has. For example, I make sure a source with an intellectual or developmental disability is aware of what that person is consenting to with an interview, and I ensure that my questions are easy to understand. If I’m interviewing a source who is not able to speak, I’ll email my questions as opposed to conducting the interview in person or over the phone.
Reporters also have a tendency to ask for interviews “as soon as possible,” if they are on tight deadlines, but for some interview sources, chronic illness flare-ups can make it impossible to do an interview on the same day of a request. I try to give my sources as much time as I can, and I make it clear that I understand their health is the priority.
When I’m actually writing, language is important: When I interview people with disabilities, one of the first things I do, if their disability is relevant to the story, is ask them how they prefer to be described. Some people, like myself, prefer identity-first language, such as “disabled person,” while others prefer person-first language, like “person with a disability.” (The preference can depend on a range of complicated factors, including what disability they have and their relationship with their disability.) I don’t use terms that make it sound as if someone is a “victim” of a disability. I don’t say someone is “afflicted” with a disability; I simply say they “have” a disability. I also don’t use terms like “wheelchair-bound,” “birth defect” or “homebound.”
While disability itself isn’t a bad thing, some people don’t want to be identified by their disabilities, whereas others may consider it an integral part of who they are.
One of the hardest parts about reporting on disabled people is that there are so many different types of disabilities and their experiences vary widely. I’m not an expert on every disability, but the key to being a disability reporter is to acknowledge that — and listen to those who are.