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Disabled Journalists Association director educates MVJ on systemic disability struggles

By November 3, 2022Resources

Earlier this year, Military Veterans in Journalism and the Ford Foundation launched its Disability Inclusion Program to advocate for better, more nuanced reporting around disabled military veterans. Eleven veterans were chosen to serve as speakers. MVJ organized a training series with top journalists and experts in the disabled veterans and broader disability spaces to discuss these critical issues and teach best practices. 

Cara Reedy is the Media Narrative Director at Disabled Journalists Association. She is a journalist and producer who spent ten years at CNN producing documentaries as well as writing for various verticals. In 2019, she produced her most recent short doc for The Guardian entitled Dwarfism and Me.

In June, Cara Reedy, the director of the Disabled Journalists Association, held three training sessions with the Speakers Bureau veterans. Reedy focused on the broader, systemic struggles disabled people face daily and what reporters should do to help disabled people be empowered by their stories.

Reedy began by taking a hard look at the role of disability in economic and societal well-being. According to the National Council on Disability, people with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate of those without, and of the 17.9 million working-age adults with disabilities, more than 65% participate in income support or safety net programs. Only 29 percent of disabled working-age people have employment, and education doesn’t help much – just 25 percent of disabled people with at least a bachelor’s degree are employed, whereas 70 percent of people without disabilities with the same education level have jobs, per an early 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics news release.

Disabled people – especially disabled people of color – are also more likely to face harsher outcomes early on in life, as shown in a 2018 study from the Government Accountability Office. Disabled students, for instance, make up 25 percent of all out-of-school suspensions despite only representing 12 percent of public school students. Those numbers increase when looking at black disabled students – while only 19 percent of public school students are black and disabled, they make up 36 percent of school punishments. This overrepresentation of disabled minorities among public school punishments is a large, although often overlooked, part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s an early example of the harshness of the justice system on disabilities. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey published last year, as many as 29 percent of federal inmates and 40 percent of state inmates reported having disabilities. When the Supreme Court passes down rulings on issues important to people without disabilities, the decisions often don’t affect the treatment of disabled people. 

Recently, we’ve seen examples of police officers not following Miranda Rights rules when handling the cognitively disabled, leading to unjust imprisonment – or even death, in the case of people like Kokou Christopher Fiafonou from Austin, Minnesota. And with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade comes concerns from disability rights organizations like the Disability Justice Initiative that many disabled women won’t be able to get equitable medical care if they can’t carry their children to term.

There is only one way into the system, Reedy said, and when disability gets added in, people face a lack of options to navigate it. But studying the parts of society that are failing disabled people provides opportunities for reporters to use their skills to advocate for solutions.

U.S. Navy veteran Kimberly Kennedy speaks about challenges to disabled Michigan residents at the North American International Auto Show on January 15. Returning the power in narratives to people with disabilities is an important part of improving disability coverage. (U.S. Army National Guard/Spc. Samantha Hall)

Often, stories on disability issues remove power from those directly affected, Reedy said, because reporters go the “easier route,” speaking to non-disabled people instead of the disabled people themselves. As a result, non-disabled people feel they can speak for the disability community because they’ve held power in disability stories for so long. 

Reedy further explained that reporters often don’t cover the divide between abled and disabled individuals working in the disability space, making it harder for disabled people to speak up for themselves. As a result, the stories produced by the media at large tend to lean toward eugenic language and patronizing tones, she said.

Reedy suggests journalists must not pretend that disability does not exist. “Everyone will be disabled at some point,” she says, as it is a natural part of aging. “Once you’re in the disability system, no one will come to help you if you don’t use your power to change things now.”

Using that power is easier said than done for many reporters. In giving agency back to individuals with disabilities, reporters may have to question their own biases and beliefs. 

The questioning process is hard to start, though, when many reporters and newsrooms are afraid to publish mistakes. Reedy says journalists must get comfortable with making mistakes, by acknowledging their mistake, apologizing, and moving forward. It is better to make a mistake and still cover the story than to let the story pass and bring harm to more people, she said. Reedy advises journalists to ask sources as many questions as possible, including the language they think is best.

Reedy also recommends researching every source. Untrustworthy non-disabled sources are not the only problem – some disabled people will give inaccurate information for monetary gain. When reporters ask others in the community about their potential sources, community members gain a chance to tell reporters more about the source. 

Speaking with disabled people as sources can also produce insight into incidents within the disabled community. “The disability community in particular will have proof,” Reedy explained. “If you ask [disabled people] for screenshots, they’re holding them, waiting for someone to come and report the story.”.

Maryland School for the Blind students Andrea Washington, left, and Derontay Taylor, right, along with teacher Colleen Shovestull, center, use their sense of touch on topographical maps. This is a good example of “disability tax”, or the extra time and effort people with disabilities have to put in to do everyday things. (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

Even with journalists taking these approaches, many in the non-disabled community may not understand why disability stories matter. Reedy’s solution is to introduce a “disability tax” – the extra time and energy disabled people have to expend to live, as a way for people to understand the importance of these issues. 

For instance, how much extra energy did a disabled person have to exert compared to an abled person? People understand the value of time better than most other metaphors, Reedy said.

Reedy finished her sessions with advice on tackling these issues in newsrooms. “Turn everything on its head,” she offered, explaining that journalists need to consider the disability side of stories. Reedy also advised encouraging newsrooms to show and normalize disabilities instead of avoiding them. Reporters need to think about why things are how they are and what they can do to give agency back to disabled communities.