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.
This summer, Wendy Lu, a senior staff editor at The New York Times, held three training sessions with the Speakers Bureau veterans. Lu coached them on the technical components of disability reporting, including what to do – and what not to do – when covering disability issues.
Lu started her sessions by discussing disability media tropes and the concept of disability as an identity. Although the disability community is very diverse, she explained, it is a strong one and has its own vibrant culture and history. In fact, disabled people make up the largest minority group in the U.S., with more than a quarter of the population identifying as disabled.
Most nondisabled reporters fail to understand the complex nature of disability, so disabled subjects often do not get nuance in coverage, she explained. Non-disabled people are often at the center of stories rather than the disabled people who are actually affected by the issue. These factors lead to mischaracterizations in the news, which trickles into society as a whole.
Part of this broader issue is “inspiration porn,” which Lu defines as “a genre of reporting that portrays people with disabilities as inspirational solely because they’re disabled.” The genre includes charity stories that congratulate non-disabled people for doing something to help a disabled person. When writing these exploitative stories, reporters often take a condescending tone that turns disability into something to be pitied. This creates assumptions about what living with a disability is like, Lu explained.
Inspiration porn, Lu argued, creates an “us versus them” dynamic where non-disabled people end up feeling grateful they’re not disabled. It also fails to give space to wider issues in these stories, like highlighting inaccessibility in society or a broader investigative angle. Instead, Lu advised reporters to ask themselves two things as a starting point: Does a story about disability include actually disabled sources, and is it inspirational to disabled people, too? Stories that fit both criteria are more likely to avoid the exploitation often associated with disability coverage.
Using respectful, inclusive language around disabilities is also crucial, although it can be tricky for journalists to navigate, according to Lu. Phrases and terms like “suffers from,” “handicapped,” and “special needs” have become less favorable as awareness of disability issues has grown over the years. Other language has become more nuanced. For example, although many terms may have originated with negative connotations, the disabled community has managed to reclaim some of them and use them in more empowering ways.
One discussion reporters might have in their newsrooms is whether to use person-first terms, like “person with disabilities,” or identity-first terms, like “disabled person.” There is no consensus among the disabled community, as every disabled person has different preferences. Some community members even use both interchangeably. Lu advised asking sources what they prefer, with the recognition that some disabled people may not realize they even have a preference until they’re asked. Journalists should use accurate, inclusive, and neutral language, and only mention the disability when relevant to the story, Lu said.
It is vital to ensure reporters consider the complexity of disability language without allowing it to overshadow the need for coverage. Making mistakes is all right as long as you are able to learn from them, Lu said. “It’s about being accurate, truthful, and respectful, and meeting people where they are,” she explained.
In visual storytelling, she emphasized that journalists should give space for disabled people to authentically be themselves. It is good practice to seek creative angles to showcase the subject’s life and perspective while ensuring they have agency in the visuals. When doing video interviews, reporters should aim to show viewers who the person is in their day-to-day life. Visual reporting needs to treat disabled people like anyone else, Lu said.
It’s important to note that none of this means giving disabled people in power “a pass,” Lu added. Disabled politicians, for instance, still need to be held accountable, and reporters should still ask them the tough questions that they would ask anyone else. At the end of the day, it’s about being accessible, inclusive, fair, and factual — all hallmarks of strong journalism.
Journalists wanting to make their coverage more accessible to the disabled community have a few things to consider, Lu explained. Multimedia stories should include captioning and audio descriptions. Lu advised avoiding automated captions whenever possible since they are often incorrect. Instead, captions should be manually added or burned in. Simple accommodations like these will increase trust between newsrooms and the disabled community, and also increase readership and viewership.
Lu also discussed her tips for pitching disability stories to mainstream news outlets. More and more newsrooms need to make disability stories a priority, Lu said, and journalists should pitch ideas when they have them. “Many editors still don’t realize disability is an actual beat,” she said, “so there might be a lot of instances where [reporters] have to over-explain a bit more.” Editors often need to see the importance of a disability issue on a local, state, or national level before approving a pitch, she said, so reporters should be prepared to explain the “why” and “why now” of a story idea.
Lu also instructed the Speakers Bureau veterans on how to teach others about disability reporting. She emphasized the importance of meeting people where they are and understanding that not everyone will get these concepts immediately. She spoke on acknowledging the gaps and limits in one’s knowledge, saying that while presenters cannot know everything, what they do know is worth sharing. Lu also suggested asking attendees if they need accommodations well beforehand, recording the sessions, and providing transcripts to demonstrate some of the disability best practices.
“Hosting trainings takes a lot of trial and error,” Lu said in her final session with the Speakers Bureau members. “Some sessions will go better than others, and sometimes you’ll think of other things you could’ve done differently.” She emphasized to the veterans that simple respect by reporters will go a long way toward improving disability coverage.