Reporting on disability

Disability is a common fact of life and part of human diversity, it is not something to be dramaticised or sensationalised. Avoid stories where, if the main subject’s disability was not mentioned, there would be no hook to the story.

If a person has achieved something newsworthy, like winning a national portrait prize, then that is wonderful and needs to be rightly celebrated. But if that person has disability, the report should not make it seem as if their disability makes their achievement unbelievable, poignant, or more interesting. It isn’t a surprise when people with disability achieve things.

If the fact that the person has disability was removed, would the story be about a mundane, everyday activity? Generally, if a person with disability is doing something that is ordinary for non-disabled people, then it’s probably ordinary for us as well.

Australian comedian and disability activist Stella Young often spoke against what she termed ‘inspiration porn’ (another term used is ‘inspiration objectification’). This is the kind of emotive media portrayal of a person with disability where the simple fact of their life is meant to inspire others to be grateful for their own non-disabled lives. These stories objectify people with disability as tragic figures of pity for the entertainment of everyone else. These are exploitative and hurtful portrayals of disability.

Avoid referring to a person ‘inside’ the disability (e.g. ‘the man inside the paralysed body’) or ‘beyond’ their disability (e.g. ‘she transcended her disability’). Consider that our bodies and/or minds cannot be separated from who we are. There is not a non-disabled person hidden inside us. If you are writing about people as if their selves can exist separately from their bodies or minds, that’s not reporting – that’s futurism and best left to speculative fiction.

Ask each person with disability how they like to be described, and when in doubt, refer to the person with disability by their name.

Whose story are you telling?

When reporting on disability, be sure to centre people with disability. All too often, people with disability are spoken for or over by family members, carers, service providers, advocates, academics or any non-disabled person who claims authority and expertise over our lives. People with disability have historically been blocked from having a say in our own lives. When doing a feature on a person with disability, the only authority on that person’s life is that person.

Be aware of whose story you are telling. Is it the ‘brave’ tale of the mother who loves her adult child with disability, while the person with disability is only mentioned for how their existence affects everyone else? Are you focusing on how ‘inspiring’ it is that the non-disabled people treat their friend with disability like a friend?

Too often, stories about people with disability are actually stories about the people without disability around them. Caring for, supporting, befriending, parenting or working with a person with disability should not be presented as some kind of incredible or burdensome act, because this implies that the most credible outcome would have been for the person with disability to be abandoned and neglected by all.

Remember that people with disability are people with human rights the same as everyone else, and having our  human rights fulfilled should be expected.

Who is telling the story?

When reporting on an issue that specifically affects people with disability, it is best practice to employ a reporter with disability to cover it (especially for an opinion piece). You are more likely to get accurate reporting on disability from someone who actually has disability. If you don’t have at least one reporter with disability on staff, and don’t know of any freelance journalists with disability you could employ, it is time to seek them out.

People with disability are not one homogenous group; an autistic person may have a very different experience of disability to a person with a below-the-knee amputation. There is not one spokesperson for all people with disability.

Hire people with disability to report on non-disability-related issues. People with disability are people first, and we have perspectives on more than just disability.

People with disability make up close to 20% of Australia’s population, which means that approximately one in five people in this country can speak with authority about disability.

There are organisations that are designated disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) – they are made up of, run by, led by and for people with disability. These organisations are different from, and will have a different perspective, than organisations who represent disability service providers, carers, families or commercial business.

Next: Words to describe people with disability

Back: What is ableist language and what’s the impact of using it?