Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

How to strengthen your coverage of disabilities during the pandemic

Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population lives with an intellectual or physical disability. Multiply that number by their families and friends, says Kristin Gilger, and you get a sense of how large the audience is for inclusive reporting. 

“There is some very good coverage being done about how people with disabilities are being affected by this pandemic,” Gilger, executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism, said in an email interview. “But coverage still doesn’t come close to need and demand.”

To assist journalists in finding and exploring disability-focused angles to the pandemic and beyond, the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University has been sharing story ideas that focus on inclusivity. 

The campaign, “NCDJ30for30” is presenting 30 story ideas, one every other day on Twitter and Facebook, through July 26 — the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. More than one-third of the ideas are related to COVID-19. 

“Finding these kinds of stories simply means doing what good reporters have always done — putting themselves in the place of others and describing what that is like,” she said. 

What are some of the most common mistakes journalists make when covering stories for and about people living with different abilities?

Gilger: In my view, the biggest mistake is not what is covered but what is not covered. People with disabilities are just too often invisible. I’ve found that we, as  journalists, often feel uncomfortable covering disability, and that’s totally understandable. There may be a lot we don’t know or understand. It may feel like we’re going to make some terrible mistake and offend someone. Even the language of disability is fraught. Should we say “disabled person” or “person with a disability”? Is it OK to refer to someone as “able-bodied” or should we say “non-disabled”? If we do a story about someone who has a disability who has achieved something noteworthy, will it be derided as “inspiration porn” – something that essentially dehumanizes others by using them to make the rest of us feel good? So it’s no wonder that journalists steer clear. 

I encourage journalists and other communications professionals to educate themselves and take the plunge. The NCDJ offers advice that can help. For example, we have a disability language style guide that can help with figuring out what language to use to describe various disabilities and how to refer to people who live with those disabilities.

People living with different abilities are also among those most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can journalists find and tell stories about this population? 

Gilger: There is some very good coverage being done about how people with disabilities are being affected by this pandemic, but coverage still doesn’t come close to need and demand. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population has some kind of intellectual or physical disability. Multiply that by all of their families and friends and you get a sense of how large the audience is. …

For example, schools are required to provide special education services to children with disabilities, including assistive technology. But the law does not specify how special education must be handled in situations where schools are closed for extended lengths of time. Parents of children with disabilities are concerned about delivery of special education services during the pandemic, and they worry that lowering the bar now will mean a weakening of services in the long run. 

Another area that has not been explored much is how COVID-19 is changing things for people with disabilities in sometimes unexpected ways. Whereas in the past, they have too often been denied a chance to be included remotely in many areas of life, like school and work, the pandemic has normalized remote participation, which may actually open up opportunities for some living with disabilities.

What are some of the most common mistakes journalists make when covering stories for and about people living with different abilities?

Gilger: In my view, the biggest mistake is not what is covered but what is not covered. People with disabilities are just too often invisible. I’ve found that we, as  journalists, often feel uncomfortable covering disability, and that’s totally understandable. There may be a lot we don’t know or understand. It may feel like we’re going to make some terrible mistake and offend someone. Even the language of disability is fraught. Should we say “disabled person” or “person with a disability”? Is it OK to refer to someone as “able-bodied” or should we say “non-disabled”? If we do a story about someone who has a disability who has achieved something noteworthy, will it be derided as “inspiration porn” – something that essentially dehumanizes others by using them to make the rest of us feel good? So it’s no wonder that journalists steer clear. 

I encourage journalists and other communications professionals to educate themselves and take the plunge. The NCDJ offers advice that can help. For example, we have a disability language style guide that can help with figuring out what language to use to describe various disabilities and how to refer to people who live with those disabilities.

For some, recognizing “disability” is limited to those they can identify by sight — those who use wheelchairs or live with visual or hearing impairments, for example. How can journalists better educate themselves on the spectrum of varying abilities and these individuals’ needs from institutions and agencies, particularly during COVID-19?

Gilger: Almost three-fourths of people who identify as having a disability do not use devices like wheelchairs, so this is a good question. “Invisible” disabilities can include anything from autism and bipolar disorder to hearing or visual conditions, as you mention. I read recently that statistically, for every person you see with a visible disability, you’ve seen four more that live with a disability that you don’t see. That’s something to think about when you start questioning why someone who seems perfectly healthy-looking to you parks in a parking spot set aside for people with disabilities. 

Journalists, in particular, need to be careful about assumptions, and that means asking questions. For example, people with intellectual disabilities are at increased risk for both being victims of crime and being charged with crimes. Reporters covering crime need to understand that and ask the right questions in order to report fully and accurately.

What practices can journalists keep to include people living with disabilities in more reported stories, rather than highlight their “otherness?” How can journalists best find people willing to talk about this part of their identity?

Gilger: This isn’t that hard. We can include people with disabilities in all of our coverage, a practice we used to call “mainstreaming.” And why wouldn’t we? People with disabilities hold political opinions, shop, go to school, exercise, raise families and do everything else that we all do, and we can include them in stories about all of those topics and many more. 

But just because someone with a disability is included in a story doesn’t automatically mean that you should call out the disability. The NCDJ advises always asking yourself the question: Is it relevant? For example, if you’re writing a story about people complaining about airplane noise over their neighborhood and you interview someone who uses a wheelchair, is that fact relevant to the story? Probably not. 

If you think the disability is relevant to the story, then we suggest that you ask the person if they’re comfortable disclosing the disability and, if so, how they would prefer that it (and they) be described. People with disabilities tell me they much prefer a frank conversation than to have the reporter assume something that may not be accurate. And most are perfectly willing to talk about it.

What else should journalists know about coverage for and about individuals living with disabilities during COVID-19?

Gilger: We just need to stop and ask ourselves if there is a disability angle to the story, and there very often is. For example, there has been a lot of coverage lately about nursing homes being hit by the virus, but little mention of the fact that a large number of people with disabilities live in nursing homes. There have been stories about the growing demand for home deliveries of everything from medicines to groceries resulting in longer delivery times, but delays can be far more than an inconvenience if you’re living with a disability that prevents you from getting essential supplies in another way. And what happens to people with mobility limitations when public transport is shut down or hours are limited? 

Finding these kinds of stories simply means doing what good reporters have always done — putting themselves in the place of others and describing what that is like.

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