Election coverage: 10 ways journalists can better serve voters with disabilities

More than 61 million Americans live with disabilities, yet they remain underrepresented in journalism produced by U.S. newsrooms. 

Experts in voter access, disability representation, and accessible news coverage shared best practices to improve coverage for voters with disabilities and to highlight the access issues they may face during a program produced by the National Press Club Journalism Institute. 

“A very wise man once told me that if you live long enough, you will have some form of disability. So it’s not a matter of us versus them,” said Thomas Hicks, chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission. “We need to be all inclusive to ensure that every American who is eligible to vote can do so privately, independently, and have their votes counted accurately.”

Here are 10 ways that journalists can improve their coverage for voters with disabilities this election cycle and beyond.

  1. Recognize that not all disabilities are visible. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides a broad definition for disability, and it is not the role of journalists to narrow that scope in their coverage decisions or accessibility measures.
  2. Do your homework on disability history. An understanding of how disabilities have been covered in the past and what advocates have been working toward can provide nuance and context in your reporting. 
  3. Understand that access issues go beyond polling places. For example, an EAC report commissioned by Rutgers University found that people with disabilities are less likely to use computers and the Internet, or have a printer at home. This can lead to voters being unable to find their polling locations, understand their rights, or learn information about the candidates. 
  4. Provide coverage that includes the rights of disabled voters. For instance, disabled voters are allowed to bring anyone they choose to help them cast a ballot: “It is law that you can have whoever you want to assist you for a federal election to cast your vote,” Hicks said. “Two exceptions: One being it can’t be your boss, and the other being that it can’t be a union rep. But other than that, you can have anyone you want.” 
  5. Brush up on the latest laws governing voting in your area and shine a light on compliance issues you find. “Take a good look at the Department of Justice’s website because they do a lot of investigations on polling locations that are not ADA-compliant,” said Jessica Huseman, editorial director for VoteBeat.
  6. Create an environment for your sources to request reasonable accommodations, too. A recent interview with Senate candidate John Fetterman provided a cautionary tale of ableism in journalism. “To me, 50 percent of journalists’ role in running an election is presenting information about the candidates,” said Hannah Wise, central region audience development editor for McClatchy. “And that means making sure that information is accessible, making sure that the candidate doesn’t have an unnecessary barrier to participating in that interview. And it’s not the role of journalists to decide what is and is not a reasonable accommodation.” 
  7. Practice engagement journalism. Bring the public along in your reporting. Share what you are working on and ask the community what it feels is missing in your election coverage. 
  8. Always ask — and never assume — how people want to be identified. An example of person-first language is “person with a disability,” and identity-first language is “disabled person.” Everyone has different preferences, so ask. (And make sure the person you are covering is OK with being identified as disabled.)
  9. Don’t avoid writing about disability issues based on a fear of getting it wrong. Disability is an inherent part of a person similar to race, gender, or religion. Start the conversation with questions like, “I want to learn more about this, can you tell me more?” Or “Here’s my understanding of what this means. Does this feel accurate?” It’s also important to write about disabled people beyond a medical context.
  10. Make accessibility a priority in the newsroom. “Something I often see newsrooms doing is only making coverage about disability issues accessible,” said Wendy Lu, a senior staff editor on the Flexible Editing desk at The New York Times. “We’re not just consuming news about disability; we should be making coverage accessible across the board.” Journalists can consult Disability Matters, a toolkit to help newsrooms to better serve the disability community for guidance. 

These tips were compiled from a panel discussion with:

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