Op Ed

Journalism’s Disability Problem is Everyone’s Problem

Megan E. Doherty
March 20, 2023

It’s a fair guess that most newsrooms don’t have many disabled writers or editors on staff. It’s hard to know exactly how bad the problem is, because newsrooms generally don’t include disability as a metric to track. Even articles about how journalism is bad at measuring diversity in general may not even include the word “disability” at all—unintentionally demonstrating journalism’s ableist bias.  

“I was actually looking for numbers about this, and I couldn’t find any,” said Disability Lead Member Keidra Chaney. “Newsrooms don’t want to talk about disability, like they don’t want to talk about other marginalized identities, because they think they’re being divisive.”  

The result: A distorted, if not offensive, view of a quarter of the U.S. population.

“Outlets tend to write about disability like it’s something that happens to other people,” said Chaney, who is the Digital Engagement and Accessibility Manager at National Network of Abortion Funds and founder of Blanketfort, a blog community for disabled writers. From inspiration porn to “disabled people need to be saved”, non-disabled writers write—and non-disabled editors approve—articles that rely on harmful, and frankly boring, tropes.

“Journalism tends to focus on people doing things for disabled people, as opposed to disabled people living our own lives, having agency and autonomy,” she said.

Disability intersects with many topics newsrooms devote attention and resources to, yet they silo disability off and largely ignore it. Disability justice is an economic justice issue, a racial justice issue, and a reproductive justice issue. Without a nuanced and informed understanding of disability, media coverage of the criminal-legal system, technology, artificial intelligence, design, food, climate change, gender and public health will be incomplete.

"Outlets tend to write about disability like it's something that happens to other people."

The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has been a missed opportunity for newsrooms to seek out, hire, support, and promote disabled writers and editors. In 2021, Kennedy Healy founded Crip Crap as a corrective to mainstream media’s failure to cultivate disabled expertise during the largest mass disabling event in our history.  

“Everyone was talking about 'the most vulnerable' and not enough people were talking to us,” said Healy, who is a member of Disability lead. “I was done begging non-disabled people to see us, hear us, keep us alive, and include us in their work."

Instead, at a time when disabled media professionals should have been shaping and leading coverage, we’ve gotten articles describing people who still wear masks as “hold outs” and Long Covid as psychosomatic. Consequently, some disabled journalists and researchers—including me—have had to expend their energy methodically correcting particularly bad stories.

"This is what happens when you don’t have editors who know how to push back on writers’ ableist framings," said Chaney. “How much of this writing and reporting is being done just pushes us further into the margins.”

Many disabled people, just like Chaney and Healy, have created their own resources to counter media’s elision of their voices—including Disabled Writers and Disability Visibility Project. To undo decades of systemic exclusion, newsrooms need to be full partners in this work.

"The industry needs to realize its history of biased reporting that capitalizes on the trauma of marginalized people while maintaining the status quo for those in power," Healy said. “Having people who share identities with the subjects of media allows for trust and more equitable power dynamics, fair questioning, and justly made content with clear goals.”

To undo decades of systemic exclusion, newsrooms need to be full partners in this work.

Up until recently, there hasn’t even been a professional organization for disabled journalists, like there is for Hispanics or women in the industry. There is the National Center on Disability and Journalism, but it only provides support for non-disabled journalists to write about disability. While style guides and tips on creating accessible content are important, teaching non-disabled people how to respectfully navigate disability as a topic is not a substitute for having staff writers and editors who have embodied expertise.  

But things are starting to change.

For the last two years, Cara Reedy has been working to launch the Disabled Journalists Association (DJA) to help fill the gap. The DJA would both improve the coverage of disabled people while protecting their advancement in the news industry.  

“If you have disabled people in your newsroom that are not comfortable coming out as disabled and asking for accommodations—then you are running an ableist newsroom," said Reedy. “And if you are running an ableist newsroom, which most newsrooms are, how in the world are you covering people who are disabled?”

With funding from both Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, the DJA is creating a study to learn what percentage of newsroom jobs are filled by disabled people. This landmark study—the first of its kind—will pinpoint industry accessibility barriers and provide crucial data needed to craft diversity initiatives that are actually inclusive.

The DJA is also planning a day-long symposium, to be held before the year is out. The event will discuss both the results of the study, as well as the overall state of disability journalism and proposed solutions for how the industry can move forward.  

Reedy has been busy establishing connections with newsrooms that are ready to partner with the DJA to address the underrepresentation of disabled people in media. This signals a much-needed acknowledgment that when marginalized groups are neither represented nor respected in newsrooms, coverage becomes harmful.  

“Disabled people need to be considered for all positions in newsrooms, and their disabilities considered an asset for the newsroom ecosystem,” Reedy said. “As newsrooms are working on racial justice, they should be working on disability justice, too. They aren’t separate issues, and their hiring policies should reflect that.”

The industry needs to proactively hire and support disabled writers and editors. If the connections the DJA has already achieved are any indication, some big players in the industry finally agree that it’s time.

Op Ed