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How to look inward for innovation in disability-led journalism

Sometimes a disability-led story needs to crack the door open rather than boot it straight off the hinges

I think it’s time  to share some unpopular opinions about disability-led journalism. 

Think of this as more of a call-in than a call out.

Number 1: Just because you’re disabled does not mean you can (or should) cover everything disability related

Every time I see a disability-related topic I could cover I have the should-I-shouldn’t-I dance that comes with being a reporter from a marginalized community. I think disability reporting, even among disabled reporters, is still at a stage where we’re early on in figuring these ethics out. We’ve spent so much time and energy interrogating and challenging why disabled people people tend not to be in newsrooms that we’ve haven’t spent the much needed resources tackling where we get it wrong. 

I’m aware that critique of the industry can quickly devolve into character assassination, but I truly believe that we can’t innovate if we don’t look at who is and isn’t doing the work. So, I’m going to share with you how I decide whether to accept or decline a story. 

First, I go through what my sibling calls the rolodex. I do this in two ways. On one pass through, I’m trying to figure out if I’m involved enough in the topic to be able to do the piece justice. For some of my reporting, often around health, I’m usually fairly confident that I can find people willing to speak with me. Where it tends to get fuzzy is if a piece bridges two or three marginalized groups. I do my best to be trauma-informed and I do my best to make sure my sourcing is as broad and diverse as it can be, but sometimes I just can’t square the circle and I say no.

For example, last year artist Lizzo was heavily critiqued for the use of the word spaz in a song. It’s a slur that happens to be directly connected to my own disability and I saw a number of writers—journalists and not—opining about the topic because they had a disability, but not ones generally reflected in the slur. I grew frustrated at this and briefly contemplated pitching a piece, but then I realized (and I’m not looking for a pat on the back here in the slightest) that the world didn’t need another white disabled dude grabbing the mic and the money to make a point. There is a history in public disability circles of white, ambulatory, athletic disabled people like myself being overrepresented. I decided to sit it out. 

On the second pass through, I’m asking myself if I know anyone who could do this story better. Now, sometimes with recurring clients, I’m not in a position where I can recommend someone out of the blue. Sometimes, I know someone else who works with the outlet and I can pass it along, most often it means I keep a note of where I should connect one of my colleagues with this editor. This is particularly true when editors I’ve worked with, or tried to work with, move onto outlets where I can’t pitch. For example, I’ve recommended many colleagues to LGBTQ+ publications like Xtra because I’ve thought of a story idea, or seen a thread I’d love to see followed, but know I’m not the right person for the job.

This also extends to beats. Just because you’re disabled does not inherently mean you’ll be a good parasport reporter or a good health, or policy, or education reporter. Your lived experience can (and will) take you a long way when you’re a disabled reporter but we (myself included) need to have the humility to know when we need to build our skills and not rely too heavily on our own identities to carry the load.

Number 2: We need to aim to be boring

I dream of the day when I can see a piece by a disabled journalist that badly misses the mark and not get annoyed. I think there’s this pressure within certain disability circles to always get things perfect, even when that’s an impossible task, because of this fear that we may never get a similar opportunity.

I wish we talked more about the fact that disability-led journalism can’t always shake the world. It doesn’t need to, it needs to become a regular part of the lexicon of media. We have to fight the urge to want perfection in every disability story. The community is complicated, the stories even more so. Sometimes a disability-led story needs to crack the door open rather than boot it straight off the hinges.

How we do that, in my ever so humble opinion, depends on our role in the industry. As a freelancer, I think we can pick and choose our spots. Some disabled freelancers don’t actually write about disability—and I think that’s something we also have to nourish—some pick and choose their spots, some write on beats that are heavily informed by disability (like health and, increasingly, technology). To make our work sustainable, and to make disability a relevant topic of conversation among newsrooms and readers, we need a balance.

Even as disabled journalists, we get far too hung up on the idea that the solution is more disabled journalists. That’s part of moving this narrative forward, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think it is the be-all and end-all. 

Number 3: We need to recognize just how little media literacy we are dealing with 

Many columns have been penned about the death of media literacy. I don’t need to add to the pile, but I think there is an added layer when it comes to disabled readers. In an era of increased DEI initiatives in every industry, a push that rarely includes disability, we tend to lean towards hearing from readers about what they’d like to see, about what equity looks like, about how they want to be perceived as a community. 

When we connect that with disability in the journalism industry what we tend to ignore is the fact that readers do not inherently know how media works. I’m not trying to be a gatekeeper here, but there are a ton of presumptions readers make about how disability coverage can be improved. There’s often an assumption that if the writer isn’t out and proud then they are automatically not disabled and are ineligible to write articles about disabled people. There is a presumption of language usage, of what can and can’t be said at a particular outlet, assumptions about resources, and even something as simple as who chooses the headline or the photo for a given story. Those don’t go away as soon as the identity we are talking about and the identity of the person talking matchup. 

We need the public’s viewpoints, but we also need a wider variety of disabled viewpoints than I usually see when it comes to media critique. We need a balance of newsroom staffers, freelancers, readers, activists, and many other roles to weigh in to improve disability representation and disability-led storytelling. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

So, how can we drive disability-led innovation in journalism? 

  • If you’re a journalist, disabled or not, write down the process you go through to decide whether you should take on or pursue a story. This can include areas like I’ve shared, but also disability-adjacent questions like, “Do I have the energy level this story will require?” 
  • When it comes to encouraging boredom in disability-led coverage, make a list of stories that integrated disability when it wasn’t the main thing. Maybe it was a mention of paratransit services in a city council article, maybe it was a brief mention of disabled student graduation rates in a broader piece about your state’s education data. Whatever the story may be, and they’re out there, write down three takeaways about how disability was integrated into the story in a way that wasn’t akin to a hammer over the head. Then, take what you write about and select three broad story ideas where you can make disability a part of the story without making it the focal point.

And, in regards to education, check in with the disabled people in your life. Ask them broad questions about how much they understand the media and how it functions. Build that expertise, help them see the resources you are leaning on. And ask them, if they are willing, what kind of disability angle they’d like to see in your stories moving forward.

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