Whenever I write an article that affects a group of people with certain conditions or disabilities, I always reach out to several people living with the condition and include their voices in the story. This ensures that there is room for differences of opinion or experience – disability must be covered in an intersectional way that includes people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, of various religions, ages and economic backgrounds. It sounds like a basic tenet of journalism – to include the voices of groups who are affected by the issue you’re writing about – but I often see stories about issues that affect people with disabilities that don’t quote a single person with a disability. People with disabilities are sometimes dismissed as sources in favor of able-bodied researchers or physicians. While these voices can enhance the story, they should not replace the voices of people with disabilities in a story that involves their community.
I am sometimes asked, “What is the best way to interview a person with a disability?” I don’t approach a disabled person any differently than a non-disabled person. The only thing that might change is my communication style, depending on my source’s disability. For example, I make sure a source with an intellectual or developmental disability is aware of what that person is consenting to in an interview, and I make sure my questions are easy to understand. If I interview a source who is unable to speak, I will email my questions instead of conducting the interview in person or over the phone.
Journalists also tend to request interviews “as soon as possible” if they are under tight deadlines, but for some interview sources, chronic disease flare-ups can make it impossible to do an interview on the same day of an event. demand. I try to give my sources as much time as possible and make it clear that I understand that their health is the priority.
When I write, language matters: when I interview people with disabilities, one of the first things I do, if their disability is relevant to the story, is ask them how they prefer to be portrayed. Some people, like me, prefer identity-focused language, like “disabled person,” while others prefer person-focused language, like “disabled person.” (Preference may depend on a range of complicated factors, including the disability they have and their relationship to their disability.) I do not use terms that give the impression that a person is a “victim” of ‘disabilities. I am not saying that someone is “afflicted” with a disability; I’m just saying they “have” a disability. I also don’t use terms like ‘in a wheelchair’, ‘birth defect’ or ‘housebound’.
Although disability in itself is not a bad thing, some people do not want to be identified by their disability, while others may see it as part of their identity.
One of the most challenging aspects of reporting on people with disabilities is that there are many different types of disabilities and their experiences vary widely. I’m not an expert on all disabilities, but the key to being a journalist with a disability is acknowledging it and listening to those who do.