The story that kept going, and going ...

By Jennifer Burnett.

Jennifer Burnett writes about media and disability issues.

When a news story generates unbridled national interest and happens to involve disability, it will undoubtedly get people in the movement stirred up, talking to each other, e-mailing to listservs and talking to the press if they happen to be on a reporter's Rolodex -- or in this case, a member of the state Developmental Disabilities Council. Which is exactly why Linda Anthony, Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and a DD Council member, spent many hours over the span of a week at year's end talking with a reporter from People magazine.

That story had not yet appeared when Ragged Edge went to press. People magazine reporter Matt Burkback says it's still high on their priority list. "People is waiting to see what the next development is," Burkback told me, "when the Kelsos go to court in March." My guess is that unless the courtroom outcome is sensational, the People story is destined to spend its days in a computer file. Rumor has it that People was having a hard time finding photos to go with the story, and we all know how essential those photos are to a People magazine story.

But the Kelso story did seem to keep going and going. It continues to pop up in stories ranging from one on the shortage of home health care to a feature in the Pittsburgh paper about finding a home for a Pittsburgh teen.

Newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, not to mention the Associated Press, dwelled on the "meltdown" of Steven Kelso's parents, who were charged with child abandonment in Rockland, Delaware, on the day after Christmas. During that first week of coverage, reporters portrayed the Kelsos as overburdened and unable to cope with the constant pressures of raising a child with severe disabilities at home, and sought out interviews with people who could reinforce this "constant pressure" angle. The stories implied that it is OK to abandon a child as long as that child has a disability and would be "better cared for" in an institution.

Two issues that had been bubbling in the media prior to the Kelso drama may have spurred the media frenzy over the Kelsos. The "trend" of teenage mothers abandoning their children has been receiving much press lately. The mothers are routinely vilified by officials and the press. The Kelso story is also about a mother abandoning a child -- but with a difference: the child is disabled. While authorities charge the parents with a crime, media portray them as heroic.

An article in the online magazine Salon.com by Anne Mitchell, identified as the mother of two children with disabilities, praised the Kelsos because they didn't push him off a bridge but instead "took Steven somewhere where people are trained to give him the care he needs." I was deeply disturbed by Mitchell's assertion that the Kelsos were good parents because they did not kill their child.

A second issue receiving a lot of coverage recently concerns the problem people are having with finding quality in-home services ("home health care," the stories call it). In almost all these stories, the focus is on the suffering of the caregiver who can't get help; not on the problems it creates in the disabled person's life. In a January 3 article in The New York Times, reporter Sara Rimer wrote about this issue from the home health agency perspective. The people who had the disabilities were elderly, were considered patients, were described as being in diapers, crying and unable to speak for themselves.

The Kelso affair had elements of both the "need-help" story and the "parent-abandons-child" story. It's little wonder reporters jumped on it and were loathe to let go.

My dilemma was what to do about it. Should I seize this chance to tell the disability rights perspective, or simply rail against the bad publicity we were getting? As a Pennsylvanian I was disturbed by the lack of a strong disability position in the stories coming out. Where were the voices of the thousands of Pennsylvanians able to relate to what Steven was going through, able to give that perspective? Reporters were speaking only to parents, many of whom had empathy for the Kelsos. Or could it be that the extensive interviews did include the disability perspective, but that only those quotes which reinforced the reporter's attitudes ended up in the stories?

When the calls started coming in, requesting information and recommendations for interviews, I had to make what amounted to an ethical decision. I knew that what Steven Kelso's parents had done was dreadfully wrong. I didn't know why they did it , and probably never would know the true story, so I could not really talk about my suspicions. Yet the calls seemed a golden opportunity to get the right message into at least some of the stories.

Was I being a crass opportunist in seizing a chance to tell a story from our perspective based on such tawdry material as the Kelso affair? I hated the fact that it should take a drama such as this to stir media interest. I felt as though I was getting dirty by taking part in the media frenzy. Yet in the end, I did. Although it really was too little too late, at least a few reporters heard from parents who take joy in raising their disabled children.

Who will speak for Steven



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