ragged edge magazine online

ABOUT US   |   SUBSCRIBE    |   E-MAIL EDITOR   |   HOME      




A study of news coverage of disability issues in major news outlets during a two-month period in the fall of 1998 conducted for the Center for an Accessible Society found that 70 percent of stories concerning disability "had no identifiable source with a disability in it."
Read the study.

  Media still leaves voices out

By Dave Reynolds

The headline from the Knoxville News Sentinel popped up on my screen:

"Windy Smith on President's Panel."

The implications of having one's voice ignored are enormous.

This caught my attention because I recognized Smith's name from the 2000 Republican National Convention, when she read to convention-goers a letter she had written to candidate George W. Bush.

The February 23, 2003 News Sentinel story highlighted the announcement that last fall President Bush had appointed Knoxville citizen Smith to the President's Committee on Mental Retardation. The article also listed some of Smith's accomplishments, including her local work to "get out the vote."

But something important was missing.

The story did not include a single quote from Windy Smith.

I reread the story from beginning to end. Nope. Lots of her mother's words, but not one syllable from Windy.

Windy Smith, who is an accomplished writer and public speaker, who has received numerous awards -- including the Knoxville News Sentinel's own Citizens Award for Outstanding Students -- apparently was not even interviewed by her hometown newspaper.

Why not? Could it be she had nothing to say? Or could it be simply because she has Down syndrome?.

I then did a quick search for "Down syndrome" in mainstream news articles I had collected the previous couple of weeks.

These headlines popped up:.

"Karate kid wins despite the odds" (Evening Star, England).

"It's about abilities" (Wyoming Tribune-Eagle).

"Sense of Importance" (Greeley Tribune).

"Boy bonds with friends despite disability" (Wilmington Star).

"Athlete May Be Grounded" (Newsday).

"Skiing's a 'special' experience" (New Milford Spectrum).

These six "soft news" stories featured people with Down syndrome, or "severe disabilities." Despite the headlines, most highlighted the individual's accomplishments and contributions to their communities.

I went through each with a fine-toothed search utility. Not one story included a quote from their subjects. Most "hard news" items, those dealing with policy issues or crimes against people with disabilities, for example, rarely include the perspectives of those impacted by the events, either.

The hidden message here is that people with Down syndrome and certain other disabilities cannot say anything and, by extension, that they have nothing to say. That message is disrespectful, condescending and ignores the true contributions of all involved.

The implications of having one's voice ignored are enormous. Where did "Nothing about us, without us" go awry when it comes to the media and people that have developmental disabilities?.

"It's just not right," said my friend Resa Hayes. "We have something to say, too."

Hayes is a member of People First, a self-advocacy group made up of people with developmental disabilities. She also trains people how to advocate for themselves.

"It's as if they don't want to hear our opinions, our voices," she said of reporters. "How are people going to know what we think about things if they don't ask us?".

Reporters and their editors must take much of the blame. "Part of the problem is that reporters don't want to take the time," Mike Rogers, co-chair of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, told me. "They've got their deadlines. They want quick answers.

"But it's important that we are heard," he continued. Rogers, like Windy Smith, is on the President's Council on Mental Retardation.

"As a person with a disability, I see things others don't," he explained. "It's my personal perspective that's just as important as the next person's."

But blame also rests with those who attempt to speak for people like Smith, Hayes and Rogers, rather than helping them speak up for themselves. Even the most concerned voices of others on behalf of people with developmental disabilities -- because they not the voices of the individuals whose issues are being discussed -- continue to lead to segregation, low employment, discrimination and wasting away of lives. How many institutions would close if policy-makers, administrators, private citizens, families and news reporters took the time to listen to the people who live there -- or who are at risk of institutionalization?.

How would Rogers feel about his parents speaking on his behalf? "It doesn't matter," he said. "My parents would simply say 'No' and tell the reporter to talk to me."

Supportive family members, policy makers and administrators ought to practice this simple statement: "Why don't you talk to her (or him)?" Reporters should take the time to listen to the people they report about. Most important, people with developmental disabilities need to insist on speaking up.

Once the voices of the people themselves are truly heard -- in print and in person -- we will be closer to making full community inclusion a reality.

Dave Reynolds, a frequent contributor to Ragged Edge, is editor of Inclusion Daily Express, an international disability rights news service online at http://www.InclusionDaily.com.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Send us an email.

Back to table of contents

© Copyright 2003 by The Advocado Press

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works