I recognize that writing about people with disabilities is challenging. There is immense pressure to be politically correct, inoffensive, sensitive. It seems that no matter what you do, you’ll offend someone. So, because it’s so difficult, I want to give you some guidelines. I’m not perfect, so they won’t be, either. Still, they should be useful.
Dear journalist: call a spade a spade. Don’t stumble too much over the most politically correct terminology. Don’t refer to us as “differently abled”—we’re not. If some part of our bodies does not work, we are disabled, end of story. It is probably best to refer to us as “people with disabilities” because it places the emphasis on the person rather than the disability. Honestly, though, the distinction isn’t vital. No one should be hanging you out to dry over writing “disabled person” instead. If you’re covering blind people, just call them visually impaired. Not everyone is totally blind, so visually impaired covers all the bases quite nicely. I’ve never personally witnessed a blind person be offended by that term, so you should be safe.
Dear Journalist: we are not inspirational by default. Most people with disabilities are just “normal” people living their lives as best they can, like anyone else. Occasionally, we’re capable of inspiring things, but automatically referring to anyone with disabilities as “inspirational” drives most of us crazy. Look it up: you’ll find numerous articles on the subject. We know you mean well, but it can feel patronizing; it’s almost like a backhanded compliment. I’m not inspirational because I manage to attend university, or get a job, or do a myriad of other things everyone else does. Calling me inspirational for such mundanities borders on insulting. If a blind person manages to pull off brain surgery, then we’ll talk. Until then, don’t do it.
Dear journalist: it’s not all about the disability. If you are interviewing someone whose accomplishments have little or nothing to do with their disability, leave the subject alone. In “My Blindy Senses Are Tingling,” I talk about a cat breeder friend of mine who was being pestered about the “special bond” she must have with her cats simply because she can’t see. While some aspects of cat breeding and showing are more difficult for her—grooming for shows, for instance—she repeatedly denied that she had a truly special bond that only blindness could facilitate. The interviewer seemed annoyed by this, and the interview was never published. So, there is a lesson here: don’t fish for what isn’t being readily offered. Sometimes, we’re just people doing ordinary things. And, when what we’ve done is extraordinary, don’t harp on the disability aspect unless it’s relevant. There is more to us, I assure you.
Dear journalist: please don’t glorify everything we do. I continually see (see what I did there?) headlines like “Disabled Person Does (insert random and boring action here)—What A Hero!” No. Just … no. Again, it’s patronizing and potentially insulting. We’re not heroes because we do things. I follow a lot of people with disabilities on Twitter, and I see the following all the time:
“A disabled person does stuff!” – journalists everywhere
It’s so frustrating to see that one of us is in the news again, for something that shouldn’t be newsworthy. It shows the public that they should be surprised and inspired whenever they witness a person with disabilities doing something even mildly interesting. It reinforces the misconception that we are hopelessly abnormal, and every little good thing we do should be glorified. We already fight this mentality enough in our every day lives; please try not to perpetuate it.
Dear journalist: don’t glorify others, either. I actually read an article the other day, which praised somebody for guiding a disabled person across the street. Apparently this is what passes for news these days, but I digress. One would hope that such helpfulness would be commonplace. I have received a great deal of assistance from total strangers over the years (some wanted, some not), and while it’s appreciated, I wouldn’t necessarily write a news article about it. Again, this perpetuates the stereotype that we are in constant need of help—which we are not—and also tells the public that anyone who does help is something more than a nice person. Suddenly, they are special just because they showed someone kindness. This would never be considered unusual if a person helped someone without a disability. So you helped a woman carry her groceries out to her car…do you want a medal? Maybe a cookie? No, of course you don’t. You were just being a nice person, right? Don’t publish articles simply because someone did something nice to a disabled person. Pretty please?
Finally, dear journalist, don’t worry too much. None of us wants you to mess up, and most of us will not spew invective if you do. We realize that there are so many ways to get it wrong. If you make mistakes now and then, no one should be crucifying you for it. You’re just doing your job. I get it. Just be careful. Try to follow these basic guidelines, and you should be fine. I know you don’t intend to propagate negative stereotypes, or myths, or misconceptions. I have enormous respect for what you do; I know I couldn’t do it. So, with this in mind, do your best to respect us. That’s all any of us ever wanted.