Accurately Portraying Individuals with Disabilities

By: Ashley Garcia

On day two of mass communication week panelists sat down with mass communication students and discussed the importance of properly reporting about people with disabilities.

Moderator and journalism senior, Paige Lambert facilitated the discussions between: Andrea Ball, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman; Steve Helm, public relations coordinator at Special Olympics Texas; and Lori Gonzalez, administrative assistant for the Office of Disability Services.

Steve Helm answering questions

The portrayal of people with disabilities in the media is something can be used to raise more awareness, because it is often seen as an invisible thing that people feel uncomfortable talking about.

“There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of stereotypes, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding that is ingrained in our culture,” Gonzalez said. “I do think that it is important that media serves as that powerful ally that it can be.”

Lambert said that she noticed how some media outlets refer to people with disabilities as someone who “suffers.” She recently wrote an article about a girl in Dripping Springs, Texas who has spina bifida.

“(My) whole story was about how happy she was, (and) how she won homecoming queen,” Paige said. “So, she’s not suffering from spina bifida even though she does spend a lot of time in the hospital.”

When reporting about someone with a disability Helm said that it is important for reporters to ask themself: does the person’s disability even need to be addressed?

“Don’t use words like ‘despite’ and ‘overcome.’” Helm said. “People don’t like to be limited by their disability.”

Individuals with disabilities should not be viewed as heroes. They are people who don’t allow their disability to prevent them from doing the things that “normal” people do.

Panelists chatting with students

“Concentrate on the individual, not the disability itself,” Gonzalez said.

When conducting an interview with an individual, Helm said that it is important to concentrate on the individual rather than concentrating on the caretaker or interpreter, because a lot of emotion comes from the individual.

“If they’re nonverbal you can still create a story just through the way their eyes move, and just smiles and that kind of thing,” Helm said.

Lambert, Gonzalez, Ball and Helm agreed that being educated and accurately reporting about people with disabilities is very important in the mass communication field.

“It’s not just the Office of Disability Services, it’s not just the mass media profession,” Lambert said. “It takes people from every single walk of life to improve these issues.”


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