By Annie Woods
In 1986, the Boston Globe published an article about muscular dystrophy featuring Jake Geller. The article said Geller was “diagnosed a victim of the muscle-wasting disease” and said it is “the disease that darkens [his] future.”
Even at 7 years old, Geller felt discouraged by the article, which stated that people with the disease were in a wheelchair by age 12 and were only expected to live to their early 20s.
“I think I was too young to really analyze the news value of the article, but I do remember a real visceral reaction at the time,” he said. “Reading it now, the overall article is informative and talks about the challenges my family and I faced, but it really painted a grim picture just by using certain words.” Twenty-three years later, Geller, 30, is the coordinator of the National Center on Disability and Journalism, an organization that promotes fair coverage of disability issues in the news. The center moved to ASU in spring 2009.
Geller grew up in a small town outside Boston. In high school, he worked as the production and technical director of his school’s television news program. “We mostly did little community stories about things like selling Christmas trees,” he said. “In a town of 10,000 people, there weren’t a whole lot of stories.”
Geller said his parents were his greatest influence; they always encouraged him to do better and challenge himself. They kept him involved in sports, from swimming in the nearby lake in the summer to skiing in Telluride, Colo., in the winter. When Geller was no longer able to stand, he used adaptive equipment to ski and play other sports.
Geller has Duchenne Muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that progressively weakens the body’s muscles. It starts when the body cannot create the proteins that strengthen and maintain healthy muscles because of a glitch in genetic information. Symptoms of muscle weakening and loss of muscle functioning begin in childhood. There is no cure, but doctors and researchers have discovered treatments and technology that allow people with MD to stay more active and independent.
When it was time to attend college, Geller looked for schools with good disability access, and he was impressed with ASU. He said it was his parents’ encouragement to try new things and his two best friends, Jack and Jess, who led him to move across the country to attend college.
Geller’s journey to college got some media attention from the Boston Globe, a local NBC station and the nationally-televised show “Extra.”
“The funny thing is, Extra actually did the best job as far as not sensationalizing and giving a fair representation of myself,” Geller said. “I also made it clear from the outset that I wanted this to be a positive story and not about pity. “I was able to educate the producer that there were other ways to cover somebody with a disability.”
Geller started his undergraduate program at ASU in 1998 and became interested in television. He wrote the material for a spoof news program – similar to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” – for ASU’s television station. During his last year and a half as an undergraduate, he was the executive producer of the show, which was cancelled after he graduated in 2002.
Geller also was a member and officer of the ASU chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Marianne Barrett, Solheim professor and the senior associate dean at the Cronkite School, was his adviser from 1999 to 2002. Years later, Geller still stops by to fill her in on what he’s doing, she said.
“He was very well organized and great to work with because he had lots of great ideas,” Barrett said. “I was always impressed that his physical limitations never stopped him.”
Barrett also said that she admired Geller’s dedication to NATAS. “He made my job very easy. He was reliable, dependable and committed to the association,” she said.
In 2003, Geller worked for KTVK News Channel 3 for a few months, writing news segments. He then worked for about five years as a freelance video editor for the city of Phoenix.
Geller also got involved with ASU’s Sailing Club. A friend approached him saying that he wanted to form a sailing club that included people with disabilities, and it grew from there. Geller took the lead on the project, turning it into a sports team that aims to bring together people with and without disabilities. In 2005, he became president of the club.
Geller returned to the Cronkite School in 2005 to get his master’s degree because he realized he needed to expand his skills when he was looking for jobs outside of broadcasting in public relations.
“At that point, I decided that I actually needed formal training in print news writing,” Geller said. Geller expects to graduate with a master’s degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in print journalism and public relations in December 2009.
When the National Center on Disability and Journalism came to ASU, it needed a coordinator – someone experienced who could relate to the subject. Cronkite School Assistant Dean Kristin Gilger asked Geller if he would be interested.
“It just seemed like such a great pairing to me,” Gilger said.
Geller said yes, and the organization launched.
“The great thing about the NCDJ is that it’s not just reaching out to one producer or reporter, but we have the ability to discuss these issues with a wider audience,” Geller said.