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Some Disability Stories Go Untold

A hard-hitting investigation into police treatment of the developmentally disabled. A story about a Danish company that has found a way to use the talents of autistic workers. A video that takes viewers into the life of a blind athlete. An intense narrative about the life of a famed mountaineer who was paralyzed in a helicopter crash.

These are the stories that were honored with the first Katherine Schneider Journalism Awards for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.  Submissions were judged on how they went beyond the ordinary in covering the issues faced by people living with disabilities..

Judges for the contest said they were astounded at the quality and variety of the 72 entries they reviewed from all over the world. But what also struck them were the stories that weren’t told — or at least those that weren’t told fully.

Many of the entries contained tantalizing hints of other stories that could be pursued by journalists seeking to report in new and interesting ways on disability issues and people with disabilities.

One of the judges, Leon Dash, Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism and the Director of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he was struck by an info-graphic on accessibility included in the text of a radio piece submitted by NPR affiliate KUNC in Northern Colorado. “Technology for Life: How Students with Disabilities are Attending College at Record Rates.”

Dash said the graphic broke down access to support services for students with disabilities along ethnic lines. It shows that of those students with disabilities who go on to attend graduate school, 66 percent are Caucasian. African-American and Hispanic students made up just 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

“That’s a significant story in the disability community that’s rarely talked about or even written about,” Dash said.

Dash, who is working on a documentary film about disabilities, said minorities are often absent in coverage of disability issues and the disabled community.

“I interviewed a lot of heavy hitters in the disability rights movement, and they all volunteered to me that the disability rights movement is a white movement,” Dash said. “It takes its strategy, focus and confrontational tactics from the African- American civil rights movement, but it’s a white movement.”

Judge Tim McGuire, Frank Russell Chair of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, said disability issues often are covered at a national level, but there is a lot of room for journalists to localize those stories to their communities.

McGuire said several stories submitted to the contest could be told found in different contexts and locations. For example, a piece from The Wilmington Star News about disabled people facing a greater risk of sexual assault and a series from The Dallas Morning News about an 8-year-old boy embracing the challenge of losing his vision are both stories that could be done elsewhere, he said.

“You could go find that prototype in your community,” McGuire said.

Additionally, McGuire said investigating how technology is making it easier for disabled students to go to school “is another fine story for localization,” while accessibility, or lack there of, at doctors’ offices “could stand good investigation” locally.

Cyndi Jones, former director of The Center for an Accessible Society, a national project that focuses public attention on disability and independent living issues, said she would be interested in seeing more media coverage of employment for the disabled.

Jones said some people with disabilities are making up to $30 an hour, as was the case with the subject of the story “The Autism Advantage,” the second-place NCDJ award winner from The New York Times Magazine. On the other hand, people with developmental disabilities employed at sheltered workshops, or government-contracted facilities that hire people with disabilities, make below minimum wage, Jones said.

She also suggested more coverage about how the disability community has been affected by the recent economic downturn.

“You can count on a flood of people applying for Social Security Disability Insurance because if they’re laid off, their chances of being hired again are slim to none,” Jones said of aging baby boomers with disabilities. People who are older and who also have a disability face greater workplace discrimination and therefore have a tough time finding a job after being laid off, she said.

In addition, Jones talked about covering the “whole person” when profiling people with disabilities. She said journalists are more likely to do heartwarming stories about people with disabilities overcoming adversity than they are to do stories about criminal activities of people with disabilities. Jones used the example of South African double amputee Olympic sprint runner Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with murdering his girlfriend.

“We are not seeing the whole person,” she said. “I’d expect to see the other side of the story as well.”

Winning stories from the 2012-2013 contest and other examples of excellent disability reporting are available on the NCDJ website at

Entries for the 2013-2014 Katherine Schneider Journalism Awards will be accepted beginning May 1, 2014. Submissions from print or online publications, radio or television outlets will be accepted. Entries must be published or aired between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014.

The goal of the National Center on Disability and Journalism is to provide support to journalists covering the disability community. While the NCDJ is not an advocacy group, its aim is to help set a standard for disability reporting.  The center’s website maintains a disability style guide and provides resources such as best practices tips sheets for reporters covering disability issues.