Approximately 6 million African Americans in the U.S. live with a disability of some kind. In fact, African Americans have the highest rate of disability of all segments of the population at a little over 20 percent. Yet, they get little attention from reporters or the public.
A collection of story ideas for journalists reporting on disability issues
Susan LoTempio is an author and lecturer on disability issues in the media. She was an editor at The Buffalo News, and wrote a popular “Diversity at Work” column for the Poynter Institute on media representations of disability. LoTempio is a NCDJ advisory board member. Read her full bio here.
Contact Susan on Twitter @slotempio or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the media report on American nursing homes plagued by COVID-19, one important fact has been largely ignored or underplayed: Not all residents are elderly. Thousands are adults under the age of 65 who have physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
In late April, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported more than 10,000 reported deaths from COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in just the 23 states that publicly report this information. Missing was the number of residents under 65 with disabilities who were among the dead.
An underlying question is why people with disabilities are living in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and state hospitals. Before this health crisis, they faced waiting lists to get support in their own homes and struggled to access government benefits. As Time Magazine reported, “But amid a global pandemic, those challenges are heightened—and so far, lawmakers have mostly ignored their calls for help,” such as increasing Medicaid funding for at-home care.
“We have an institutional bias in this country,” Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, told the Los Angeles Times. “The bias is that if you become disabled or old, you need to go someplace else. You need to go to an institution.”
A breeding ground for COVID-19 is the last place anyone wants to be, but why so many people with intellectual and physical disabilities have little or no choice in the matter is a critical story for this moment in history.
Although experts say that people with disabilities are not at greater risk to contract Covid-19 unless they have other high-risk health conditions or are 65 and older, the World Institute on Disability reports that many have critical needs that might be overlooked during this fast-evolving crisis.
Here are questions for reporters covering coronavirus:
Caregivers: What happens if a person’s personal care aide or caregiver is exposed to the virus and must be quarantined, disrupting the continuity of services? Can local agencies cover staffing needs? Will paid leave plans cover the person who fills in for a caregiver sick with the virus?
Education: Are districts that have moved classes to online providing assistive technology and access to students with physical and intellectual disabilities?
Medical care: Are local doctors and clinics using telehealth services and are private insurance and/or Medicaid paying for virtual appointments? (Medicare recently approved such coverage.)
Transportation: If public transportation is curtailed, what alternative services would be available to provide accessible transportation at a comparable cost?
Medication: Can people with disabilities receive 90-day supplies of prescribed medication whether they are on Medicaid or private insurance to avoid possible disruptions in supplies?
Food: If home delivery of groceries or prepared meals at community centers is disrupted, is there a plan to ensure access to food.
A persistent problem for men and women with disabilities remains access to medical care. After the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect 30 years ago, it became possible to get into a doctor’s office or medical clinic as ramps replaced outdoor steps, doorways were widened and elevators became common.
But once inside medical offices, challenges remained.
“Laws meant to prohibit discrimination against the disabled fall short when it comes to visiting the doctor’s office, leaving patients with disabilities to navigate a tricky obstacle course that … jeopardizes their care,” reported the Washington Post in 2018. For example, some offices are not equipped to weigh patients who use wheelchairs.
The ADA requires that “fixed structures” be accessible, but it doesn’t address “furnishings” not attached to buildings. That means patient scales, exam tables, and diagnostic equipment are not required by law to be accessible.
Early in 2017, the U.S. Access Board issued accessibility standards for medical equipment, such as examination tables and chairs, scales and radiological, mammography and other equipment. But, according to the Post “the Trump administration stopped action on this change as part of its sweeping effort to roll back regulations across the federal government.”
People who live with disabilities are at risk in other ways. For example, women with disabilities are 30 percent less likely to receive breast cancer and other forms of cancer screening, which is directly linked to disparate health outcomes unrelated to a patient’s disability, according to U.S. News and Report.
While health care is frequently in the news, few stories include the perspectives of people living with disabilities, who can describe the challenges they face in vivid, personal detail.
People with disabilities continue to face barriers to voting that range from voter ID laws and inaccessible polling places to inaccessible election materials and untrained poll workers.
Those are among the reasons that voter turnout in the disability community lags nearly 6 percentage points behind that of nondisabled people, issues, according to the Center for American Progress.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted a review of polling places during the 2016 election and found that 60 percent of those reviewed had at least one impediment to voters with disabilities. Common problems, according to a white paper issued by the Ruderman Family Foundation, include steep ramps and poor path surfaces, too-narrow doorways and inaccessible voting machines.
As more Americans vote by mail using paper ballots, counted digitally or by optical scanners, obstacles are likely to get worse, the Pew Research Center reports. Some people with disabilities cannot mark paper ballots without assistance; they rely on special voting machines equipped with earphones and other modifications.
In the run-up to the presidential election, it’s worth examining what barriers exist in your community and what, if anything, is being done to address them.
When politicians court various demographic groups, they often overlook voters with disabilities even though an estimated 20 percent of Americans have a disability.
But people with disabilities are beginning to make their voices heard. Voter turnout among people with disabilities in the 2018 midterms was nearly 50 percent, according to researchers at Rutgers University.
In a Time Magazine article, the researchers were quoted as saying that “while the number of disabled voters in 2018 was clearly significant, there was still a 4.7 point gap in turnout between those with disabilities and those without, meaning there is potential for the disability vote to carry even more weight. If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as similar people without disabilities, there would be 2.35 million more voters.”
People within the disabilities community say that disability-related issues beyond health care – such as employment, transportation and housing – don’t get much attention in political campaigns. They also point out that none of the 2020 presidential candidates began their campaigns with fully accessible web sites.
What do people with disabilities in your community say? And how are candidates responding?
The “CBS Evening News” ended a recent broadcast with a story about a 14-year-old high school freshman whose dream is to be an NFL quarterback.
Calder Hodge is a double amputee who plays for his school’s JV football team. His story may be an interesting one, but the CBS coverage was problematic for a number of reasons, offering a lesson on how to cover people with disabilities without being patronizing or offensive.
Laura Misener, who conducts research on disability and para-sports at the University of Western Ontario, has been quoted as saying that, too often, reporters ask questions only about an athlete’s disability or impairment without considering the sport in which they compete.
That’s certainly true for the CBS Evening News piece, which offered no interviews with coaches or teammates. Instead, the reporter’s focus was on Hodge’s prostheses and his “spirit,” with quotes like “you never hear him complain” and “every practice, every game he’s doing what he’s been told he can’t.” Hodge is described as a “special child” who is “chasing his dreams.’
During the holidays, many media outlets look for feel-good, inspirational stories like this one, but before making someone with a disability the subject of your piece, consider these questions:
If disability were omitted would there be any news value to the piece?
If the story is meant only to inspire or make the reader/viewer feel good, is it really a story?
If the answer is “yes” to either or both of these questions, the story may only reinforce negative stereotypes. If you do move forward, be careful of your tone and tell more than a one-dimensional story.
Mia Labowitz is so angry about the spread of rental electric scooters on the streets of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, California, that she is suing the cities and Bird, a scooter rental company.
According to The Blast, a news and entertainment web site, Labowitz, a wheelchair user, claims the dock-less scooters’ speed (reaching about 15 mph) and the fact riders are not required to undergo training, “creates hazardous conditions” that could lead to being hit or run over.
Labowitz said the situation is so bad she’s afraid to leave her home.
In cities that allow e-scooters, they often can be picked up and dropped off just about anywhere. That’s convenient for riders, but people who use wheelchairs, scooters, canes and walkers say e-scooters can make city sidewalks and curb cuts hazardous.
Earlier this year, NPR reported on problems with e-scooters in San Diego. A federal lawsuit filed in January claims San Diego and three e-scooter rental firms failed to prevent people from riding or parking scooters on sidewalks. The suit says scooters block people with disabilities from accessing the public right-of-way, turn sidewalks into “vehicle highways” where pedestrians are at risk of injury, and make curb cuts unusable because scooters are dumped on them.
Some cities are cracking down. Columbia, Missouri, has an ordinance barring scooters from obstructing public pathways.
Reporters interested in localizing this story could check their cities’ ordinances and whether any complaints about e-scooters have been lodged or any lawsuits filed. Don’t forget to include the voices of those who live with disabilities.
Consider this angle if you’re assigned (or are assigning) the annual Halloween “most popular costume” story: not all costumes are about fun and fantasy. Too many make disability into something scary and evil and can reinforce damaging stereotypes.
Consider the Freddy Krueger-type costume, which equates disfigurement and disability with evil.
Or, the “mad” scientist get-up that mocks people with mental illness as do haunted houses with an “asylum” theme.
Also on the offensive costume list: those with bloody, severed limbs, which are insensitive and upsetting to those who have lost a leg, arm, hand or foot during service to their country, or through accident or disease.
If escapism is the main reason to dress up on Halloween, then why do so many costumes make fun of those in the most marginalized segments of society? Think about teens dressed up as “demented” senior citizens using canes, crutches or walkers as comedy props. These costumes are more about ageism than escapism.
Adults and children with disabilities are the best sources for this feature piece because as Cuquis Robledo says in a You Tube video (see below for the link), “the problem with these costumes is that they make people with disabilities feel ashamed, when they shouldn’t.”