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The Disability Angle

A collection of story ideas for journalists reporting on disability issues

Susan LoTempio

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.



Removing barriers to voting

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.

For more information:

Center for American Progress:

Time Magazine:

Pew Research Center:

Contact Susan LoTempio @susanlotempio


People with disabilities poised to be a voting bloc

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?

For more information:

Time Magazine:

Philadelphia Inquirer:

Contact Susan LoTempio​ @susanlotempio


Story raises questions about how to cover disability

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.

For more information:

CBS Evening News:

Medical Xpress:

NCDJ Style Guide:


E-scooters, everywhere

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.

For more information:

The Blast:



Disability is not a costume

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.”

For more information:

You Tube:

Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability:

Teen Vogue:


Workplace emergency preparedness: Are employees with disabilities protected, too?

We’d like our workplaces to be safe, but as recent headlines attest, job sites are not immune from natural or manmade disasters. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of employees – those with disabilities and those with none, were trapped in the World Trade Center Towers, many employers, under federal government pressure, developed emergency procedures. But are employees with disabilities part of those procedures?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “too often the needs of people with disabilities are not considered in emergency planning, despite the fact that the need for such planning has received an increased focus due to recent disasters, both natural and man-made.”

The Society of Human Resource Management says companies are not required to have emergency plans under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but if an emergency preparedness plan is in place, it must include employees with disabilities. And even if a company doesn’t have an emergency plan, it may have a requirement to address emergency evacuation for employees with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation.”

The issue gets more complicated when, as the National Council on Disabilities points out, the term disability “applies to people with heart disease, emotional or psychiatric conditions, arthritis, significant allergies, asthma, multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory conditions, and some visual, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.” These employees’ needs likely differ from the worker who is blind and needs to be evacuated with a guide dog, or the employee who uses a wheelchair who knows that the elevators have been shut down.

News organizations can help inform the public and call businesses to account by checking to see what local companies have done – or not done – to address the needs of employees with disabilities in their emergency planning.  It’s a critical issue.

More information:

By Susan LoTempio​, board member, National Center on Disability and Journalism

Contact @susanlotempio



Emergency preparedness: Are citizens with disabilities covered?

Ever since Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane (2012), it has been clear that people with disabilities often are overlooked when it comes to emergency planning.

For example, one year after Sandy, a federal judge ruled that the shortcomings of New York City’s emergency plan left almost 900,000 residents in danger and violatedthe Americans with Disabilities Act, according to reporting by National Public Radio. The ruling was expected to have national implications. But did it?

In 2019, it’s still not clear whether cities, counties and states are better prepared to evacuate and protect citizens with disabilities during not just hurricanes but also fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards and floods. When Hurricane Dorian was expected to hit the U.S. coast this summer, the United Spinal Association’s website offered helpful emergency preparedness tips, but it could not tell people with disabilitiesif their town had accessible shelters or if accessible transportation could get them to the safety of shelters. That kind of information could be the difference between life and death.

Local reporters are uniquely positioned to find out whether their communities have emergency plans that address the needs of those with disabilities – and it’s a story that is well worth telling before the next major disaster strikes.

More information:

By Susan LoTempio​, board member, National Center on Disability and Journalism

Contact @susanlotempio


How do people with disabilities fit into the job market?

For reporters looking for a fresh angle in the world of work, here’s a story that’s largely overlooked: The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is the highest of all minority groups. It’s particularly bad for women, whose unemployment rate is more than twice the rate of non-disabled women. More than 30 percent of people with disabilities end up working part-time, compared with 17 percent of the non-disabled population. What are the numbers in your community, and what do people with disabilities say are the barriers they face?



Bureau of Labor Statistics:


by Susan LoTempio​, board member, National Center on Disability and Journalism; ​retired newspaper journalist
Contact @susanlotempio


Election season story: Do local candidates have accessible websites?

In late June, Time Magazine reported that most Democrats running for the White House had websites that were not fully accessible by voters who are blind or sight impaired. For many, the sites are impossible to navigate, limiting these voters’ ability to get information on candidates.  Checking the websites of local candidates could be equally revealing. Local or regional disability organizations may be willing to do an assessment and connect you with people who live with blindness. Does access to this kind of information influence their voting decisions? Does lack of access discourage them from voting at all? In the 2018 midterm elections, 2.1 million persons with visual impairments voted, while 2.2 million did not, according to Rutgers University.

Sources: Time Magazine:

Rutgers University:

by Susan LoTempio​, board member, National Center on Disability and Journalism; ​retired newspaper journalist
Contact @susanlotempio