News outlets frequently portray people with disabilities as either helpless victims or objects of motivation. Portrayal of people with disabilities has improved over the years, but there is still room to grow. News outlets tend to make disability the center of the story. A story about a disabled person is primarily about their disability, with their other accomplishments framed by it.
As one example of the victimhood narrative, ABC News used to run a special called My Extreme Affliction as part of 20/20 until 2012. As the name implies, the specials covered people with disabilities, specifically extreme versions. One 2008 episode on Tourette’s syndrome described Tourette’s like it was some sort of demonic possession. The narrator talked about children who were “prisoners in their own bodies” and a family that was at risk of being “torn apart by Tourette’s.” I have Tourette’s syndrome myself, which made ABC’s special especially uncomfortable to watch. When not wringing their metaphorical hands over the “victims” of disability, many news outlets fall into the “supercrip” narrative. They refer to people as “heroes” who “overcome” their disabilities to achieve something that ranges from impressive to utterly mundane. The main emphasis is on the disability rather than the person who has it. These articles then exploit that disability to make readers feel good. As a person with a disability, I am aware that it impacts my life, but it is not the center of my life. The tics from my Tourette’s syndrome made it difficult to speak to people when I was younger, but even then they did not rule me.
Disability coverage, however, is still incredibly important for promoting acceptance and giving people with disabilities a voice. A little over a fifth of adults in the United States have a disability (CDC: 53 million adults in the US live with a disability), so poor coverage means marginalizing or even excluding a large amount of people. Journalists should try to reach their entire audience. The news helps shape public opinion with the stories it features. Therefore, it should provide visibility for people with disabilities in order to increase acceptance. This is a matter of civil rights. People with disabilities deserve fair and accurate representation.
My personal experience with ABC’s Tourette’s special leads me to believe that the media, especially the news, needs to be more responsible in their reporting. Even the name “My Extreme Affliction” paints a poor picture of what to expect. A show that focuses on sensationalist portrayals in pursuit of views further ostracizes people with disabilities. The emphasis should be on a person and not their condition. The National Center for Disability Journalism tells reporters to “Focus on the person you are interviewing, not the disability” (Tips for interviewing people with disabilities). This people-first approach is the way to improve disability coverage: Treat people with disabilities with the same respect as any other minority group.