Speak your truth about disability — and media coverage

Speak your truth about disability — and media coverage

by Jennifer Szweda Jordan

April is "blue hell month" for many people diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder, one woman told journalists on Thursday. It's her alternate name for what's been labeled Autism Awareness Month--when one camp of Autism advocates encourages people to "light it up blue" to celebrate. Instead, the woman said, she and others witness an onslaught of media that many consider  "inspiration porn"--images and stories that portray people with disabilities as inspirational, simply because they have a disability and are doing common things that people without disabilities do.

Another woman with autism criticized the demeanor of TV news hosts reporting on this disability: "There's this great sigh," she said, then newscasters say, "And he's autistic."

Disability advocates and supporters shared this and other frustrations and insights on media coverage at a listening session called "Speak Your Truth About Disability" in Pittsburgh's North Side. This community engagement event was hosted by local media outlets Storyburgh and Unabridged Press, and sponsored by the Pittsburgh Bridge Media Partnership. Journalists from PublicSource and Northside Chronicle attended as well. Access Mob Pittsburgh also partnered in bringing its constituents to the discussion.

Besides inspiration porn, other frustrations for people with disabilities were hardships accessing medical care, including marijuana now legal in Pennsylvania and other states. One group discussed topical events like the Tree of Life shooting. They said news coverage focused on the shooter's mental illness more than on his white supremacism. They said that while bullying is sometimes blamed for mass shootings, people with disabilities are often bullied, but rarely perpetrators of violent crime.

Alisa Grishman, who heads Access Mob, and others, discussed ways to better communicate with the media. Grishman said that the February death of Pittsburgh's longtime Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator Richard Meritzer has resulted in a loss of information for the disability community. Grishman is working to rebuild Meritzer's email list. Another outcome of the session was the idea that the disability community could create a database of subject matter experts for reporters to consult in news stories. One man, a supporter of his wife, who has a disability, said that journalists could even consult the list if a story has nothing to do with disability, in order to include voices of people who are typically excluded.

"Disability is a part of human life," said Grishman. "It's normal."