The homeless man from Lumby, BC, whose puppy was stolen, “suffers from a disability.”
Trudeau’s ban on plastic drinking straws will affect many Canadians who “suffer from a disability.”
The disability tax credit is not intended for “everyone who suffers from a disability.”
Every time Wendy Porch, executive director of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT), reads an article like the ones quoted above and finds the phrase “suffers from,” she knows that she is reading an article that does not include her perspective on the world. Then, she tunes out. The implication that suffering is the universal effect of living with disability doesn’t sit well.
For visual artist and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware, who works with Black Lives Matter, it’s the frequency and repetition of coverage of violence against Black disabled people. This is most amplified in the airing of police shooting footage in the news cycle.
My tune-out moment happens when an article or report predictably starts with someone’s diagnosis, when it has nothing to do with the story. I’ve become aware of these issues as a reader who is disabled and who knows how badly and frequently misrepresented we are, as a source in stories about accessibility, and as a reporter covering disability-related stories and wanting to transform how we cover disability.
My distaste for diagnosis obsession in the news comes from personal experience.
Fixating on individual diagnosis firmly frames disability as a medical problem.
In 2015, I was a source for a few reports on ableism in transit. At the time, I experienced a lot of bus-access refusal due to broken ramps and lack of training of drivers in Montreal public transit. Certain experiences were so discriminatory that I felt compelled to contact the media, thinking that sharing my experiences would lead to a change in transit policy or at least a shift in public perception of accessibility.
As I was being interviewed, a journalist from the Journal de Montreal insisted repeatedly that I share my diagnosis with him. He was persistent, calling me days after — sometime late at night, verging on stalking. He negotiated with me, saying that if I didn’t disclose, readers wouldn’t have the context they needed to understand the story; basically, he was saying the only way I could be comprehensible to the general public is through medical terms.
Fixating on individual diagnosis firmly frames disability as a medical problem. It goes without saying that just because someone is disabled, doesn’t mean there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Disabled people are not inherently in need of correction. However, coverage that focuses on diagnosis leaves out major social aspects of disability such as ableism, structural barriers, accessibility as a human right, etc. In the case of the coverage of inaccessible transit, focusing on my diagnosis would have placed the blame for inaccessibility on my body rather than ableist policies or non-functional bus ramps. It would have reinforced the belief that disabled people are the source of problems that we encounter when the blame securely rests with institutions and cultures that have not made accessibility a priority.
David Meyers of CILT believes the failure to present accessibility as a rights issue leaves out an integral part of the story. Diagnosis should only be mentioned if it relates directly to the story.
Another time, I was a source for a television story about a policy (since changed, following a number of protests) that only wheelchair users could use bus ramps in Montreal — not people using a walker. During that interview, the journalist and videographer seemed more concerned with getting a shot of a scooter in my apartment than my walker. They weren’t concerned with or didn’t know the difference between these mobility tools. They just wanted images that would represent disability to their viewers. For me, feeling misrepresented led to my being less open and generous during interviews. I’m sure that other sources react similarly, or refrain from being in the news due seemingly minor but recurrent microaggressions like these. From a journalism standpoint, in the end, this reduces the quality of coverage. And personally, these were important lessons for me that the news can be ableist.
These experiences have reshaped my approach, as a journalist, to covering stories related to disability and accessibility. And they have made me even more motivated to improve how disability is covered. Aside from my experiences as a grumpy interviewee, what is so wrong about disability coverage in Canadian news, and how do we make it better? This question is necessary to prevent the disabled population, which is between 20-25 per cent of all Canadians, from tuning out — and to improve journalism for everyone.
Is there a disability beat in Canada?
Journalism is falling short on its duty to inform people in Canada of important issues, movements, and innovation. Neil Belanger (Maluu’m Amxsiwaa), the executive director of the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society (BCANDS), says current affairs related to disability or accessibility are covered so infrequently that he has to type the word “disability“ in the search engine in order to find them. This search gets even more complicated, says David Meyers of CILT, for people with disabilities who also have other minority identities such as people of colour, newcomers, or members of LGBTQ2I populations. So, he says, they end up not seeing themselves, their barriers, achievements and other lived experiences portrayed authentically.
An ongoing piece of news that has been on many Deaf* and disabled people’s minds — and that has been largely overlooked in the news — is Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act. Passed in June, this is the first national legislation on accessibility in Canada, which will affect how Deaf and disabled people access everything from employment to Sign Languages becoming official languages. There was some coverage when the bill was tabled. Following that, there was near radio silence, save a few articles critiquing the bill and noting it had passed. The problem with spotty or one-off coverage is that it frames coverage in terms of urgency, framing disability as an emergency, rather than a regular part of life. And it doesn’t do its part in keeping politicians and decision-makers accountable through follow-up.
To their credit, the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Star ran opinion pieces about the bill from rarely heard voices “special to” each newspaper. This is a good way to get disabled people’s perspectives in the news. But it keeps disability coverage relegated to the area of “special interest,” not an important part of daily news.
It is not the same thing to talk to the parents of a person with a disability as it is to talk to the person with the disability themselves.
Another important story that the Canadian media missed was the federal government’s major changes to the Canadian Transportation Agency guidelines announced this spring. The changes will affect airlines, airports, ferries, terminals, trains, and buses across the country. This was worthy of coverage because doubling the wheelchair-accessible spots on Via Rail trains to two per train, or ensuring one ticket per customer who requires an assistant to travel with them, could greatly improve how people with diverse bodies and senses travel.
But I cannot find a single story about this.
Maybe there were no journalists following this, maybe it didn’t seem important. Either way, it is a gap in coverage. If disability- and accessibility-related news were to shift from its status of “special-interest journalism” to just part of journalism, audiences wouldn’t be missing out on important stories like these. And Meyers of CILT says limited coverage also denies the general public opportunities to see people with disabilities portrayed as complex and varied.
Scandal, outrage, and inspiration
In this environment of relative silence, the voices that get picked up the most are those of outrage, scandal, exasperation, or inspiration. Coverage related to neurodiversity or autism, for example, is often based on parents’ perspectives and frustration at the lack of funding for support for their children. These are significant stories of underfunding in the health, education, and homecare fields. And at the same time, only featuring the perspectives of parents or family members of a disabled person about their life is patronizing and results in limited coverage.
Take this coverage of “What it’s like to raise a child with autism,” which is a common approach to autism-related stories. It focuses on a mother’s perspective, and her goal of integrating her child. Porch of CILT says it is not the same thing to talk to the parents of a person with a disability as it is to talk to the person with the disability themselves. Currently, non-disabled parents’ points of view are overemphasized in the news, while the children’s or autistic adults’ are almost invisible. Coverage then misses out on significant voices such as autistic adults who grew up with therapies like ABA and have equated it with abuse, and people who view autism as part of the human spectrum, not a disability. The disability beat — led by disabled journalists — needs to be able to hold multiple perspectives at the same time. Ultimately, Porch says that disabled people are the experts on what it means to live with disability and their voices should be prioritized.
On the other side of limited coverage, as the late comedian Stella Young put it, is “inspiration porn.” Meyers adds that coverage often reinforces stereotypes of disabled people as “heroes or sources of inspiration for the general public.” In the aforementioned article about autism, the mother’s perspective that “laughter and looking on the bright side of things can really get you through anything” is unquestioningly relayed in the coverage, suggesting that the child’s different way of being is both something negative inflicted on the family and a source for her inspiration. A result of limited coverage, Meyers says, is that disabled Canadians do not see themselves reflected in our media landscape, which he believes amounts to a “denial of our civic right to have our voices and stories reflected.”
Systemic racism left out of disability coverage
In the Canadian news, accessibility and disability look white (except occasional stories like the recent announcement of a study of autism in the Indigenous community). Artist and academic Syrus Marcus Ware says that in the minimal amount of coverage of disabled people of colour, there is an over-saturation of images and retelling of police violence against people of colour in mental health crisis. For him, police shootings should, of course, be covered. How they’re covered and the lack of other coverage involving Black disabled people can be troubling.
A tone of unavoidability is often used when covering police killings. Historically, one of the articles the most illustrative of this tendency remains Christie Blatchford’s 2003 coverage of a well-known case of the police shooting of Otto Vass in Toronto, which framed his death as almost inevitable, whereas advocates, coroners, and lawyers since have said de-escalation would have prevented his and many others’ deaths. Blatchford wrote about Otto Vass this way: “When on his meds [he] managed to put together a pretty respectable life: He had a little business; he managed apartments; he married twice, had children, and as this man, he was much adored.” Her tone is patronizing. She emphasizes how “volatile” and “violent” he was when “off his meds.” She basically sets up an argument for why the only option as a way out was death, writing “he died because the years of mental illness, the toll on his body, and the fury of the battle he waged that night.”
Mental illness is not a terminal illness. It should not be covered as though it were. When coverage does this, it perpetuates stereotypes about mental illness and blames victims, retelling the falsity that the only way to end a crisis is to end the person’s life.
Since Blatchford’s article was published in 2003, activists and legal professionals have publicized the system-wide issue of police killings of Black and people of colour in crisis. This has been picked up by some journalists. In 2017, when a coroner’s inquest following the death of Andrew Loku, who was shot twice and killed by Toronto police, raised questions about police use of force and the high rate of police shootings of Black men, reports began to mention racism as an aggravating factor of police violence. Coverage has begun to include the bias that leads police officers to perceive Black people and people of colour as greater threats than they pose. And some reports have begun drawing focus away from individuals towards systemic racism and ableism.
Coverage often reinforces stereotypes of disabled people as “heroes or sources of inspiration for the general public”
However, negative coverage of mental illness as dangerous and threatening is prevalent. Ware says a critical race and disability justice analysis of the many reports we see of Black people’s deaths in the news would be a huge improvement to coverage — otherwise, reports give the wrong impression that disability and the effects of ableism are the same no matter a person’s race.
What should journalism do?
There are many solutions-based people who are committed to improving the disability beat. Quebecois journalist Kevin Breton, who co-hosts Mission: Accessible, believes in more than just accurate disability coverage. He says there’s almost systematically a disability or accessibility angle on every huge piece of news, but it’s rarely brought up, even though it could reveal important information and needs felt by the general population. In other words, a disability analysis could enrich a plethora of news stories.
I don’t have the recipe for disability journalism perfection in Canada because there is no singular way forward. Certainly, there are some obvious solutions like hiring disabled/Deaf journalists. Resources like this one by the Center for Disability Rights can be helpful. Images of disability should reflect the story being covered. Accurate coverage of the one third of Indigenous people who have disabilities in this country should be increased and a variety of stories about disabled people of colour, not just tragedies, should be covered.
At the end of the day, as Porch from CILT put it, when we do finally see ourselves reflected accurately in the media, we will begin to be treated as though there is nothing fundamentally wrong with us. And that would be great news.
*I include Deaf journalists and coverage of stories related to Deaf communities for their connection to issues of accessibility and limited representation, while acknowledging the wide spectrum of Deaf culture, languages, and hard of hearing communities who do not associate with being disabled.
Top image from the Disabled and Here Collection.