Disability is largely invisibilised in US society. Despite the fact that disability touches nearly everything — police violence, poverty, housing discrimination, education, and much more — there's a conscious effort to pretend that disability doesn't exist. A deep-seated horror surrounds disability pride and the proud embrace of disabled identities, as well as any attempts to push back on harmful social attitudes about disability.
Even as activist groups like ADAPT and the Harriet Tubman Collective are fighting diligently for disability justice, their members and work are rarely acknowledged. In 2016, as controversy swirled around then-candidate Trump's disparaging comments about Serge Kovaleski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times with arthrogryposis, the nondisabled public latched on to these events as the sign that Trump was 'doomed.' Surely, cruel remarks about disabled people were the last stand.
At the same time, the unprecedented amount of disability inclusion in the platform developed by his rival, Secretary Hillary Clinton, in consultation with the disability community, was ignored. So too were Trump's policy proposals that would have grave impacts on the disability community.
The nondisabled world focuses on a very limited, narrow, simplistic understanding of disability. It doesn't like to see this understanding disrupted.
That's what Disabled Writers is here to do: We are the fox in your henhouse, and we will be part of the movement pushing for a sea change in the way the media handles disability. Doing so won't just change reporting, but will fundamentally shift social attitudes about disability. Nondisabled people, as well as newly disabled individuals or people who have been isolated from disability culture, get their cues about disability from the media. Right now, those cues are bad. That needs to stop.
What's wrong with journalism?
Journalism in the United States is characterized by a profound lack of diversity, and the higher up you go, the worse it gets. That's not a good thing for members of underrepresented groups pursuing journalism careers, and it's also not a good thing for media. When the people creating media are homogenous in nature, so is the media they create — and the quality of the coverage they produce on issues that matter to underrepresented groups is poor at best and actively damaging at worst.
Numerous initiatives focus on various aspects of diversity in journalism, aiming to develop and promote talented people who tend to be overlooked in US newsrooms. Diversity isn't about 'PC culture,' but about very clear and specific gains for organizations that choose to promote and foster employee demographics that more closely resemble the real world. Having a mixed newsroom in particular is a fantastic way to find, and tell, stories that journalists without diverse backgrounds and connections would fail to identify.
However, disabled people have largely been shut out of such initiatives, or included only by accident.
Twenty percent of the population experiences some degree of disability, and disability is the only identity that can strike at any time. Yet, disability issues are very poorly represented in the news. They're assumed to be 'special interest' and not worthy of coverage, or media creators don't invest energy in digging deeper to tell the real story. They rely on tropes, stereotypes, and propaganda — inspiration porn, supercrips, and conspiracy theories abound.
This is in part because disabled people are rarely used as sources to discuss their own experience — and the media often assumes that disabled people can't be expert sources on disability or other matters. It's also because few disabled people make it into newsrooms, and those who do sometimes choose to focus on other subjects that interest them, from pop culture to the arts. Some float invisible through the media landscape, living with nonevident disabilities. Others decline to identify as disabled.
There is a resistance to seeing disabled people as talented writers, reporters, researchers, and broadcast journalists. Disabled Writers aims to force the issue by presenting the media with a growing database of disabled sources, writers, and journalists. We're not interested in 'I couldn't find anyone' anymore.
This is an issue of multiple marginalisations
When nondisabled people think about the 'face' of disability, they often think about the faces who dominate media and pop culture. They think of white people, usually men, often wheelchair users. That's not what disability looks like, and it never was.
Disability is the Black trans woman with chronic fatigue slumped in the disabled seat on the bus and harassed because she doesn't 'look sick.' Disability is the highly qualified member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who is marginalised and shamed because she uses a wheelchair for mobility, with newspapers complaining about the costs of accessibility improvements in a city that lies at the heart of the disability rights movement in the US. Disability is the blind Muslim artist producing complex mixed-media work in the face of state-sponsored Islamophobia. Disability is the immigrant activist with cerebral palsy who is tired of watching people address their aide instead of them.
When talking about disability, there is an inherent necessity to talk about the fact that people are rarely 'just' disabled. Rather, many are 'disabled and...' The media fails to recognize this, and white-dominated corners of the disability rights movement do as well. If a movement does not explicitly and aggressively push for the recognition of multiple marginalisations from the start, it is doomed to fail, which is why Disabled Writers isn't just about promoting the use of disabled sources and opportunities for disabled journalists. It is also specifically about pushing newsrooms to rethink what 'diversity' means, to foster multiply marginalised people, not simply those in positions of comparative privilege.
This project is not simply about creating a database of disabled people and encouraging members of the media to use the rich wealth of resources at their disposal, including experts with immense breadth of knowledge in a variety of fields. It is also explicitly about fostering opportunity through providing people with sponsorship and skills sharing. This blog is part of that initiative, with posts planned from disabled journalists, editors, and other experts discussing journalistic ethics, the business of journalism, and much more.
Many people from underrepresented backgrounds find themselves at a disadvantage: They don't have a J-school degree on their resumes or a long list of clips. They don't have an extensive network of industry connections. They don't know how to pitch, they're hesitant to ask for money, they don't know their rights as sources or their responsibilities as reporters. It is not enough to throw our members out into the wind — we must also provide them with supportive mentoring to help them succeed.
I'm pleased to be partnering with Vilissa Thompson of Ramp Your Voice! and Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project on this initiative. It's our hope that this project builds strength in community, and plays a role in reshaping media coverage of disability, challenging the tired storylines surrounding disability coverage, and creating more diverse newsrooms. We're glad you've decided to join us.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist with appearances in Vice, Teen Vogue, Esquire, Cosmo Australia, Rewire, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, Rooted in Rights, and many other locales. Additionally, smith has appeared in several anthologies including Get Out of My Crotch and the forthcoming (Don't) Call Me Crazy. smith focuses on social justice with an explicitly intersectional focus, exploring issues like disability, the rural US, the transgender community, the tech industry, and US politics. Follow smith on Twitter @sesmith, Instagram @realsesmith, and Facebook.