Disability and the Media: How Inspiration Stories Perpetuate Stereotype

Reporters seek to report with sensitivity and care to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, and while discussing issues related to disability and poverty, there are a few ways to ensure you avoid reporting vapid inspiration stories. 

New York Times reporting fellow Amanda Morris remembers the time when Starbucks opened a Signing Store in 2018 to provide employment opportunities for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Her friends sent her articles on the subject, remarking how “cool” it was, she writes in an article for the Times. 

“As a hard-of-hearing woman, I saw it differently: Although I was happy to learn that Starbucks was trying to be more inclusive, to me, hiring people with disabilities isn’t a big news story — and neither is a corporation making one store accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. I felt that the real story was how some of those workers had master’s degrees, yet they had trouble finding jobs elsewhere because of their disability,” she writes for the Times. She went on to write about this topic in a two-part series for NPR

Articles about people with disabilities might focus on an instance like the Starbucks opening while ignoring larger systemic issues, and might depict people with disabilities as exceptional in situations that would not be newsworthy if a nondisabled person was in the same position, such as a story about a teen couple with Down’s syndrome being voted prom king and queen in the BBC. 

These stories, often called “inspiration porn” as coined by Australian disability activist Stella Young, might inspire pity, share a moral message, and might objectify disabled people. Though well-intentioned, these stories “reduce disabled people’s lives into simplistic narratives about overcoming barriers to do ordinary things” and depict their disability as the major part of their identity, Morris writes.

“People with disabilities are so trained over the years that they see their disability label become so much of their identity,” says Joe Sarra, an advocate with Georgia Advocacy Office, which aims to advocate for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. “And of course it is, but it shouldn’t be the first thing. That shouldn’t be what is the first thing that people talk about or what comes to mind.” 

Stories that depict people with disabilities doing ordinary things as extraordinary might create a feeling of pity for people with disabilities. In a 2014 TEDx talk, activist Young said stories like this intend to motivate nondisabled people, so they can sit back and think, “however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.” 

These stories also often overlook greater systemic and societal forces that create barriers for people with disabilities. These feel-good stories ignore the social failings that are affecting people with disabilities.  

Doug Crandell, a member of the public service faculty with the Institute on Human Development and Disability at the University of Georgia, says people like to read and watch feel-good stories, such as someone opening a college acceptance letter or participating in a 100-yard dash, because it’s difficult to learn about those social failings. 

“I think it’s important to us as Americans, because we kind of know we don’t make good public policy,” Crandell says. “It’s a lot about this reckoning moment in our culture, and who’s in control and who gets the narrative. And I think that makes us feel really comfortable when we see that inspiration stuff, because we don’t have to question public policy.”

Steps to ensure better disability coverage 

It is important to note that there is no surefire checklist to follow because “inspiration porn” is subjective, but employing some best practices can aid your reporting.

  1. Andrew Pulrang for Forbes writes about practices to employ to avoid writing inspiration porn, and he writes that stories about disability should always include ideas, impressions, and/or direct quotations from people with disabilities. “If meaningful inclusion of disabled people isn’t possible, then don’t do the story.”

    People with disabilities should also be a fundamental part of the storytelling process. Crandell oversees the Tell the Valued Story project from UGA’s Institute on Human Development and Disability, which aims to collaborate with the media and state agencies to eradicate stereotypes about people with disabilities. A staff of six story auditors with lived experience and who are trained in social role valorization provide feedback on stories, articles, videos and agency communications to ensure that people with disabilities are portrayed with respect and “a focus on the person, not labels,” according to the project’s website. Through their experience and expertise, story auditors can help state organizations ensure that they are avoiding stereotypes. 

  1. If you are reporting on a disabled person’s triumph over difficult circumstances, “make sure to address what is causing those circumstances, what it means to other disabled people, and what changes might be made so disabled people don’t have to struggle quite so much,” Pulrang writes. “Give readers some broader systemic change to work for.”

  2. Look for the larger societal forces that might create barriers for people with disabilities, and make that the focus of your story. The aforementioned story on how some Deaf people with master’s degrees had trouble finding jobs is a good example of this. By highlighting the social failings that create barriers for people with disabilities, you can create a conversation that critiques those failings to bring potential solutions.

  3. Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story, and ask sources how they want to be described. Everybody’s preference is different: for example, Crandell has used “people-first” language, and has traditionally spoken about disability with the phrase, “person with (their disability).” It is important to always let your source tell you how they would like to be referred to.

    “Younger folks are saying, ‘I want to be known by my identity first,’ Crandell says. “And that’s been a real challenge for me. There’s a young woman who’s one of our story auditors, and we had this great discussion. And she says, ‘I am not a woman with autism, I’m an autistic.’ And that’s completely, completely different from people-first language.”

  4. When reporting on the intersection of disability and poverty, aim to know about the systems that might be creating barriers for people who are experiencing poverty. The relationship between poverty and disability is complicated: people with disabilities are more likely to become impoverished, and people living in poverty are more likely to have or acquire a disability.

    Crandell recommends knowing about your source’s story and current involvement in public systems and in residential programs.

    “Particularly if somebody is what we call ‘segregated’ into residential programs, like group homes and facilities, there you could not have resources — in fact, many times just your personal resources, like your phone, your iPad, or whatever might be taken even if you have one. So the coverage should know: where does the person’s story sit in public services?”

Kyra Posey is a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Georgia.

Note: This story was published with grant funding from the UGA Institute on Human Development and Disability.

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