How the Media Covers People with Disabilities and the ‘Protest Paradigm’

By Jacqueline GaNun

Headshot of Joy Jenkins.
Joy Jenkins, a professor at the University of Tennessee, researches how the media frames disability rights protests. (Photo Courtesy/Joy Jenkins)

About 150 people with disabilities entered San Francisco’s federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare building in 1977. They didn’t plan to leave. The group was protesting the city’s lack of action in implementing Section 504 of a federal act that had passed three years earlier. The section was meant to guarantee equal access to any federally funded program for people with disabilities.

San Francisco had still not made any regulations that would require accessibility. So, in April 1977, groups like the one in San Francisco showed up to federal buildings in cities across the country. The sit-in of 26 days in the San Francisco building became the longest nonviolent occupation of a U.S. federal building in history.

Joy Jenkins became aware of the Section 504 protests from a Netflix documentary, “Crip Camp.” Jenkins, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, researches media frames — how journalists cover things and how their coverage affects people. She wanted to see how newspapers wrote about the Section 504 protest in San Francisco.

In a study that became a chapter in the book, “Social Justice, Activism and Diversity in U.S. Media History,” Jenkins found reporters emphasized the physical aspects of protesters, such as their mobility aids, service animals and use of American Sign Language.

“There was this almost sensational element to that in terms of how they were talking about these people … in a way that kind of set them apart and set them aside and didn’t pull them into this broader community,” Jenkins said. “And it’s also something that could diminish their political presence and power.”

This way of covering protests is known as the “protest paradigm,” where coverage focuses on physical characteristics of participants or the possibility the protest could become violent or disruptive. Jenkins said this type of coverage eclipses a protest’s goals and can other protesters by separating them from the mainstream, something she said happened frequently in the media’s coverage of the disability rights movement.

Journalists described protesters’ physical characteristics to describe the scene of the Section 504 protests and help readers see what was happening, but by emphasizing their physical differences drew attention away from their goal of accessibility, Jenkins said.

Jenkins’ research has implications for journalists today. Another aspect of the “protest paradigm” is that stories are generally shaped by officials’ accounts, including the police or politicians. This privileging of police accounts has been seen frequently in coverage of Black Lives Matter protests

Jenkins also studied the language used in the Section 504 coverage. The terms journalists use to describe people with disabilities has changed over the years. In the 1970s, reporters used terms like “maimed” and “confined to a wheelchair,” which are not in use today because of their demeaning subtext.

Though there are more studies on harmful media framing and the language reporters use has changed, Jenkins said there is still work to be done in disability coverage.

“This othering still does happen in terms of the stories that are told about disabled people,” Jenkins said.

She said the inspiration porn and “super crip” tropes both depict people with disabilities “overcoming” the challenges of their disability. Activists say these types of stories objectify disabled people and draw attention away from societal systems that aren’t accessible.

Another description focuses on how people with disabilities are a burden to parents or caretakers, which Jenkins called the “burden trope.” She said the perspectives of parents or caretakers are also often privileged over the voice of people with disabilities themselves.

Many people in the beginning of the disability rights movement didn’t view people with disabilities as politically powerful. That thinking persists to some degree today, Jenkins said, and as a group people with disabilities are often overlooked.

“This is a massive group in society, in the U.S. and around the world,” Jenkins said. “There are still massive needs there in terms of accessibility and understanding and awareness, and through these individualized frames and stories, that can be neglected.”

Journalists who want to tell stories of people with disabilities should learn about the disability rights movement and how it continues to impact society, Jenkins said. She also recommended learning about the “protest paradigm” and othering language to avoid demeaning people with disabilities. Covering Poverty has compiled language guides and conducted interviews with journalists about how to cover disability.

Jenkins recommended talking to people with disabilities and following them on social media to keep up with current events and understand how language preferences evolve. Language guides, like The Associated Press Stylebook, can sometimes lag behind what people with disabilities are saying about certain terms.

“Staying aware, staying educated and getting out there and talking to people I think is really valuable,” Jenkins said.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

Journalist, Author Ryan Prior Discusses Health, Disability

By Jacqueline GaNun

Headshot of Ryan Prior.
Photo Courtesy/Ryan Prior

Disability is intertwined with poverty in the U.S., where people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, according to the National Council on Disability.

Ryan Prior has been nationally recognized for his writing on disability, health and chronic illness. His reporting is informed by his experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, and he wrote, directed and produced a feature-length documentary about the condition.

“My interest in science and in diseases and especially in curing the incurable, like the scientific process of how do we improve human life, is really rooted in my own experiences,” Prior said.

He spent the last few years covering COVID-19 for CNN, especially its intersection with disability. That coverage grew into a book called “The Long Haul,” which is about long COVID-19, the myriad lingering health effects people have after a coronavirus infection. Prior describes long COVID-19 as a mass disabling event. He wants his book to tell the stories of millions of Americans with long COVID-19 and guide policy about the condition.

A book cover that reads: "The Long Haul: Solving the Puzzle of the Pandemic's Long Haulers and How They Are Changing Healthcare Forever" by Ryan Prior.

As a guest on “The Lead” podcast, Prior talked about how to find compelling health stories and write about disability.

“Disability is a fusion of democracy and science, and it’s really about applied human rights,” Prior said. “Disability rights are just like civil rights — are just like any other thing that matters.”

Listen to Prior’s episode on this page, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

How to Write About Disability and Poverty: Tips from NPR’s Joe Shapiro

By Jacqueline GaNun

Joe Shapiro is a correspondent on NPR’s investigations desk. He has written about disability for more than 20 years. (Photo/Wanyu Zhang)

Reporter Joe Shapiro got a tip in the late 1980s that a group of politicians was meeting to draft legislation classifying disability as a civil rights matter. It was a radical idea at the time. Shapiro — then a reporter at U.S. News & World Report — covered the meeting, which ended up producing the first draft of what became the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act passed in 1990.

His editors wouldn’t publish that first story because disability as a civil rights movement was too strange to them. Shapiro eventually sold it to the Washington Post. And in the more than 20 years since, Shapiro — now a correspondent on NPR’s investigations desk — has continued to write stories about disability.

“I just started then talking to people in the disability community and listened to them,” Shapiro said. “It was a real civil rights movement. It wasn’t being covered by other people, which made it interesting to me, that it was something that I could write original stories about.”

Shapiro’s work has spanned states, including Georgia, and contributed to legislative change delegating more federal money to home- and community-based care programs for people with disabilities. He even wrote a book about it called “No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.”

He offered advice for how to write about disability and its intersection with poverty.

Tip #1: Recognize that disability stories are on every beat

More news organizations are hiring reporters to write about disability as a beat, and while Shapiro said he supports that development, you don’t need to be a disability beat writer to produce compelling narratives.

“Disability comes up in everything, from arts to sports to housing and poverty, education,” Shapiro said.

He said he often starts reporting stories that aren’t directly focused on disability only to find that it’s an important aspect for listeners and readers. In researching a piece about foster care, he found kids with disabilities weren’t receiving the Social Security checks they were entitled to. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shapiro discovered people who are disabled were being denied care.

Tip #2: Talk to people who have disabilities

Interviewing and listening to people with disabilities is crucial for truthful storytelling, Shapiro said. Don’t just talk to advocates, academics and parents.

“The bottom line is don’t be afraid to interview people with disabilities. Don’t be afraid to do those stories,” Shapiro said. “People with disabilities … want their voices heard. Too often those are voices that get excluded.”

Many people with disabilities have people talk to them loudly and slowly or like they’re speaking with a child. Shapiro said it’s important to interview them in the same way you’d talk to someone without a disability.

“My basic rule is to treat them the way I’d treat anyone else I interview. With the same respect, the same attention, the same assumption they have something to say,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro works in audio, so he’s constantly listening for tape quality. If he has to ask someone to repeat what they said if it isn’t clear, he makes sure they know he often has to ask that, so they’re not embarrassed. He also doesn’t try to edit the way people talk.

“If I interview someone who, say, stutters, I wouldn’t cut out the stutter. That’s how they talk,” Shapiro said. “Or if I interview someone who types on a computer that speaks for them, I want to record the sound of the typing.”

If Shapiro doesn’t know something, he asks — whether it’s about a possible accommodation someone may need or how they prefer to describe themselves.

“It’s a matter of respect,” he said.

Listen to Shapiro’s account of a 2011 reporting project in Atlanta. He attended a conference hosted by the Children’s Freedom Initiative meant to draw attention to young adults with disabilities living in nursing homes.

Tip #3: Look at programs that promise to help people with disabilities

Programs at the local, state and federal level are meant to help people with disabilities. In Georgia, Money Follows the Person aims to help people leave in-patient facilities like nursing facilities, hospitals and intermediate care facilities and return to their homes and communities. Another Georgia program, New Options Waiver and Comprehensive Supports Waiver Programs, has a 7,000-person waiting list for care.

At the federal level, the Supplemental Security Income program pays benefits to people with disabilities.

Shapiro said analyzing these programs is crucial for writing about disability and can also generate story ideas. Ask, who is this system meant to help? And are they being helped or not?

“Look at when they work and how they should work,” Shapiro said. “But also look at how they fail and why they fail.”

Tip #4: Focus on systems and their impact

Disability has historically been written about to make the audience feel good about people with disabilities “overcoming obstacles” and not focusing on the systems that make it harder for them to live. (Covering Poverty has a guide for avoiding “inspiration porn” stories.)

Shapiro used as an example the burdens that come from trying to access programs meant to help people with disabilities. Most applicants for federal disability benefits are rejected for not meeting the program’s strict financial and medical requirements, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“There’s always this assumption that somebody who tries to get this money is somehow scamming the system, so there are all these safeguards that make it really hard to get,” Shapiro said. “And they end up hurting people with disabilities and they hurt our communities.”

A big-picture view of how systems interact is also crucial for reporting on the links between disability and poverty, Shapiro said. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, according to the National Council on Disability.

“It deeply is an issue of poverty, because people do rely on these programs that often don’t work,” Shapiro said. “And then the question is, why don’t they work?”

Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to write about disability

Shapiro said he thinks journalists tend to be afraid to write about disability because it is a complicated and often deeply personal issue.

“Reporters don’t want to insult the person that they’re reporting on,” Shapiro said.

There are debates about language — for example, some people prefer person-first language, such as “a person with autism,” while others prefer the identity-first “autistic person.” Shapiro said journalists should ask people what they prefer.

NPR Training has a video (featuring Shapiro) that offers guidance on reporting stories about disability. There are also resources that keep up with evolving language and give reporters tips on how to cover people with disabilities in a respectful and inclusive way. Covering Poverty’s disability beat guide includes datasets, language guides and information about the nuances of disability and poverty. 

The AP Stylebook also has guidance on writing about disability.

Shapiro said reporters need to treat people with disabilities with respect. If you don’t know something, ask.

“Don’t worry so much about doing it right that you don’t do it at all,” Shapiro said.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

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

How Winterville’s Shawanda Johnson feeds her community

By Isabelle Atkins

Shawanda Johnson gives out free fresh produce to families at Winterville Elementary School’s fall festival (Photo/ Isabelle Atkins)

Bags of peas, cabbage, grapes, strawberries and mushrooms rustle in the trunk as Shawanda Johnson backs her car into her first driveway of the day. She honks her horn twice before turning off the engine and making her way to the back of the car. As a young woman emerges from the house, Johnson pops open the trunk to display the large boxes full of free produce.

“Take as much as you’d like, honey!” Johnson said.

In her role as Winterville’s Neighborhood Leader through Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, Johnson has the ability to serve her community in a way she has always felt called to do.

Shawanda Johnson’s car is often filled with boxes of fresh produce that she offers to the Winterville community. (Photo/ Isabelle Atkins)

Winterville is in Athens-Clarke County, where more than a quarter of residents are living in poverty, which is more than double the national average. While about 16% of households in ACC receive food stamps, access to a grocery store in Winterville is limited. There is no bus line, nor is there a grocery store within walking distance. For residents who do not have a car, this makes it nearly impossible to get fresh produce.

Originally from Chicago, Johnson was raised in a church where her mother always forced her to volunteer. At the time, she did not understand why she always had to help host dinners at the church and organize food donations. Now, she lives her life echoing the principles her mother instilled in her.

As an adult in Chicago, Johnson ran a 24/7 childcare center for the state of Illinois. She said it was there that she began to notice families leaning on childcare for meals, and how much of an added stress food was for them. She now uses her own lived experiences to empathize with the people she helps.

“I’ll be like ‘Girl, don’t be ashamed because we all need help,’” Johnson said.  “I’ve been homeless, I’ve been without electricity, I’ve been without food, so I know how it feels and I definitely don’t want anybody, especially kids, to have to go through that.” 

Finding her calling

When Johnson moved to Georgia in 2012, she started attending meetings held by FC-CIS in her neighborhood and realized feeding people is her calling.

In 2020, FC-CIS received grant money and Johnson was able to make helping others her full-time job as a FC-CIS Neighborhood Leader.

Shawanda Johnson stands outside of her office, which used to be a bank. She stores the food and supplies that she provides to her community in this building. (Photo/ Isabelle Atkins)

The Neighborhood Leaders initiative is made up of 16 individuals in different zones across Athens-Clarke County. They aid their community through group outreach, community building and individual case management support. 

Johnson’s role includes everything from delivering food and supplies to helping fill out job applications. 

LaTasha Sheats, who covers the Whit Davis zone for Neighborhood Leaders, described food and cooking as Johnson’s “love languages.” Outside of Neighborhood Leaders, Johnson has her own meal prep and lunch service business called Shawanda’s Kitchen, where she provides cooking lessons, meal prep, taste tests and small camps on how to be healthier.

One of Johnson’s most rewarding memories is taking care of a group of grandmothers who, because they are busy taking care of children, rarely get to go to the store. One grandmother of four was taking blood pressure medicine because her diet consisted largely of crackers, hotdogs and Cheetos. Once Johnson was able to get the grandmother nutritious food, she was able to get off the blood pressure medicine. 

Building community and gaining trust

Johnson said the most difficult part of what she does is getting people to trust her. She said that many people approach these communities and make promises, conduct surveys and get information, but don’t come back to the neighborhoods to actually do what they said they were going to do. But through Johnson’s work for over 11 years, she said everybody knows her car and that when they see it, they know she has food in her trunk to give away. 

Her favorite way to get people’s attention is simply by word of mouth, as many people who need her help do not have phones.

“I see people walking down the street, and I just roll down my window and be like, ‘Hey you need some food? Hey, you need some Pampers … Here’s my card! Come by and see me!’ That’s how I get my people. I just holler out the window,” Johnson said. 

Yet, there are still families who do not want to admit to needing help.

If there is a family that Johnson knows might be “prideful,” she said she will package food, clothes or Pampers in gift bags that she has collected to give away so that it looks like it is someone’s birthday. 

Often she will wait at school bus stops and give granola bars out to children and tell them to get the food back to their parents, too. 

“You get it to the kids, you get it to the parents. I definitely make a lot of connections through the kids,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she is thankful for the tight-knit community that is always there to help her help others. She explained how it is not just homeless or jobless people that need her help, but even people living in big houses.

“Everybody needs some help, and it is nothing to be ashamed of,” she said.

Harm reduction saves lives: Local nonprofit works to end addiction stigma

By Izzy Wagner

Although operating hours officially end at 7 p.m. on Fridays, Joyce Lane, a data collection specialist at Athens’ local harm reduction program Access Point of Georgia, often continues working after hours. Lane and Executive Director Riley Kirkpatrick are the founding members at Access Point and currently handle the majority of operations. 

Lane compiles information Access Point collects to show the extent of the syringe service’s impact on people who use drugs, as well as recording and mapping overdoses in the region. Data collection is vital to understanding the rising opioid crisis that provokes the need for more harm reduction programs such as Access Point. According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, drug overdoses in the United States rose 28.5% from 78,056 to an estimated 100,306 from 2020 to 2021. 

Given the many hours spent in their workspace, Lane and Kirkpatrick have personalized it to create a homey feel. Colorful tapestries and flags line the walls and various musical instruments are propped up against the wall. Lane sits on an upholstered armchair nestled in a makeshift living area. Their warm greeting and the soothing acoustic music playing from the TV create an instantly comforting atmosphere.

Access Point provides various harm reduction services including clean needles, naloxone kits, and peer check-ins for substance abuse disorders. As a certified peer specialist, Lane uses their lived experiences to relate to their participants and provide a space for vulnerability and healing. 

Lane said “creating a space of non-judgment,” is essential to harm reduction work.

As someone who identifies as non-binary, Lane knows what it is like to be part of a marginalized group, allowing them to deeply connect with underserved members of the Athens community. Access Point has an entirely queer staff, which Lane said “wasn’t intentional.”

“Being queer made me want to do more socially-oriented and service-oriented work. The initial syringe service programs that came about in America were a response to the AIDS crisis. Harm reduction culture and queer culture are definitely intermingled a lot,” Lane said.

When they started their needle exchange program in 2020, Lane and Kirkpatrick worked in parking lots, handing out clean needles and naloxone kits from the trunk of Kirkpatrick’s car. As the opioid crisis worsened in Athens and demand grew, they were able to relocate to an official building. 

Harm reduction programs like Access Point have gained bipartisan support in response to a worsening addiction crisis. Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican from Athens, sponsored a bill to legalize syringe services programs, allowing intravenous drug users to exchange used needles for fresh ones. The bill passed in 2019

Kirkpatrick credits Access Point’s expansion to their peer-based approach to harm reduction. He and Lane expressed their disinterest in calling Access Point a “clinic” because of the word’s medical connotation.

“We run a peer-based program specializing in addictive diseases and mental health. That’s what makes us so different. If we really, truly want to make change in the opioid crisis, it is important that we acknowledge that what we are doing is pretty radically different than the status quo,” Kirkpatrick said. 

The principles of harm reduction acknowledge a spectrum of drug use, meaning that even those who only occasionally use drugs can implement harm reduction tactics to maintain safe drug practices. Access Point serves any individual hoping to engage in safer use, whether they are a daily intravenous drug user exchanging syringes, or a college student hoping to pick up fentanyl test strips before taking MDMA on a weekend.

Access Point’s growth has been made possible by progressive legislation, donations and support from volunteers. Kirkpatrick and Lane expressed the continued need for volunteers who understand their mission of reframing addiction recovery by treating drug users with dignity.

“People who use drugs are no different from the rest of us. People who use drugs should be treated like our friends, like our neighbors, because they are,” Lane said.

Athens Area Diaper Bank founder increases community awareness of diaper need

By Phoebe Lyons

Erin Campbell holds a freshly hand-wrapped pack of 25 diapers on Nov. 14, 2022. The Athens Area Diaper Bank collects and distributes hundreds of thousands of diapers to thousands of children each year. (Photo/ Phoebe Lyons)

Erin Campbell stands at the side of the black table in the center of the dimly-lit, chilly storage room at the Athens Area Diaper Bank. Two large, opened boxes of Saran Wrap sit on the table surrounded by several shelves stacked with hundreds of thousands of diapers hand-wrapped and ready to go to struggling families.

She drags out a long piece of the plastic wrap until it hangs off the edge of the table, leaving the piece still attached to the roll in the box. She then tears open a green pack of size five Parent’s Choice Dry & Gentle baby diapers, quickly counting out 24 and stacking them vertically on top of the wrap in two piles, before grabbing another and placing it horizontally in the middle of the stacks. She wraps up the white diapers patterned with giraffes, making sure that each side is covered and no diaper is exposed. She’s an expert, so this takes her less than a minute. 

Campbell serves as the executive director and founder of the AADB. She started the AADB in October 2015, after reading about diaper need in a parenting magazine as she was nursing her second daughter. She discovered that no diaper bank existed in the Athens area.

What was once a much smaller organization operating out of Campbell’s garage is now a successful diaper bank. In 2021, the bank distributed 314,584 diapers to 7,589 children in Athens-Clarke County and the surrounding five counties. 

A ‘microcosm’ of poverty 

One in three families in the United States struggle with diaper need, and there are over 8,000 children in the Athens area alone who are at risk of facing diaper need, according to the AADB. 

Campbell says diaper need shows “a microcosm of what poverty is,” meaning there are several issues that come with not having access to clean diapers. She said a lot of people see just the physical side of what the diaper bank does: providing clean diapers to families to prevent health issues such as diaper rash and urinary tract infections

However, the effects of diaper need extend far beyond physical health problems. Countless studies have shown the links between diaper need and maternal mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. 

The high cost of diapers and the inability to use food stamps to purchase them leaves several families with the choice of providing clean diapers or food for their child. And, if you can’t provide diapers, then you can’t send your child to daycare, meaning many parents then have to miss work. 

‘The biggest hurdle’

Although the diaper bank has substantially increased the number of diapers donated and families helped each year, Campbell said most people don’t understand just how many mothers cannot afford diapers and what that means for them and their babies. This lack of awareness is despite alarming facts and statistics, as well as recent studies that prove some of the harmful effects that result from diaper need. 

“The education and awareness component of it is probably the biggest hurdle because I feel like our mission … speaks for itself,” Campbell said. “It’s simple. It’s not political, it’s not controversial … everybody can get on board with helping families and helping babies. So really the issue is just, the challenge is that a lot of people don’t know that it’s a problem.”

Campbell and the rest of the AADB members are working hard to increase awareness of diaper need. In 2022, they worked with Mayor Kelly Girtz and elected officials to officially proclaim Diaper Need Awareness Week from Sept. 24 to Oct. 2. 

Collaborative coworkers

Campbell says that the bank is where it is today due to strong collaboration and communication with her three coworkers. 

Campbell laughs and puts a flamingo floaty around her waist as she helps a member of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter load bags of diapers that they ordered on Nov. 18. (Photo/Phoebe Lyons)

Beth Staton, the AADB’s operations manager and Special Programs Manager Kathy Bailey agree that Campbell’s scientific background makes the diaper bank a positive work environment.

“I mean, at the root of my science background is just a natural curiosity,” Campbell said. “I want to dig into why something works, why it doesn’t work, how it can be fixed.”

Staton also mentioned that Campbell’s enthusiasm and passion are key assets she brings to the table. 

How I Reported the Story: Ways to help those in need in Oglethorpe County

Read how Olivia Wakim, Elizabeth Rymarev, Sarah Donehoo and Sydney Hood reported this piece for The Oglethorpe Echo: Ways to help those in need in Oglethorpe County

Olivia Wakim
Elizabeth Rymarev
Sarah Donehoo
Sydney Hood

Before working on this project, service journalism wasn’t something I thought about very much. When it comes to issues surrounding poverty, more attention tends to be devoted to long form stories or investigative articles that bring about policy change. I always assumed that was the best way to help those experiencing poverty, but after reading some of the articles and tips listed on the Covering Poverty website, I have a better idea of how important service journalism is to those who are actually experiencing the struggles we write about. 

One Covering Poverty resource that helped put this into perspective for me is the Tip Sheet. Tip number 10 describes the importance of offering solutions. I believe the resource roundup is one way for us to provide people with solutions, even if it doesn’t address the root of the issue. Having a place a person can go to find a list of food resources or diapers and baby supplies is a helpful way to address more day-to-day issues and could even be linked to by another organization or in another story. 

In order to report the story, Professor Johnston had us reach out to the resources directly and speak to them instead of just pulling information off the websites. I found this to be very helpful when it came time to write about all of the resources. Most of the websites were a bit outdated and didn’t have an answer to all of my questions. Additionally, it was easier to reach most people by phone directly rather than communicating via email, and everyone was very enthusiastic about this project.  

Speaking to a real representative allowed me to get the most up-to-date information as well as hear from a member of the Oglethorpe County community. In the article Action Items for Better Poverty Coverage on the Covering Poverty website, it suggests building relationships with community leaders. I think this was a good way to start building those relationships. Hopefully, when we reach out to the organizations directly, they trust us a bit more and see that we’re doing this for the right reasons. It allowed me to put a face to the people behind the resources and it lets them know who is behind the article. We gave them an opportunity to explain the extent of their resources and why the work they do is so important to them and the people they serve. —Olivia Wakim


The goal of this piece is to give an extensive overview of nonprofits, religious organizations and other departments in Oglethorpe County providing food, clothing, financial assistance and other necessary services and resources for individuals in need. 

The article involved researching and calling various assigned locations. I was assigned to look up church food pantries, which required me to call the churches to confirm what they were putting out on social media (times, locations) was accurate. The most important part in working on an article like this is to confirm and reconfirm the information we have is accurate so that when someone is reading this they will know when and where to go. —Sydney Hood


I was assigned three potential resources to start with: Athens Area Diaper Bank, Lena Wise Community Center and Plowshare.

I interviewed and photographed Steven and Vickie Coker, co-founders of Plowshare, at the Georgia Farm Bureau in Crawford. They shared specific information about monthly potluck meetings and the agricultural skills that members offer to teach the community. 

I interviewed Cary Fordyce and Vicki Ussery, who manage operations and educational services for the Lena Wise Community Center. Fordyce listed the community groups that are hosted at center and discussed its founding and how its namesake was a teacher. Ussery provided anecdotes about teaching GED students and spoke about the technical skill courses individuals can enroll in through their GED program.

The education beat guide on the Covering Poverty website was helpful in choosing what questions and answers best present the status of the poverty line in Oglethorpe County and how it pertains to education in the area. The Civil Rights Data Collection website gives context on the demographics of students in Oglethorpe; 12% of students are chronically absent, for example. 

During my research, I learned that Action Athens Inc. is a community aid organization that served Oglethorpe County. I contacted Margo Fowler, its Community Services Block Grant and Emergency Food and Shelter Program director. Fowler emailed me updated information pertaining to the services Action Athens offers, including education and food rescue. 

I met Erin Campbell, director of Athens Area Diaper Bank, at its headquarters in Bogart. I took photos of their shipping warehouse and listened to Campbell explain the organization’s involvement with Oglethorpe County. I learned that diaper bank ships cartons of diapers weekly to designated aid locations in the county. I was inspired by Cambell’s generous and vibrant attitude; her involvement with the diaper bank’s mission since its beginning made clear her commitment to ensuring families have enough diapers for their children. —Sarah Donehoo


In Athens, I am able to go to one of the biggest universities in the South, spend weekends exploring the city downtown and try all the newest restaurants. In just a couple ZIP codes over in Oglethorpe County, not many people have that same chance and live in an area where even internet access is hard to connect to.

Through the Covering Poverty project, me and a group of students worked on gathering resources together to compile a list with food banks, educational programs and even senior care in Oglethorpe County.

Professor Johnson created a big list of possible places to contact, and our team got to work. The University of Georgia extension office in the county was among places I was contacted. The extension office provided me with information on the Cooking to Share Program, a youth enrichment program that aims to empower young students to learn cooking skills while supporting families in need that were identified by the school system. This program has cycled through hundreds of students and helped almost 100 families in need.

When we all came together to fact-check, the biggest challenge was calling. The phone numbers for some programs were disconnected, and we were not able to get a hold of them. I was also still waiting on responses to emails from months ago to other organizations and agencies.

But, we were able to come up with a strong list for the Echo and its readers and residents. I believe our work will help save someone’s time and effort, as we had many electronic resources and each other to navigate any communication struggles that they possibly did not have.

This semester, I learned how to effectively gather information and put my courses in practice. The stories we report on can be sensitive, and we have the resources to pull from multiple sources and hear all the sides of a story, whereas someone with limited technology and mobility is not able to. In this way, we are able to get the right stories to the right people. —Elizabeth Rymarev

How I Reported the Story: Children with Developmental Disabilities in Georgia Struggle to Get Needed Care

Read how journalist Jacqueline GaNun reported this piece: Children with Developmental Disabilities in Georgia Struggle to Get Needed Care

This story is the result of an idea that evolved throughout the reporting process. I was initially assigned to work on a story about children with disabilities who are living in nursing homes. As I dug deeper and interviewed people, a related but different story emerged, one about children in residential treatment facilities and the shortcomings of Georgia’s mental health care system as a whole.

The first step in the process was reading the Covering Poverty disability beat guide. The datasets, language guides and information about the nuances of disability and poverty provided me with a foundation I relied on throughout interviewing and writing.

I interviewed Zolinda Stoneman, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute on Human Development and Disability. The institute’s grant funded this reporting project. Our talk gave me a more comprehensive picture of the history of mental health care and institutionalization in Georgia, including the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision. Olmstead ruled it unconstitutional to segregate people with disabilities.

Stoneman recommended another source: the Children’s Freedom Initiative, an organization founded by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office. My interview with  advocate Joe Sarra provided me with a wealth of information and context about the state’s mental health care system.

I asked Sarra if he knew of any families that would be willing to share their story. Initially, still pursuing the idea about children in nursing homes, I asked about families with children who had spent time in those facilities. Sarra put me in touch with Kelli Lewis, the mom of two boys with special needs. Neither had spent time in a nursing home but both had spent cumulative years in state residential psychiatric facilities.

The article hinges on the story of Lewis’  sons, mainly Ahav, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She  talked candidly about her experience as a mother caring for her sons and the gaps in the system that mean they don’t get adequate care. After talking with her, I wrote my first draft and fact-checked it. 

I knew data was important for the article, and it was fairly simple to find statistics on the number of children in Georgia’s care system and facts about the state Medicaid program.

One of the key steps in the writing and editing process was to ensure the story met the AP Stylebook’s standards for reporting about disabilities; the AP Stylebook updated and expanded its guidance in 2021. I made changes to some of the wording to reflect those standards. For example, I changed “struggling with his own mental illnesses” to “experiencing his own mental illnesses” in order to not perpetuate stereotypes that disabilities are something negative to be overcome.

This experience deepened my interviewing skills, particularly when talking with sources about sensitive conditions that affect their daily lives. It reinforced the necessity of having empathy to ensure people are portrayed in a way that is fair and honest and doesn’t contribute to harmful stereotypes.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

Exemplar Story: Children with Developmental Disabilities in Georgia Struggle to Get Needed Care

A photo of Ahav Lewis and his mother Kelli Lewis.
Ahav Lewis and his mother Kelli Lewis. They live in DeKalb County, Georgia, and struggle to get Ahav needed care for his medical conditions. (Photo Courtesy/Kelli Lewis)

By Jacqueline GaNun

Kelli Lewis’ oldest son, Ahav, loves to design sneakers. He’s good at it, too. Lewis said she thinks his designs are “amazing,” and he could make it his career. But Ahav’s dreams have been stymied by what Lewis describes as inadequate care for his mental health conditions.

“I would love to say that one day he would have his own sneaker line and be sitting running his company,” Lewis said. “But I don’t know if he’s ever going to have the faculties to be able to do that.”

Ahav, who is 13, has been diagnosed with multiple severe mental illnesses. He hears voices and has trouble regulating his emotions and impulses, which sometimes affects his younger brother, Analiel, who is experiencing his own mental illnesses.

Lewis’ two sons are among the more than 14,000 children who have received care from Georgia’s mental health institutions, including in residential treatment centers and state psychiatric hospitals, according to federal data. Lewis said her sons have fallen through the cracks in a flawed system that needs fundamental change.

Gaps in Georgia’s care system

The root of Lewis’ struggles with the system is that the state does not have enough trained mental health providers, said Joe Sarra, an advocate at the Children’s Freedom Initiative. The state initiative created by the nonprofit Georgia Advocacy Office works to get children out of institutional settings into supportive communities. 

Many of the flaws in Georgia’s care system stem from a lack of infrastructure when the state shut down many of its institutions around 2005, after which there weren’t enough community-based care services to route people to, Sarra said. Children ended up in psychiatric residential treatment facilities, “intermediate care facilities” and nursing homes. Of these three, the bulk of children are in residential facilities.

“The longer that kids are segregated away from their peers — their peers without disabilities — and they’re maintained in these congregate, segregated settings, they actually become more globally developmentally delayed,” Sarra said.

The number of children in residential facilities has increased over the years, Sarra said. He said it’s because the state doesn’t provide case management or inform parents of their rights. Foster parents also don’t receive adequate training or resources to foster children with disabilities, and they end up bouncing around between facilities and temporary homes, he added.

He and Lewis met a couple of years ago. At this point, Lewis said, they email just about every day.

“I knew that things weren’t being done correctly,” Lewis said. “I was just a mommy knowing, and Joe came with no, here’s the statute.”

Georgia’s mental health system, Lewis said, is not built to help her sons, who require more specialized and intensive care than other children. The programs of care, built around things like depression and anxiety, don’t work for what she describes as Ahav’s more intense conditions, including schizophrenia. Childhood schizophrenia is rare, affecting approximately 1 in 40,000 children. Yet pages of medical history and previous diagnoses don’t protect against medical professionals questioning Lewis’ son’s reality.

“Childhood psychosis has been happening for a long time,” Lewis said. “At what point are you all going to create a program, at least one in the state, for these kiddos?”

Ahav has been to every residential psychiatric facility in the state, moving in and out of treatment facilities for much of his life. Lewis said he’s fallen into a gap in the system — he doesn’t have a treating psychiatrist because they deem Ahav “too severe for outpatient.” Insurance requirements have also complicated his care and caused financial strain on Lewis’ family. 

People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, according to the National Council on Disability. Lewis, who lives in DeKalb County, is a single mother. She used to teach and perform as a singer, but had to quit her job to take care of her sons. Her music career is also on hold. She’s worked in the gig economy delivering groceries for Instacart and tries to work from home for a travel company, but she said it’s hard to schedule calls around caring full-time for Ahav and Analiel.

Kelli Lewis and her younger son, Analiel Lewis. (Photo Courtesy/Kelli Lewis)

She and her family are on Supplemental Security Income Medicaid, a program that helps low-income people pay for medical care.

Lewis said sometimes Ahav knows he’s not ready to leave a treatment facility. The pair has sat in family sessions and he tells doctors if he does go home, he feels like he might hurt himself or his family.

“And he comes home the next day,” Lewis said. “Because insurance says he has to come home.”

Ahav gets discharged for whatever reason — because insurance won’t cover more nights in the hospital, or it won’t cover out-of-state treatment, or he didn’t experience a bad enough episode while in treatment. He goes back home, and then eventually back into an institution. Sarra said the treatment facilities that don’t work with families to provide care after discharging patients contribute to the “cycle of crises” that Ahav and others experience.

“I know special needs families from every demographic, and I don’t care how much money they started off this journey with, it doesn’t matter. It guts you,” Lewis said.

‘How do you get help like that?’

Children’s Freedom Initiative has helped families access more community-based care since its founding in 2005, Sarra said. But there remain kids like Ahav, who still hasn’t been able to get adequate care.

“The state should be recruiting providers who are trained and open to serving kids to have high-level behavioral needs,” Sarra said.

Lewis said she worries even more for her sons’ futures. As they get older, it’s becoming even harder to protect them. She is concerned about Ahav being with roommates who have sexual aggression issues.

She also said she fears encounters with the police. As Ahav grows out of childhood, in a criminal justice system that discriminates against Black people, especially those with mental illnesses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, he is more likely than a white teenager to be sentenced to jail and less likely to receive care once he’s there.

“One of Ahav’s therapists told him, you know, dude, one day you’re gonna attack the wrong person. They’re gonna press charges. You’re gonna end up in juvie, not the hospital,” Lewis said.

In order for her boys to receive the care they need, Lewis and advocates like Sarra said there needs to be a shift in the way funding is allocated and how people view mental health. She said initiatives like the state New Options Waiver and Comprehensive Supports Waiver Programs — which provide home- and community-based services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities — would be good resources, but there’s not enough funding. More than 7,000 people are on the waitlist for the waivers, according to state data. They are provided through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

While Sarra said funding for the waivers should be expanded, it’s crucial for the state to train more providers, which he said is the cause of the problem.

“You have an institutional setting that is sending a child home with no services in place,” Sarra said. “If the parent brings the child home and has another behavioral crisis, the cycle begins again.”

Lewis envisions communities where kids and adults with disabilities can live on their own with support when they need it. Until the system shifts from a punitive to a more human-centered approach, Lewis said, kids like Ahav and Analiel will continue to fall through the cracks.

“How do you get help like that, when you’re being treated like you’re an offender, when you’re really just sick?” Lewis said.

Jacqueline GaNun is a fourth-year journalism major at the University of Georgia.

Note: This story serves as an exemplar piece and was published with grant funding from the UGA Institute on Human Development and Disability. Read here how GaNun reported the story.

A Look at Poverty Coverage From Around the Country in 2022

Graphic by Colt Yeargin

Poverty can be reported in various ways, from video stories to written features to investigative reporting to photography. Here’s a look at several stories and special projects in 2022 by various news outlets, including some that feature the work of current and former students in the Covering Poverty project. Read about them below.

Everyday Heroes

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Students in the Covering Poverty project contributed profile stories for this special holiday project that showcases stories of 55 Georgians and their mission to share kindness.

How title lenders trap poor Georgians in debt with triple-digit interest rates

The Current

This piece details the issue of title lenders and how they are putting low-income families into debt with contracts with high-interest rates and poor regulations. The investigative story provides information on how title lenders are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color. This piece also tells the story of two individuals who had these high-interest rates placed upon them on top of their debt payment plan. Covering Poverty students in spring 2022 provided research for The Current.

Investigating housing discrimination: an Asbury Park Press series

Asbury Park Press

This piece was selected as a winner of the 2022 NPF’s Poverty and Inequality Awards. The story details how tenants in Asbury Park, New Jersey, are living in deplorable conditions in renovated rental subsidies that are taxpayer-funded. The rental subsidies have been exposed to unsafe living conditions, such as mold. Along with the story, there is a slideshow of photos of the living conditions in these rental subsidies.

Poverty, Plunging

The New York Times

This piece by The New York Times provides information on how child poverty in the United States is slowly decreasing over the years. This could be a result of several factors, such as government welfare programs, increased use of SNAP and WIC, and more single mothers being able to find employment to provide household income. The main reason for this decline is the increased use and availability of government programs since the 1990s.

Biden administration invests $53 million in WIC nutrition program for women and children


This piece by CNN showcases how the Biden administration is investing $53 million from the United States Department of Agriculture in WIC nutrition programs for women and children around the country. The money will be used to increase access to food and improve the shopping experience. According to the article, “The funding, which comes from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, aims to help state agencies, community groups, and other nonprofits test new ways of reaching out to existing and potential WIC participants.” This is an effort from the Biden administration to lower child hunger and help people in need.

Baptist Health Care Foundation now accepting donations for mammogram fund


Former Covering Poverty student Kelsey Coffey wrote this story for the Pensacola station on how the Baptist Health Care Foundation has set up a mammogram fund that will provide women in need with free mammograms. The fund provides no-cost mammograms to women who are underinsured or have no insurance at all. The fund raises between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. Along with the story is a video news package that provides more details about how the program helps women in need and how the program helped one woman find out that she had breast cancer all thanks to the free mammogram.

Peninsula woman receives national award for fighting childhood poverty globally


This piece tells the story of Delfarib Fanaie, a woman who won the Jefferson Award for her work fighting child poverty around the world. Fanaie is the co-founder of Moms Against Poverty, a group that provides food, healthcare, water, child care, and other basic needs to people in over 15 countries around the world. The organization has built over 60 schools and supports over 30 orphan care centers. The story also includes a video story of Fanaie and her story of helping children around the world. 

Doulas in Georgia work to support better, safer births — one family at a time


This piece by Sofi Gratas, a former Covering Poverty student who covers rural health and health care for GPB, examines how Black women often see disparities in institutionalized health care. She tells the story of the barriers to care for Black and low-income women in the state, as well as efforts to address maternal mortality and to improve care.