Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Should Reporters Describe Disability?

Yesterday, the official AP Stylebook Twitter Account responded to a query about describing wheelchair users. Here's the exchange:

I understand what the AP Stylebook is trying to do here, but I'm concerned it leads to disability erasure. Having spent a few years now carefully tracking media references to disability and police use of force, I've noted that disability often quickly drops out of stories in ways that obscure the true scope of the problem.

There are, of course, many times in which referring to disability wouldn't be appropriate and might even be stigmatizing. For example, let's assume Jane is not disabled and Joe is disabled.

"Jane's neighbor, Joe, says she was always quiet."

There's no need to discuss disability status here, right? 

"Jane's neighbor, Joe, who uses a wheelchair, notes that Jane's tendency to leave shards of broken glass on the sidewalk was a source of tension."

Obviously, you've got to mention the disability in that case, as relevant.

Here's what I've come up with as a guideline, operating from the principle that disability functions as a core marker of identity, and that journalists deal with this question all the time (whether to describe someone's race, country of origin, sexuality, etc.):

If you would describe other markers of identity in a story (race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), also describe disability. If you would not, then only describe disability if it's otherwise directly pertinent to the story.

What do you think?

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