In 2018 news coverage regarding disability remains misleading and exploitative. When Professor Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76 in March, many reports undermined his discoveries as an astrophysicist with some emotional wallowing that he was ‘free’ from ‘being confined to his wheelchair’ referencing his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.
When I read some of the obituaries dedicated to Hawking, they disappointingly reaffirmed that the media voice for the disability community is non-existent. This is more evident by not assigning someone who is disabled to report these events of public importance.
Opportunities to work in the media as a journalist or broadcaster are very slim, especially with mainstream newspaper mastheads, television, radio networks and online news publications reporting about disability incorrectly by overusing ableist language and tropes including ‘wheelchair bound' or ‘that person is/was suffering.’
Ablesplaining is another example of some media practitioners dismissing and denying what contribution we have in telling people about our own lived experiences
These poor editorial expressions objectify disabled people without understanding what they are capable of. Ablesplaining is another example of some media practitioners dismissing and denying what contribution we have in telling people about our own lived experiences.
For most disabled people who are trained at university in journalism, the biggest challenge is convincing employers to pay attention to their skills and talents, and ignore those who dispute the value of reading and listening to what they have produced based on their disability. Disclosure is another obstacle disabled graduates confront each day.
In February this year, I applied for a media cadetship program as I believed I had what it took to work in the demanding broadcast environment and wanted to change the expectations of what editors and producers are looking for in a journalist or broadcaster. When sending off my cover letter, I decided to not to lie and mentioned my disability. I was unsuccessful due to the large volume of applicants, but that hasn’t deterred me from giving in and surrendering to inequality.
The late, legendary disability activist, comedian and fashionista, Stella Young, who was editor of ABC's defunct disability portal Ramp Up epitomised how journalists should report properly on disability issues, and how to approach ‘telling it as it is’. Stella dared to question the ineptitude of inspiration-porn analogies able-bodied media practitioners and freelancers consciously and subconsciously use.
Portrayals of disability in media will remain unchecked unless financial investment is poured into employing more disabled people
Media personalities like Dylan Alcott and Nastasia Campanella are unfortunately the exception within the industry, and that is why characterisations and portrayals of disability in media will remain unchecked unless investment is made in employing more disabled people. It is up to us to subvert, engage and critique exploitative or inaccurate headlines and articles regurgitating the ‘pity' and ‘superhuman' depictions of who we identify as in society.
As for myself, I get to produce stories for The Wire, a weekly national, independent current affairs program for community and Indigenous radio stations including Radio Adelaide 101.5 FM, and have written op-eds encapsulating the realities for those with disabilities. I tend not to suppress or retract anything I say or write, especially about an incident of injustice and bigotry.
With any luck, I could be hired sometime in the future and the employer interviewing me will not see my Autistic tendencies or sensory impairments as a financial difficulty when performing tasks in a newsroom or studio.