Key principles for the disability-conscious journalist

    | August 2, 2010

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    The following ten principles are adapted from a section of The Invisible People: A Practical Guide for Journalists on How to Include Persons with Disabilities. The guide was developed by the Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities. It provides guidelines for journalists who wish to support and promote the human rights of people with disabilities.

    The guide includes background information on disability in Africa, looks at disability as a rights issue, and provides information on the main issues affecting persons with disabilities, such as employment, poverty, and access to buildings. A list of preferred terminology is provided, to ensure that journalists use words that do not offend or discriminate. The full guide can be found online, here:

    1. Put the person at centre stage, not the disability. Describe persons with disabilities as you would anyone else, with both human strengths and weaknesses. Do not focus on disabilities, unless they are crucial to a story. If you want to report on disability issues, focus instead on concerns that affect the quality of life for those individuals, such as accessible transportation, housing, affordable health care, employment opportunities, and discrimination.

    2. Show persons with disabilities as active members of society. Write about persons with disabilities as providers of expertise, services and assistance. This will help break through the stereotype of seeing persons with disabilities only as recipients of charity, services and goodwill. Show or describe individuals with disabilities in the same everyday situations in which you describe other people.

    3. Show persons with disabilities as part of the general public. Make an effort to seek out persons with disabilities when you report on issues that are important in your community. If you do not know how to find or contact a disabled person, call a local disabled persons’ organization and ask for assistance.

    4. Let people have their own voice. Let everybody have their own voice and use their own words. When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than to a companion or interpreter. If you offer assistance to the person you are interviewing, wait until the offer is accepted before acting. Then listen to or ask for instructions on how you can help.

    5. Avoid common stereotypes: the superhero and the victim. Do not portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman or as heroes. Also, do not present persons whose disability results from a prior disease episode as if they are still suffering from the disease. Do not associate disease with people whose disability results from anatomical or physiological damage (e.g., persons with spina bifida or cerebral palsy). Refer to diseases associated with a disability only with chronic diseases such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. People with disabilities should never be referred to as “patients” or “cases” unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion.

    6. Support the human rights approach. If you make an effort to treat persons with disabilities as citizens with a right to participate in all sectors of society, you support the human rights model of disability. It is all about inclusion and respect.

    7. Work with journalists with disabilities. Unless persons with disabilities are able to be the makers of their own images, their lives will constantly be represented on the basis of other people’s assumptions.

    8. Communicate with disability organizations. If persons with disabilities do not contact you or bring their ideas and opinions to your attention, phone a local disabled persons’ organization and ask for an interview or a comment. Building a relationship with an organization may generate a lot of good ideas and contacts that will benefit you in future work.

    9. Persons with disabilities are not only interested in disability issues. There are persons with disabilities in all sectors of society, and in all sorts of professions. Do not miss out on their knowledge and expertise.

    10. Be honest. It is all right to be insecure, and to want to learn. Ask the person that you are interviewing about things that you do not understand.