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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where the News Goes Wrong

After I completed my entry today I thought more deeply about why the media consistently misses the point about disability related issues. The failure of the media, newspapers, TV, movies, etc. to discuss disability with a modicum of skill is a never ending mystery to me. I understand newspapers must sell adds, TV is reliant on commercials, and movies sell tickets. Yet most news reports and stories about disability rely on well worn out stereotypes. These stereotypes invariably involve the story of some remarkable person who "overcomes" their disability. The greater the success, the greater the story. An obvious and visible disability only makes the archetypical story better.

Tabloids and even the venerable New York Times fall into the above trap. For instance, on September 14 a story appeared by Peter Applebome entitled "Rabbi With the Compelling Back Story is Not to be Rued Out". The story in question is about "a blind rabbi" trying to get elected to Congress who knows "he has gotten more attention than most challengers facing entrenched incumbents because of his unusual personal story". Dennis Shulman, a psychologist and rabbi, is running for New Jersey's Fifth Congressional District against Scott Garrett. Obviously Shulman is blind and has been since he was a child. Shulman is clearly a smart man as are most people that graduate of Harvard. But what I want to know is why does the story about Schulman focus on the fact he is blind and characterize his life as a "remarkable tale to tell"? Why is it remarkable that a blind man graduated from Harvard became a psychologist and is running for Congress? Is it "remarkable" because the social expectations for a blind person or someone with an obvious disability are nil? These stories perpetuate the myth that anyone with a disability that is successful must be a "remarkable person". This conveniently ignores the fact that the most pressing problem disabled people encounter are social not physical. Newspapers love catchy headlines and stories such as the one about Schulman that make those unfamiliar with disability feel good about the world. This requires virtually no thought and can be social fodder for chit chat at the local coffee shop.

My thought process when reading about such "remarkable" stories is very different. The first thing I thought of when I read about Schulman was a press release I read two days before from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. The press release was about the US District Court for the Northern District of California that granted class action certification in a disability action in which plaintiffs argue that the Social Security Administration fails to provide its communications in alternative formats that would enable people with visual impairments to have equal access to programs as required by federal disability civil rights laws. In the digital era and more than 30 years after it was mandated by law I find it hard to fathom how the Social Security Administration can ignore the rights of blind people. To me, this is what is "remarkable" about our society. We pay nothing more than lip service to the rights of disabled people. Sure, laws exist, laws that are ignored or broken every day. This does not ever make its way into the news. Instead, readers of the New York Times are exposed to the "remarkable" disabled person who overcomes their disability. The reality is that what disabled people must overcome is a disinterested government, conservative Supreme Court, and social system that is oppressive, one that still stigmatizes those that cannot walk, see, hear, or think as others can. This is worth reporting about but it is not what people want to know for it is much easier to be assured that "remarkable people" overcome a physical deficit. I just wish more people, those who are not disabled, thought the same way.


Anonymous said...

Do you think the media's products are just representative of what most (able) people think?

Your (non-diagnosed) friend, Barbara

william Peace said...

Well, to answer your question bluntly: I sure as hell hope not. If media portrayals are an indication of what the average person thinks about disability our country in general and disabled people in particular are in deep trouble. I prefer to think that the media caters to the lowest common denominator and seeks to entertain rather than inform. Thus, so called "feel good stories" abound as they make everyone happy, are easy to read, and enable the average person to fall back on antiquated beliefs that require no thought.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you that the media makes money off the least sophisticated among us. We both are hoping this group is a minority, but then how come the media can survive selling mostly just to them?

william Peace said...

My Dad told me you can never underestimate the stupidity of most people. I never appreciated this comment until I was older. I think disabled people are so disenfranchised economically, politically, and socially that it is far easier to withdraw than engage in an effort to be treated equally. Thus for many disabled people it is easier to accept social inequities than rail against them. The media is accordingly left to appeal to the masses that know nothing about disability. Disabled people who do not accept the status quo--people like me--are deemed difficult. I accept this label "difficult" if it means I share the same civil rights as a person that can walk. So when I cannot enter the library because the only accessible door is locked and blocked by a table do not expect me to be happy about it unless all those that can walk are similarly inconvenienced.