Media coverage of visually impaired people can distress their subjects. One reason might be that visually impaired people disagree among themselves about the best ways to write and talk about their experiences and how they feel they’re perceived by the larger society. The same split is undoubtedly true for all disabled people. Indeed it’s surely true for all groups, from retired people to government employees, oil rig workers to schoolteachers, country singers to economists. Each group gets talked about as if it were an indivisible whole, even though we know better.
Last fall, a friend alerted me to an article headlined “Inmates transcribe books for blind,” which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on September 29. The gist of the article is this: “In a small room at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, 18 inmates work to help blind math students learn geometry and calculus, blind musicians memorize songs and blind travelers navigate with maps.”
The article has understandable appeal, and in general it is a fair presentation. As a lawyer who once defended people convicted of crimes, I was pleased that it went some way toward offsetting a popular perception that people who have committed crimes are uniformly evil and deserving of harsh punishment.
Even so, I had reservations about the author’s treatment of the blind beneficiaries of their work. I sent a comment to that friend, someone who only recently lost her vision. (She asked that I not give her name.) Here is an edited transcript of our email exchange.
Me: Well-meaning but annoying article.
Friend: Why annoying?
Me: Because it treats access via braille as something magical that does just what print does. The only difference is that the population relying on print is much larger.
Friend: I didn’t get that feeling. I thought it was the equivalent of making print available. I thought it was good that prisoners felt they were doing something helpful. If they did some routine thing that helped doctors, musicians, communities, etc., would you feel the same way?
Me: But they aren’t doing something that helps doctors, etc. Here’s a relevant sentence from the article: “Earning 35 cents an hour and working seven hours a day Monday through Friday, inmates perform the painstaking work to unlock textbooks for blind and other vision-impaired students.” It emphasizes the perception of blind people as recipients of charity.
Friend: But these inmates seem to be filling in a missing gap.
Me: I still think the media should stop emphasizing blind people’s need for charity. I also resist that National Federation of the Blind line that the article’s author quotes without comment: ‘Listening is not reading.’ Braille gives a big assist in punctuation, spelling, etc., but it doesn’t follow that a person can’t read by listening.
Friend: I was a little annoyed by the sentence that said listening wasn’t reading. I have no intention of learning Braille, at least not immediately, although I see the need for this for young blind students who haven’t yet learned spelling or punctuation, nor seen mathematical equations or musical arrangements. As you know, I am on the Board of a local Readers for the Blind organization that will provide audio recordings of whatever reading material is sent to it. Would you also find that altruism annoying?
Me: It is the characterization, not the work, that annoys.
Friend: Ah, the reporting, not the story?
Me, irrelevantly: Like the cover-up, not the crime.
As an aside, we could have said that braille and print are equally remarkable. When the printing press first made books widely available, it seemed as miraculous as braille does to sighted people today.
As our email exchange shows, my friend was being eminently reasonable, while I was being provocative, otherwise known as a pain in the neck. But we addressed at least two serious questions. I’ll call the first the dilemma of autonomy versus charity. I can never be grateful enough to the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who helped me get to where I am today. These people include influential teachers and lawyer mentors, a recognition all students and lawyers freely give. They also include those who recorded texts for me, who showed me around new places and who taught me certain daily living skills. The equivalent for sighted people would be, in that same order, publishers, map makers and family and friends observed doing daily chores. For visually impaired people, the debt is to good people’s charity, while for sighted people there is no sense of any debt at all. Debts that can’t be paid directly to creditors become what many wealthy people call “debts to society,” and visually impaired people are generally very good at giving back by assisting and advising those who come after. But the object of this kind of charity is to help recipients gain independence. Constant allusions to the charitable activities conducted on behalf of visually impaired people undermine psychological independence.
The other broad issue in our email exchange is whether listening can be a legitimate way to read. The rise of Audible.com has brought this dispute into the mainstream. One might wonder why the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), an advocacy organization, denigrates “listening” as a means of reading. The reason: they have a political agenda favoring braille. The advantages of braille are many, and my friend and I allude to some of them. However, to read braille with anything like the speed with which sighted people read print is, in my own experience and that of friends and acquaintances, rarely achievable for those who lose their vision after the first decade or so of life. The fact is that if listening didn’t constitute a valid method of reading, I wouldn’t have earned my degree in literature.
For journalists, the biggest disability story in the past year has been Donald Trump. When he mocked Serge Kovaleski, the reporter who has a condition known as arthrogryposis, I was itching to comment not so much on Trump’s offensive mimicry, but on the attacks on Trump that followed. The gist would have been that disabled people find themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, mocking disabled people reinforces age-old stereotypes. On the other, as a group seeking equality, it feels hypocritical when disabled people demand to be exempted from the human tendency to make fun of others. But then I came across a mainstream NBC News article that made these points well.
The author, Irin Carmon, quotes Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the advocacy group RespectAbility, as saying, “‘People are starting to see people with disabilities for their abilities… But one thing they don’t want to see about people with disabilities is for us to be bullied.’”
Carmon then reports her conversation with writer and activist Andrew Pulrang:
Still, he said he found himself wondering, ‘Why is this the thing that is worse than all the other groups then [sic] he’s targeted?’ One possible answer: ‘We’re easy to feel protective towards. Part of ableism is a heavy dose of paternalism.’
Pulrang hopes the outrage translates into more interest in policies that affect people with disability. ‘There are other things more important than hurting our feelings,’ he said.
Personally, I view Trump’s mimicry of Kovaleski more as mocking than bullying. Trump was attacking a man whose reporting debunked one of his patently false claims. In doing so he revealed an unwitting admiration. Trump’s throwing his arms around and making guttural noises in an attempt at mockery reflected badly on the candidate himself, while the episode made the rest of America aware of how talented and determined Kovaleski must be to have come so far in his chosen occupation.
Admittedly, I’m conflicted about efforts at humor that make fun of disabled people. As I wrote in my post, “On Comedy,” David Paterson, former governor of New York, found a funny but firm way to respond to Saturday Night Live’s grimly unfair portrayal of his legal blindness. There is a place for uncomfortable comedy about disabled people, but it can also do damage. As I document in “On Comedy,” Paterson, despite his adroit handling of the controversy, believed SNL’s skits hurt his chances in the next election.
One gimmick in SNL’s Paterson skits was to have his character hold a chart upside-down. Gratuitous? Suppose in real life, a reporter had witnessed the Governor making that same error that only a blind person would make. Should it be mentioned in any article on the event? The basic question a reporter might ask is whether it is relevant to the news story. If the governor was pretending to read from it, did his attempted sleight-of-hand amount to deception? Was it a level of deception that justified being mentioned in an article? To take an extreme example, was he engaged in a Joe McCarthy-like pretense at holding in his hand a list of communists?
Disabled people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid such gaffs. When possible, a blind lawyer will explore a courtroom in advance of an appearance in order to look normal when moving around in it. The lawyer isn’t pretending away blindness, but minimizing the impact that reaction to his disability could have on judges and jurors deciding a case.
The second President Roosevelt went to the extreme of hiding his paralysis from the public, which he saw as essential if he was to be re-elected. At the time, the press co-operated. Today the press would not. Moreover, disability groups would insist the paralysis be made known. And yet Roosevelt was probably right, both for his time and ours. With all the focus on a presidential candidate’s health, serious physical disability is likely to be an obstacle, if not a bar. (Presidential candidate Robert Dole, who has limited use of his right arm due to a severe war wound, failed in his efforts to become president, but it seems unlikely his disability was serious, or visible, enough to hurt his chances. Kansas elected him five times to the U.S. Senate.)
In the same campaign season that Trump was belittling Kovaleski, Democrats promoted disabled people at their convention in order to highlight Hillary Clinton’s valuable work on behalf of the disabled community. But when I witnessed the series of disabled speakers, unpleasant associations came to mind with Jerry Lewis’s notorious telethons, where children who had muscular dystrophy were paraded before the cameras to generate sympathy and donations. When disabled people speak on behalf of fundraisers and politicians, it’s as if they’re saying, here, I can do something. When that something is to stand before a television camera, it isn’t exactly an accomplishment. True, public appearances bring disabled people out of the backrooms and asylums where they used to be kept, but such appearances have nothing to do with their daily lives.
Massachusetts recently made a gesture at addressing this disparity between media projection and daily reality by initiating an annual event it named BlindNewWorld week. The idea, as Governor Charlie Baker put it, is to promote “inclusion.” As the Perkins School webpage explains: “It encourages the sighted public to connect with members of the blindness community – whether by introducing themselves … or sharing a meal or activity.” It seems to me that all such promotions are fraught with hyperbole and sentimentality, but the message is the right one.
Or should I reverse that sentence: The message is the right one, but it seems to me that all such promotions are fraught with hyperbole and sentimentality. The first version is positive with a qualification; the second sounds straight-out cynical. Here is another inherent difficulty in reporting about disabled people. Should an article err more on the side of the positive or the negative? A tendency to the positive can be as misleading as one to the negative.
As I said at the outset, a major obstacle to reporting about disabled people is the ambivalence they themselves feel about a host of issues. A broad dichotomy can be seen in educators, disabled and non-disabled alike, who help train newly disabled people. On the one hand, there are the kind teachers who feel for their charges and the initial trauma that loss of a sensory or other physical ability typically causes. On the other, there are the martinets, those who view disability as a neutral fact of life to be overcome, and they can be withering in their criticism. One can be protective; the other sees life as one long bootcamp.
I detect both these perspectives in myself, and I strongly suspect most disabled people also do. We want understanding, but not sympathy. We want criticism so that we can improve ourselves, but we don’t want to be ridiculed. We’d like to be respected for our accomplishments, but not told we’re “amazing” simply for getting dressed and taking the subway to work each morning.
That said, people with certain kinds of disability find it challenging to take a subway and even to get dressed by themselves. A disturbing prospect as each of us gets older is that a stroke might incapacitate us. I don’t mean to dismiss people who make the most of life despite such high barriers. I mean only to urge non-disabled people to accept disabled people for what they can do, to work with them, and not to glorify them simply because they have a disability.
I’ll conclude with an informal, unscientific, possibly eccentric and unhelpful checklist for journalists to consider:
Be wary of portraying disabled people as passive recipients of charity.
Treat disabled people as actors in their own lives.
When reporting on disabled people, try to interview or quote them rather than their surrogates.
Ask; don’t assume.
Consider the stage of life when an individual subject lost his or her vision, hearing, ability to walk, etc. A person born with a disability might well have a different perspective from someone who acquired it late in life.
Avoid religious language, except when disabled subjects themselves bring up religion.
Become familiar with the deep political divides within disabled communities. With respect to blind people, contrasting the positions of the National Federation of the Blind and those of the American Council of the Blind is a good start. In very general terms, the NFB promotes single-minded independence, while the ACB promotes a collaborative approach for blind people living in a majority-sighted society.
Keep in mind that organizations representing disabled people have a propaganda role. In this, they are no different from corporate public relations offices or the press offices at agencies headed by politicians, and they merit a comparable degree of skepticism.
Consider the complex consequences of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability-related legislation. For example, because disabled employees are entitled to special protections, might such potential legal exposure cause employers to hesitate to hire disabled people in the first place? The ADA has done a world of good, but no legislation is perfect.
Don’t cater to low expectations, but also don’t exaggerate accomplishments.