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USA Today Writes About Disability Without Disabled People (Again)

by Ari Ne’eman, ASAN President

Last May, I and other advocates crashed a party – a twitter party, to be exact. USA Today had put together a live twitter chat with the nation’s “top experts” on autism – a group that notably excluded any actual Autistic people. Unimpressed, the live chat was crashed by a few dozen Autistic adults who did a great job communicating that old time “Nothing About Us, Without Us!” spirit. Liz Szabo, the USA Today medical reporter moderating the live chat, responded fairly well, apologizing and making sure that self-advocate participants were included after all. Later that day, I got a very nice e-mail from her, promising to learn the lesson about self-advocate inclusion for the future. Mission accomplished, right?

Well, perhaps not so much. Today, USA Today ran a front page feature by Liz Szabo on mental health policy, encompassing 3,024 words over three articles and including color photos, infographics and an extensive table analyzing mental health policies across the nation. What it did not include, shockingly, was the voice of a single person with a psychiatric disability. Given the topic – one article uncritically makes the case that involuntary commitment laws must be strengthened and expanded – this is a serious flaw and one that is undeserving of a newspaper of USA Today’s national stature.

The rationale behind an error like this is baffling, to say the least. It seems hardly credible that the author could not locate a single disabled person. One understands the pressures faced by modern journalists in these times of newsroom cutbacks, but surely they can do better than this. Furthermore, the failure to speak or present the opinions of a single opponent to the expansion of civil commitment laws is unbelievable, given the stakes. Does USA Today believe that expanding institutionalization and forced treatment is so uncontroversial as to not deserve the presentation of both sides? What possible explanation could be offered for such shoddy work?

Regrettably, the problem extends beyond Szabo and USA Today, both of whom have good intentions. Most journalists reporting on disability issues today come from backgrounds in health or medicine, where the working assumption is that physicians should drive the conversation and little difference should exist between parent and self-advocate perspectives. For many in the media, reporting the voices of those most directly impacted is an afterthought, too often forgot about in the rush to meet a deadline. This outlook has real and practical consequences.

In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, the news media plays a disproportionate role in shaping the public conversation. Policymakers and the general public look to newspapers to help determine practical solutions to challenges like gun violence. When journalists ignore the communities they are charged with reporting on, we all lose an opportunity to become better educated on the issues that face our country. Beyond that, ill-advised policy solutions are uncritically promoted without thought to their unintended consequences.

This is not journalism. USA Today’s readership and the public at large deserve better. As the media continues to stoke public fears about disabled people in the aftermath of Newtown, it falls to us in the disability rights movement to make sure that they get the message. Just as our community speaks up when Autistic people are left out of conversations about autism, we should be speaking up when other groups of disabled people are excluded from conversations in which they should play a major role. In the words of our nation’s founding father, Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together – or we will sure hang separately.”

Annoyed? Angry? Don’t just sit there and take it – do something! Here are some options:

  • Tweet your concerns to Liz Szabo, the USA Today journalist who wrote the mental health pieces, at @LizSzabo – use the hashtag #aboutwithout so we can track your interest. Be polite in your comments – but be heard!
  • Send USA Today a Letter to the Editor by e-mailing letters@usatoday.com. Include your name, address and daytime and evening phone numbers (if you cannot use the phone, note this and provide an e-mail address that you check frequently). The newspaper’s website notes that letters of 200 words or less have the highest likelihood of being accepted.
  • E-mail Brent Jones, USA Today’s Public Editor, with your concerns about lack of self-advocate representation ataccuracy@usatoday.com.
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