Madison Cawthorn

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., arrives on the House floor during the first session of the 117th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 3, 2021. Cawthorn has made a number of misleading claims about his past

I am one of a handful of openly disabled journalists. I have had to actively find every other disabled journalist I know. Some of us are closeted.

It’s impossible to know, at least right now, exactly how many disabled journalists there even are in newsrooms. We’re not included in the glossy diversity reports some major outlets have put out in recent years.

Disabled people are, according to the US Census Bureau, a fifth of the US population. So why do we take up so little space, both in newsrooms and on the pages of major outlets?

On the most basic level, there is a problem with how most (non-disabled) people see disability. People who are well versed in equity and inclusion sometimes seem to forget disabled people exist, at least in the context of diversity.

Disability, in too many people’s minds, is something bad that happens to a person. But to many disabled people, it is our identity. It is value neutral. There is nothing wrong with us. Instead, disability is an inextricable part of who we are and how we experience the world. We belong to a community, and our community is just as vibrant and messy as any other marginalized community.

I am proud of who I am. I have experiences that are different from my non-disabled peers, and those experiences inform my work. And I am not alone, even if it feels that way sometimes.

It is hard to find role models in the industry. There are very few disabled journalists, especially in senior positions. The most famous disabled journalist is probably Serge F. Kovaleski, who President Trump famously mocked on the campaign trail. But when ordinary people invoke the “disabled reporter,” they often do not even know his name, let alone anything he’s written. Support from journalists who are parents or siblings of disabled people is invaluable and has helped many of us get our foot in the door. But it’s not the same as having other disabled journalists to look up to.

Then, there is the problem of infrastructure. There are no formal talent pipelines for disabled journalism students. There are no scholarships. There are no formal resources. We do not have an association, like the Asian American Journalists Association or the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

There is a National Center on Disability and Journalism, but its work is centered “providing support and guidance for journalists as they cover people with disabilities.” They have a disability style guide. It’s a good style guide that I frequently recommend. But they do not have resources for disabled journalists or disabled people interested in journalism as a career. It’s simply not what they were set up to do.

There are bigger, more systemic barriers. Disabled people are more likely to experience poverty than the general population. We’re less likely to have attended elite institutions, or any university at all. We have a higher unemployment rate.

It is important to note these are not signs that we are less talented, intelligent, or skilled than anyone else. Instead, these statistics are signs of a society set up to exclude disabled people from normal participation. This is true in a physical, literal sense. A person in a wheelchair can’t use most of the New York City subway system, for example. Many of the stations only have stairs. But it is also true in a metaphorical sense. Journalism, as a career, has a lot of stairs, too. Few of the disabled journalists I know have staff positions. None of the disabled journalists I know make hiring decisions.

The absence of disabled journalists in newsrooms leads to lower quality coverage of disability as a whole. Wendy Lu, a disabled staff journalist at the Huffington Post, has written about the emotional storytelling that seems to dominate stories about disability, at least as it currently exists. “Of the eight news values (proximity, timeliness, prominence, magnitude, conflict, oddity, impact, and emotion), emotion too often rises to the top when telling stories about disability communities,” Lu notes. There are so many disability stories that aren’t being told, because they don’t tug on anyone’s heartstrings – for example, the way some feted disability hiring tech initiatives feed on stereotypes, or the legacy of forced sterilization of intellectually disabled people in the United States.

The absence of disabled journalists in newsrooms also means newsrooms miss big stories about disability. Recently, I broke the news that North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, made misleading claims about training for the 2020 Paralympic Games. I hadn’t originally pitched the piece as investigative. I had intended to write about how Cawthorn uses his disability in his political branding. But as a member of the disability community, it was quickly apparent that something was off about his claims.

Cawthorn is controversial and has been scrutinized closely by the media. His trip to Hitler’s vacation home, documented on his Instagram, was a minor scandal. Non-disabled journalists looked into the company he founded, his claims about the Naval Academy, his short time at Patrick Henry College, and more. But no one questioned the extraordinary claims Cawthorn made about his athletic prowess. I know Paralympians and other elite disabled athletes. I know what it takes to compete. I knew the claims were extraordinary and treated them as such. But non-disabled journalists took his claims at face value.

There are more stories like this, stories about disability that are missed because non-disabled journalists don’t realize what they’re looking at. They aren’t familiar with the culture and don’t know our leadership or institutions.

There need to be more disabled journalists in newsrooms, telling complex, difficult stories about disability. Hire disabled journalists. Hire journalists who might not not have perfectly smooth resumes, but who have experienced the disability service system first-hand. Ask your disabled employees, if you have any, what they need to build their careers, and to build pathways and pipelines for younger disabled journalists. Diversity initiatives in newsrooms are vitally important, not only when considering race or gender, but also when considering disability status.

Sara Luterman is a freelance journalist covering disability policy, politics, and culture. You can find her work in The Nation, The Washington Post, and Vox, among other outlets.

The Newsrooms We Need Now

As American society—and American newsrooms—grapple with an unprecedented time in the country’s racial justice movement, Nieman Reports is publishing a series of essays about how journalism should respond to the challenges of the moment, from accelerating journalists of color moving into senior decision-making roles to improving coverage of racism and white supremacy.

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