When covering disability, avoid ableist tropes like the ‘pity trap'

The transcript is below:


JOE SHAPIRO, INVESTIGATIONS, NPR: My name is Joe Shapiro. I’m a correspondent at NPR. I work on the Investigations unit, but I’ve had a long interest in disability issues. I’ve been writing about this for more than 30 years. So for a person who’s doing their first story on disability, congratulations, this is a great subject. There’s so many good stories. Don’t be afraid to write about disability. There are things that are tricky, particularly about language.

THOMAS LU, PRODUCER, NPR: So some people use people-first language when they want to emphasize kind of the person before their disability. Examples include using the phrase “a person with a disability,” or “a woman with cerebral palsy,” “child with Down Syndrome,” or “a man with multiple sclerosis.” Whereas some people use identity-first language, like “a disabled person” instead of “a person with a disability,” because this emphasizes disability as an identity, a history, and or a culture. For example, communities that use identity-first language – but not always – include autistic people or deaf people. Those communities tend to use identity-first language, but again, not always.

When reporting or producing a story, one of the best things to do is to actually ask your guests if they have a preference and use the language that they prefer. However, if that’s not possible or if you forget to ask your guests, look into the specific community, disabled community that they are a part of. Oftentimes, certain communities will have a generally-accepted term that they prefer. But another good practice is also to use a combination of both identity-first language and person-first language when writing or reporting about disability more generally.

SHAPIRO: Well, when I started a long time ago, there were traditional ways to write about disability. The person with a disability was written as a source of pity – but it turned out that’s not the way people with disabilities wanted to be represented.

LU: Think about the framing of your story. Who are you centering and why? Stories about disability can feel inspirational or paint your disabled voices or guests as needy or needing aid or pity. That is something that you should avoid.

SHAPIRO: Are we listening to them? Are we telling their story in a respectful way? Does the story get at real issues that are faced by a person with a disability? One way to do that is to make sure we center people with disabilities in a story, that we include their voices. And too often, stories about disabilities quote medical experts, association directors, parents of children with disabilities, without talking to a person with a disability.

EMILY ABSHIRE, PRODUCT EDITOR, NPR ONE: The world was built for people that are able-bodied, that don’t have the same restrictions or the same needs or lifestyle as someone who is disabled. So when we talk about ableism, we’re talking about the idea that we are looking at the world through a frame of mind that is not considering those people with disabilities. And so when we are thinking about who we’re telling a story to, I think it’s important to think about what our audience is actually made up of, that our audience has both able-bodied and disabled people in it.

LU: Other things to consider are the idioms and languages that you are using when reporting a story about disability or not. It is important to use precise and clear language. Avoid using idioms or language that are ableist in nature. Common examples include “turned a blind eye,” “blindspot,” “headcase,” “tone-deaf,” “crazy,” “wheelchair-bound.”

ABSHIRE: Being open to people’s accessibility needs is an important part of dismantling ableism. Make sure that when you are going about your reporting process, that you are also sensitive to those needs as you are conducting interviews or being a part of somebody’s life. The best way to go about this is just to ask a person and I would say that you should ask all of your subjects this because some disabilities are visible and some are invisible. So when you are collecting your information about your sources, I would encourage you to include in your correspondences, “Are there any accessibility needs that you have?” And you can list some examples such as interpreters, you know, a place to sit, things like that, just so they know what’s available to them, and it shows that you know what some of the needs of disabled people are.

SHAPIRO: These are important stories to tell. We shouldn’t be worried about or afraid to tell these stories. If we’re not sure, you just ask the person with a disability. They’re the best source of a lot of this information that we’re talking about in this video. They can tell you what to do about the language they prefer. They can tell you how they prefer to be interviewed. They can tell you about the important things in their lives.


Credits fade on to screen: Producer: Desmond LaFave. Editors: Audrey Nguyen, Desmond LaFave. Supervising Editors: Cheryl Thompson, Sara Richards. Music: “Crucial Facts” and “Curious Incident” Written by Philip Guyler, Courtesy of Audio Network.

Text on screen reads: “For more reporting tips, check out training.npr.org”

Des LaFave was a Training Team video intern.