Getting real about people with disabilities

As a former journalist and AP correspondent (I call myself “former” even though I still feel Portrait of young handicapped pilot showing tumbs up at office I have ink in my veins), I am struck by how powerful the media is in framing issues and portraying people. A new entry on mental illness in the AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, makes that point very clear.

The new entry directs reporters not to mention a specific diagnosis – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other disorder – unless it is germane to the story. This directive is in keeping with the general direction of AP style over the years.

The same instruction has been true for decades when identifying individuals of color. Their race is not to be mentioned unless it is relevant to the story.

Avoid stereotypes

Journalists are also advised against promoting stereotypes of people who have mental illnesses. They are to “avoid descriptions that connote pity,” and not use terms like insane, crazy, nuts or deranged.

The story on AP’s new directive in Disability Scoop, which bills itself as “the premier source for developmental disability news,” drew the following comment from reader Andrew Hidas:

“The fact that the AP style book is being updated in this fashion is but one more encouraging step on the road to recognizing the full humanity of people with disabilities. The arc of history is indeed bending in the right direction.”

Media on right path

In 2008, the AP updated its stylebook and eliminated the taboo term “mentally retarded.” The correct wording is now listed as “mentally disabled.”

These changes represent real progress in how the media frames people with disabilities. But we do have a distance to go.

If you read Special Olympics’ Ten Commandments on How to Communicate About People With Intellectual Disabilities, you’ll know why I say we’ve got more work to do.

The Ten Commandments urge communicators to refrain from stereotypes. For example, people with intellectual disabilities should not be described as eternal children. Instead, they should be portrayed in situations where they are interacting with all kinds of people and in all kinds of normal everyday situations – such as shopping at the mall, having coffee with friends or at work.

I’m glad to see my former employer The Associated Press moving in the right direction. Since the AP is one of the world’s largest news organizations, it can only bode well for all people who have some form of disability. I only wish that I and my colleagues had been more enlightened during our days with this influential wire service.