Writing And Reporting About People With Disabilities

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Reporting about persons with disabilities in the media demands special skills. In this report, PAUL UWADIMA, espouses the skills using the book, “Guidelines: How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities.”

The writing and reportage of issues affecting Persons Living With Disabilities (PLWDs) should follow a pattern that will not diminish the people with disabilities or stigmatize them.

According to the WHO/World Bank World Report on Disability in 2011, one billion people or 15 per cent of the world population experience some form of disability and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. The Report revealed that one-fifth of the estimated global total or between 110million and 190million people experience significant disabilities.

The same report indicated that about 25million Nigerians had at least one disability while 3.6million of these had very significant difficulties in functioning.  Meanwhile the 2006 Nigerian census reported 3,253,169 people with disabilities or 2.32 per cent of the total population of 140, 431, 790 in that year.

However, the Director of the Welfare Department, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development (FMWASD) Jummai Mohammed said, “Nigeria has about 19million persons living with one disability or the other”. Jummai Mohammed spoke last year during a conference to mark the International Day of Persons With Disabilities.

Whatever figures that one may choose as the “right” figure or number of the persons living with disabilities in Nigeria, what is clear is that the numbers are significant and cannot be ignored. Most importantly those who write and report about them need to be guided on the most acceptable ways to portray their conditions.

This is where the significance of  the book “Guidelines: How To Write and Report About People With Disabilities” based on a national survey of disability organisations and sponsored by the US Embassy.

    Abuja can be situated

The Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy Abuja, Nigeria, Laurence J. Socha in the forward of the book said, “The Embassy of the United States of America in Nigeria is proud to collaborate with the Knowledge For The Blind Initiative to reproduce Guidelines: How To Write and Report About Persons with Disabilities. Our hope is that this book will assist journalists and others to informatively document the stories of those living with disabilities.

Their work contributes to the greater goal to institute legal standards to ensure the protection of Nigerians with disabilities from discrimination and to build a stronger, more inclusive society”. The Cultural Affairs Officer wrote that the story of individuals with disabilities, with its challenges and opportunities, must be told with respect and thoughtfulness.

The book noted that writers, editors, reporters and other communicators strive to use the most accurate terminology about people with disabilities. “However, inaccurate, archaic and offensive expressions are still commonly used, perpetuating negative stereotypes and beliefs about people with disabilities. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair-an objective fact-is often described as wheelchair-bound, a subjective description that implies victimhood. As one wheelchair user put it, ‘I personally am not “bound” by my wheelchair. It is a very liberating device that allows me to work, play, maintain a household, connect with family and friends and have a life.’

Below are some of the guidelines contained in the book on the latest terminology preferred by people with disabilities on the eight edition of the book.

Portrayal Issues

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities. That said, people with disabilities are like every

other human being-they have strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, hopes and dreams. Like other minority group they don’t want to be stereotyped when their stories are told. By following these guidelines, you can portray people with disabilities in an accurate and objective manner.

Put The Person First, Not His or Her Disability

Use person with a disability, woman with multiple sclerosis or a child who has an intellectual disability. This “person first language” puts the focus on individuals, not their functional limitations. Labelling a person ( for example, an autistic) dehumanizes him and equates a person with a condition. Think people first, too, for indicating disability groups, such as people who have cerebral palsy.

Emphasize Abilities, Not Limitations For example, uses a wheelchair or uses a communication device rather than confined to a wheelchair or unable to speak. In reality, wheelchairs and other assistive devices represent independence for their users, not a burden. To emphasize capabilities, avoid negative words that portray the person as passive or suggest a lack of something, such as victim, invalid or defective. While the term disability itself implies a negative, it is the most objective term we have in English.

Do Not Focus On A Disability Unless It Is Essential To A Story Avoid tear-jerking human interest stories about incurable diseases, congenital disabilities or severe injury. Focus instead on issues that affect the quality of life for those same individuals, such as accessible housing and transportation, affordable health care, employment opportunities and discrimination. Focus on personal characteristics that aren’t related to disability, such as artist, professional, mother, etc.

Bypass Condescending Euphemisms

Terms such as special, handicapable, differently abled and challenged reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities. While special is used in the names of some educational programmes and organisations, the use of special needs is offensive to many adults with disabilities, who want to be treated like everyone else in their community. Special also implies a paternalistic need to be taken care of, which is frequently not true. Just say children with disabilities.

Do Not Portray Successful People With Disabilities As Heroic Overachievers Or Long-Suffering Saints

Every human faces challenges in life. Even though the public may find such portrayals inspirational, these stereotypes raise false expectations for people with disabilities.

Avoid Sensationalizing and Negative Labelling Saying afflicted with, crippled with, victim of or suffers from portrays individuals with disabilities as helpless objects of pity and charity. State the facts in neutral terms saying a person who has AIDS. Avoid emotional descriptors such as unfortunate or pitiful.

Do Not Equate Disability With Illness People with disabilities can be healthy, though they may have chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. People who had polio and experienced after-effects have post-syndrome; they are not currently experiencing the active phase of the virus. Also, do not imply disease if a person’s disability resulted from anatomical or physiological damage (for example, a person with spina bifida).

Finally, do not refer to people with disabilities as patients unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion, or if they are referenced in the context of a clinical setting.

Respect The Person

Do not use offensive words such as retard, freak, lame, subnormal, vegetable and imbecile. If you maintain the dignity and integrity of each individual, there is no need to panic about being politically correct. When appropriate, you may ask a person how she prefers you to describe her disability. While some common phrases can be hurtful, such as blind as a bat, it’s fine to use everyday expressions like See you later.

In reporting persons with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) the correct terms for describing persons with such condition is “Say person or student with ADD. Do not use hyper or lazy”.

Similarly persons with Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) should be appropriately described as “Child with autism or Asperger’s syndrome or person on the spectrum”. Do not say autistic child.

While describing a person that is blind, say “Boy who is blind, girl who has low vision or man who is legally blind.”

In writing or reporting about the deaf say “Woman who is deaf or boy who is hard of hearing”. Never use deaf and dumb. Also do not use Down person to describe persons with Down syndrome. “Say person with Down syndrome.

When reporting disfigurement, a state referred to as physical changes caused by burns, trauma, disease or congenital conditions, journalists and other communicators should not say “burn victim”. Rather say “burn survivor”.

Those reporting or writing about Psychiatric disability should describe people with such condition as “person with a psychiatric disability or mental illness”. Avoid words such as crazy, maniac, lunatic, schizo and psycho, because these words are offensive and should never be applied to people with mental health conditions.

The guideline described Post-polio syndrome as a condition that affects some persons who have had poliomyelitis (polio) long after recovery from the disease. It is characterized by new muscle weakness,  joint and muscle pain and fatigue. While reporting persons living with Post-polio syndrome, say “Person with post-polio syndrome.”

Do not use polio victim

It is hoped that journalists and others would take advantage of this guidelines and write and speak about the persons living with disabilities using the appropriate terms. Since words are things they ought to be used appropriately to avoid negative impacts that wrong use of words create on persons with disabilities.