Recently, I have written two articles on problematic media coverage of innovations designed for disabled people. The first was on the viral support among predominantly able-bodied people for a stair climbing wheelchair and a standing scooter. The second about Nike’s supposed shoes for disabled people which are actually only available in men’s sizes. In both cases none of the products being talked about are looked at critically so their flaws or limitations are never exposed.
These stories just become part of the able-bodied saviour genre of inspiration porn and inevitably do more harm than good because it leaves people who are unfamiliar with disability issues with an inaccurate assessment of what barriers still exist and the limitations on existing innovation.
I have therefor decided to provide a guide to talking about innovations for disabled people that will allow media creators to be more objective and hopefully limit the harm done by lazy inspiration porn inspired journalism or content creation.
I will use the two stories that I have already covered to show where more questions needed to be asked and more information given.
The first and possibly most pointed criticism I have of these kinds of stories is the framing. These are rarely meant to be true news stories. They are intended to be feel good click bait. This framing does not lead to a critical engagement with the content because such engagement might interfere with the intended warm and fuzzy feelings the viewer is supposed to have.
This is a problem of inspiration porn generally and it is harmful. The stories that impact disabled people’s lives should be told and they should never be diminished to the story that poses a balm to all the other bad news that surrounds it.
Doing that is both dehumanizing and perpetuates harmful stereotypes about disabled people which does not lead to warm and fuzzy endings for the subject of your feel good moment. (for more on the issues of inspiration porn go here and here)
A good way to gauge whether a story about disability is news worthy is to ask these two questions.
- If the subject of this story was replaced by a nondisabled person, would this still be news? If the answer is no, then you may want to reconsider it.
- Who is the target audience, is it everyone (this includes disabled people) or is it meant to appeal predominantly to nondisabled people? If the latter you should definitely think twice before running with it. If you are unsure, you should consult with disabled people to see how they feel about the story (the plurality of people is really important here)
Disabled people need to see stories that impact their lives in mainstream media. It is useful in both showing that media understands that the disabled experience is part of the broader human experience. Telling disability stories well also gives a more accurate representation of the disability experience to those who don’t live it, so disability stories can and do have universal relevance. They just need to be told in a more critical way.
In this article, I’m dealing specifically with how to cover innovations and technology but these ideas should be applied to all media coverage of disability.
Once you have determined that you do not want to ad another piece of retrograde inspiration porn to the world and that your story has actual merit. How do you do that story justice? The answer is ask questions. Don’t just accept the first answer.
Take the story about the Nike shoes which were widely glorified as shoes for disabled people. People who wrote about this story should have asked the following questions.
- Are these shoes really available to all disabled people? Look at different conditions that might require specialized footwear, is this shoe as universal as advertised. Are these shoes available to men, women and children?
- Does this shoe accommodate the orthotics that are common among disabled people? Things like heel lifts, AFOs, or Bioness sensors.
- Ask why any limitations found from the first two questions were not addressed by the company.
- Ask if the company plans on addressing these issues.
- Ask why a single company is addressing this issue.
- Ask other companies why they aren’t providing specialized shoes.
- Does a company providing a long overdo product deserve to be treated as heroic?
- Does the limited useability of their product indicate that the company was genuinely trying to help or just get good press?
In reality these shoes were only available in men’s styles and sizes which means that anyone who doesn’t fit those sizes cannot benefit from them. This adds up to the majority of disabled people as men and women with smaller feet as well as children were entirely left out. Nike however, still got a lot of great press and was positioned as a hero. I found no mainstream criticism of the limited usefulness of the shoes.
Attempts to engage with people who created these stories either resulted in no response or an acknowledgement but no change in content.
I did successfully get a response from the person who curated this Upworthy post on the Nike shoes.
She acknowledges the limitations but didn’t change or remove the story from Upworthy. It still has quotes like,
“Nike proves that you can create a product designed for the needs of a smaller community that has mass appeal as well.”
The reality that Nike failed to deliver on its universal claims and instead only serviced a very small portion of the disabled population, isn’t really in line with Upworthy’s standard of feel good or inspirational blurbs. It is however disappointing that they would leave the story in its clearly inaccurate state even when faced with that inaccuracy (the fact that this story is blatant inspiration porn and that Upworthy is a huge purveyor of disability inspiration porn is another post altogether).
In the case of technology like stair climbing wheelchairs and standing scooters, media creators should be asking questions like,
- Is this invention going to be marketed or will it stay a university engineering project?
- If this device is marketed who will be responsible for paying for it.
- Does this device answer the needs of everyone who has difficulty climbing stairs/navigating narrow corners?
- Is this really the the best and most comprehensive way to address physical accessibility barriers?
- What the the popularization of these devices mean for people whose barriers to access are not addressed by these devices?
These questions are far from comprehensive but they are a good start in contextualizing innovations for disabled people. Using them as a spring board for your story will help you have a more nuanced and realistic representation of the facts and their actual impact.
I will conclude with one final and utterly crucial piece of advice.
Always include the voices of actual disabled people, free from the spin of business advertising. Don’t just have people who talk about disabled people and the impact a given product will have. Ask actual disabled people. The wider variety of disabled voices you get, the better.