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Monday, May 04, 2015

How Disability Gets Covered in the Media

My thesis in a recent article was that the relatively easy journey of the Americans with Disabilities Act through Congress (at least compared to laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964), combined with the large universe of people that it covered, sheds light on the ADA’s inability to reach some of its more transformative goals.  Part of this is the idea that most people outside the disability rights movement do not think about disability much at all, and when they do, they do not think about it in the civil rights terms that those within the movement do.

All of this has made me pay heightened attention to what stories about disability get covered, and what the coverage looks like.  Media both shapes and reflects societal perceptions.  One fairly consistent story line is greedy plaintiffs’ lawyers suing small businesses over access violations.  Here is a recent example, complete with a cartoon of an evil gangster-looking plaintiff in a wheelchair.  This is fairly representative of this coverage – people with disabilities are the bad guys, and small mom and pop businesses are the victims.  I see some variation of this same story just about every month in some newspaper or other news outlet.  It is not that this story does not raise an issue – there are certainly plaintiff’s attorneys who file abusive ADA lawsuits.  But there is a serious lack of balance here.  These articles hardly ever note that (a) the businesses are indeed non-compliant; (b) if they acknowledge that, they invariably cast these violations as minor (ask someone who uses a wheelchair why it matters that the pipe underneath a sink is insulated…) and (c) they rarely note that under federal law (the strongest in most states) does not even provide for damages, and that under the Supreme Court’s decision in Buckhannon, defendants can usually moot out any claim for attorneys’ fees by fixing the violation.

I am more optimistic about coverage in the emerging intersection of disability and technology.   For example, there is an open issue about to what extent private websites need to be accessible to users with disabilities under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Courts have split, and the Department of Justice is poised to issue some long awaited guidance on the topic.  More and more articles I see more contain a nuanced discussion of the issue.  More important for perceptions of disability, more regularly in media accounts the ideas of entrepreneurship and innovation and disability are being linked.  Creative companies find ways to serve their entire customer base, in ways that redound to everyone’s benefit. 

And finally, I was surprised that the recent coverage of Major League baseball player Josh Hamilton’s relapse with drug and alcohol abuse focused on his addiction as a chronic illness, not necessarily a character flaw.  (Full disclosure, I am a life-long Angels fan, and much more concerned about Hamilton’s huge contract and .739 OPS last season). 

Thanks again for the opportunity to visit this month.  I appreciate Howard’s and everyone’s work to keep this a vibrant community.

Posted by Michael Waterstone on May 4, 2015 at 09:58 AM | Permalink


I think it has to do with the idea (fairy tale?) of meritocracy that America largely sees as the only acceptable cultural goal. (And I think this ties in to the non-discrimination vs. affirmative help, but it's not the same.) There is no legitimate way to say that an individual black person should be denied opportunities in a zero-sum, winners at the top, meritocracy. But it's seen as more legitimate to say that about people disabilities, because, well, they are less able. I think it's the same reason that people defend the pay gap between men and women by noting that women take more time off for childbirth and child rearing. We could say it's unfair for that to be the case, but the logic of meritocracy says it's a choice for mothers to be set back in the race to the top. The same is true of how we treat racism - an *individual* black person cannot legitimately be held to less pay or opportunity, but correcting past societal transgressions to make racial outcomes more fair generally? That's not ok by the logic of meritocracy, because it requires lifting people above where they would otherwise compete.

So I think the cultural bias that hurts disability advocates is less about disability than the dedication to the idea of meritocracy generally, which in turn is responsible for many of society's ills.

Posted by: Andrew Selbst | May 11, 2015 9:51:25 AM

Brad, I completely agree. But there seem to be many people with disabilities who do quite well without affirmative accommodations, or at least with only the accommodations they provide for themselves or that are already ubiquitous (e.g., wheelchair accessible buildings).

I don't know much about this, but it seems like in addition to physical barriers, there are conscious and subconscious attitudes and norms about disability that are similar to the ones we see about race, gender, and sexual orientation. For example, I hear a lot of the problem of perceiving aggressive women or racial minorities as "uppity" or "loud" or "arrogant," I don't hear those same discussions about disability. Is it not a problem? Or is it dwarfed by discussions about accommodations, such as the need for ramps and braille?

The accommodation issue is also not itself unique. We are rightfully concerned that women do not rise in corporate America because of the burdens of motherhood and thus think about ways to accommodate and gauge success by how many Sheryl Sandbergs we see. But is disability accommodation so different?

People don't talk about Greg Abbott or David Tatel in the way they talk about female, African American, or openly gay politicians and judges. Maybe it's for the reasons you suggest -- people associate disability with affirmative accommodation? Or are there just not many disabled folks with the intellectual abilities needed to get there? I don't know what the answer is, but I think it's interesting that there is so much focus on other forms of diversity.

Posted by: Steve | May 5, 2015 8:27:16 PM

I don't want to offend but I think there's a qualitative difference in many peoples' minds.

In the US we have a blank slate-est ideology towards race and gender (this isn't the time or place to discuss whether or not that's accurate, the important thing is that it is a strong part of the culture). So if a company doesn't want to hire black people or if there aren't many black CEOs, it's a very uncomplicated road to concluding that there must be some terribly unfair discrimination going on.

Disability discrimination is a little different. While I've seen broad support for the concept of reasonable accommodations and everyone loves an overcoming adversity story, I think its easier for many people to see the other side of the story when the law requires some affirmative steps instead of just scrupulous non-discrimination. Right or wrong that trips up a right-to-be-let-alone instinct in the US public.

Posted by: brad | May 4, 2015 1:08:34 PM

Great post Michael. I've long been surprised about how the media and the progressive community treat disability so differently. In the last decade, there have been tremendous advancements in social norms about race, gender, and and sexual orientation. Not only do we care about legal protections, but we care about attitudes. People ask about social barriers to women, racial minorities, and LGBT folks advancing in corporate America. People discuss subconscious (or conscious) attitudes about these issues. And in the realm of identity politics, people trumpet CEOs, judicial nominees, cabinet secretaries, and other social leaders who are women, racial minorities, or LGBT, happy that theyare overcome challenges and can serve as role models. But we hardly ever hear the same discussions about disability; thinking about subconcious bias against the disabled; or excitement about a disabled CEO or federal judge.

Posted by: Steve | May 4, 2015 12:40:33 PM

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