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Change language & include disabled people in the media

2 December 2016

Running from 22 November to 22 December, UK Disability History Month 2016 is all about language and how language is used to describe disabled people and the language disabled people use about themselves.

The NUJ Disabled Members Council (DMC) is an active part of the NUJ’s democratic structures, is self-organised and involves disabled media workers who lead the union’s campaigns to improve society's view of disabled people. 

The DMC believe there has been an increasing politicisation of disability benefits by the UK government which is reflected by the prevalence of suspicious and negative discourse about disabled people in society and in the media. According to DMC, disabled people have been increasingly reconstructed as benefit frauds or a burden on the state, and this has influenced public perception and attitudes about disability.

Despite the positive surge of events and reporting around the Paralympics, there still needs to be improvements to media reports about the lives of disabled people.

Ann Galpin, chair of NUJ Disabled Members’ Council, said:

"In one breath we are apparently malingerers and fraudsters and in the next, an inspiration to all. Such a highly polarised view of disability consistently misrepresents the disabling barriers we deal with on a day to day basis. The language used to talk about disabled people has the ability to oppress or empower a significant proportion of the population.
"As journalists, we are responsible for reporting fairly and accurately on disability; and as NUJ members to adhere to our ethical code of conduct and reporting guidelines."

Award-winning journalist Ros Wynne-Jones said:

"As journalists, we know the most important questions are the ones below the surface. So when someone comes to us with the story of Mrs Jones who has 19 children and is milking the benefits system or, say, disabled badge holder Ted running a marathon, we need to ask not just how true the story is but also where does it come from – and whose purpose does it serve? Welfare reform has been a deliberately complex and opaque process. It’s easy for politicians to rely on the fact that many journalists don’t exactly understand how Personal Independence Payments work, or who is in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment Support Allowance. Shamefully, it has often been left to disabled people to do this investigative and interrogative work themselves, through their own blogs and websites. I value these colleagues immensely, and yet they are unpaid and often exhausted by their disabilities. They should have champions right across the media standing up for their rights."

Natasha Hirst, disabled members' representative on the NUJ's National Executive Council, said:

"As journalists, it is incumbent upon us to be a voice for people who otherwise may not be heard. In order to fairly and accurately present the issues affecting different groups of people, we must embrace diversity in journalism itself. We need more disabled journalists contributing to mainstream reporting."

By proactively tapping into the rich diversity of life experience and skills that disabled journalists can offer, not only can we report sensitively and fairly on disability but we can also include the insights of disabled people across all other topics. This holds particular importance in response to the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), celebrated annually on 3 December around the world.

The NUJ continues to call on media employers to value and recruit disabled journalists. The proportion of people reporting themselves as disabled is around 5 per cent of the workforce in the creative industries. This is considerably lower than the recognised figure of 16 per cent of the working age population in the UK who are disabled or have a long term illness. Comparing the figures available shows there is a significant employment gap for disabled people in journalism. The NUJ is campaigning to challenge this unfairness and inequality.

More information:

UK disability history month information

International Day of Disabled People is Saturday 3 December

The social model of disability recognises that disability is caused by disabling barriers in society such as negative attitudes, lack of physical access and lack of accessible information, that excludes disabled people from participating in society and accessing the same opportunities as non-disabled people. Viewing disability from the perspective of the social model and not the medical model, drastically alters the language used in constructing narratives and reporting on disability issues. The NUJ DMC adopts the social model of disability.

EHRC information and inquiry into disability-related harassment

NUJ ethical code of conduct

NUJ disability handbook and DMC information

Tags: , disability, disabled members, disabled members council, ethics, code of conduct, reporting, equality