Ethics Case Studies | The Media School

The “super-crip” stereotype

Press victimization of disabled people

When you report stories about people with disabilities, do you inadvertently victimize them by using stereotypes? How should you handle these stories?

By Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is editor of The Disability Rag, Louisville, KY, and of Reporting on Disability: Feature and Issues.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 1989), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


“Physicist Stephen Hawking is confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner in his own body,” began a February 8, 1988, Time magazine piece on the world’s leading theoretical scientist.

If Hawking were black, any mawkish reference to race in a lead would bring outraged charges from civil rights groups. But reporters know better than to call attention to race – or gender. Yet despite gains in rights for disabled people, the press continues to sensationalize when doing stories in which a disability is involved to the exclusion of real news. Features on “courageous” individuals surmounting handicaps – we call them “in-spite-of stories” – greatly outnumber disability issues reporting.

It’s not just the approach to disability that’s unethical. The copy’s awful, too. Reporters flaunt demeaning and inaccurate cliches; “afflicted” and “victim” are routine. Reporters and editors like the impact; they defend it as “powerful” writing. But it makes most disabled people today cringe.

Journalists, they say, have no more right to turn them into objects of pity with such phrases as “virtual prisoner in his own body” than they have to turn women into sex objects.

Sometimes, of course, the disability is the story. Wheelchair athletes push cross-country to raise funds for rehabilitation groups. Charities approach reporters with stories about clients made good. A recent Canadian study suggests the soppiest stories were hawked to the press by groups serving disabled people! What’s an editor to do?

Practice good journalism. Is there really a story in the event that merits reporting? Or is it merely a tug at the heartstrings? If it does deserve coverage, what’s the issue, the angle that can open up the story rather than the same old tired “in-spite-of” approach?

So what’s wrong with an occasional tug at the heartstrings? There’s been too much of it. Journalists repeatedly exploit what they see as the “interesting” angle – the disability. The “super-crip” approach has become the staple, comparable to the “credit-to-the-race” angle once epidemic in stories involving black people.

California Angels pitcher Jim Abbott has felt the frustration ever since CBS News’ Charles Osgood, back in 1987, refused to allow him to be a regular pitcher, over Abbott’s on-air protests. Press focus on Abbott’s lack of a right hand has continued.

Abbott has put it this way. “It seems weird to me sometimes that I’m a first-round pick and yet . . . since I turned professional the only thing anyone wants to talk about is playing with one hand.”

Reporters know it’s wrong to interject their feelings into a news story. Yet the “in-spite-of story” – like use of “afflicted” or “courageous” (even when the disabled person is doing the most ordinary of things like raising a family or going to school) – comes from reporters’ attitudes and pre-ordained angles.

Where are the reporters who are listening to disabled people rather than using them merely to shore up their own beliefs about what it’s like to be disabled? Where are the reporters interested in allegations of abuse by welfare and rehabilitation agencies or stories on the impact the Fair Housing Amendments Act will have on the lives of disabled residents?

Disability rights is not a heartwarming feature story and disabled individuals should not be used for inspirational sagas. If they’re newsmakers, they should be covered like anyone else – the disability noted matter-of-factly only when its relevant to the story. If they’re not newsmakers, why are they being covered? Because their lives are unusual? If so, we should ask why, looking for the real story behind the “unusual.”

Typically, it’s lack of opportunity, barriers, or discrimination. Those are stories. And they should be investigated and reported as they are for any other minority.