Media’s Seasonal ‘Pity Party’

Four-year-old Beatriz at home on Christmas morning. Photo from www.buffalonews.com

Four-year-old Beatriz at home on Christmas morning. Photo from www.buffalonews.com

Serious breaking news is typically slow between Christmas Eve and the days following New Year’s, and that makes it difficult for editors who must fill daily TV news broadcasts and newspaper pages. Since the staples of the season — weather reports and holiday spending stories — take up only so much space and time, media outlets often turn to people with disabilities for seasonal “heartwarming, pity party” reports, which are pretty darn offensive.

I’ve sat through many newspaper editorial meetings where the news of the day was discussed, so I can tell you that editors love stories about the “downtrodden” disabled because they believe such stories reflect the true spirit of the holiday season.

Consider these headlines from various TV and newspaper reports during the Christmas 2013 season:

  • “A Special Christmas Day Homecoming for Beatriz”
  • “Washington Township Native Delivers Christmas to Disabled Grandmother of Eight”
  • “Disabled Girl Gets Her Christmas Wish of a New Bedroom”
  • “A Disabled Man’s Christmas Wish Goes Viral and the Response Will  Inspire You”
  • “The Magic of 13-Year-Old Michael ‘Mic’ Dinsmore’

Notice the emphasis on the words that drive so many of us nuts: “special,” “inspire,” “magic.” I sure don’t feel special or inspired, much less magical, when I read or hear these pieces. I’m sure the people the stories focus on have something to say, but you’d never know it because of all the schmaltz.

Beatriz, for example, was “born with severe disabilities and lives in a pediatric skilled-nursing facility.” And, the story explains: “All eyes – including TV and newspaper photo lenses – focused on an adorable sight, a 4-year-old girl trying to grasp a Fisher-Price toy and a multicolored blanket on Christmas morning in her family’s home. But the real joy was on the faces of her mother and grandmother, who were just beaming.”

One hopes all 4-year-olds are adorable, but the patronizing tone describing Beatriz and her family is much too sappy for me.

The piece about the Christmas wish that went viral started this way: “This is Dennis, who, as you can see, has spirit and enthusiasm that is hard to beat despite being mentally and physically disabled.” There’s that old stereotype again — if we’re disabled, we must be loaded with spirit or how else could we possibly survive?

And Michael ‘Mic’ Dinsmore is described as “a wheelchair-bound boy [who] takes a once-in-a-lifetime journey after a once-in-a-lifetime outpouring of generosity.” This story sensationalizes disability to the point where we never learn anything substantial about who Dinsmore is, as if having a disability trumps everything else about a person.

It’s true we like to feel warm and fuzzy during the holidays, but if it’s at the expense of the dignity of people with disabilities, then perhaps a hot toddy would do the trick without demeaning anyone.

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