In August 2016, The New York Times kicked off a new weekly opinion series dedicated exclusively to publishing essays by disabled writers. Its first offering was “Becoming Disabled,” by Rosemarie Garland Thompson, a foundational voice in the field of disability studies. She mined her personal experience to explore themes from societal perceptions of disability to the disabled community’s lack of a collective identity to whether being disabled is a physical condition or a mental construct. “The one thing most people do know about being disabled is that they don’t want to be that,” she wrote, making it clear from the beginning that the “Disability” series, as The Times would call it, was going to delve far deeper into the disability experience than mainstream media typically does.
Over the next two years, the series published essays by a mother with dwarfism who reflects on the passing of her disability onto two of her children, an incomplete spinal-cord-injured Rhodes Scholar whose professor suggested that he may have played the pity card to win the prestigious scholarship, and an eighth-grader with muscular dystrophy who authored a children’s book, only to have publishers reject it because the wheelchair-using main character was too happy.
There are dozens more like this, essays that pull you out of your own perspective and give you a view through someone else’s. Reading the archive of the “Disability” series is a lesson in the sheer size and diversity of the disability community — including those with mobility, visual, auditory and cognitive impairments — and also the breadth of talent and experience it fosters.
The Inner Workings
The series was born out of a 2016 meeting of The New York Times op-ed staff. Peter Catapano, an editor with the paper since 2000, pitched a series of essays written by and about people with disabilities. Through the course of his work at the Opinion Section, he’d managed various special projects featuring voices from specific groups, from members of the military to people with anxiety — “people who have unique personal experiences,” Catapano says. “I was really struck by the lack of voices in the mainstream media. Editorially, I thought it was something important to cover.”
Ben Mattlin is a freelance writer and the author of two books whose work has appeared in a variety of major media outlets, including NEW MOBILITY. He has written two essays for the Disability series, in addition to a number of other pieces for The New York Times. Mattlin, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, sees the Disability series as a good example of the media’s slowly changing attitude toward disability and disabled writers. “I think it’s gotten easier,” he says of getting disability-related stories published. “In the old days, you really had to prove to people that there was a story besides the medical perspective. [The media is] a lot more open than it used to be, but it still has a long way to go.”
Mattlin is a bit conflicted about the premise of a special project on disability, wondering if it’s not “ghettoizing disability perspective.” That’s a valid concern, one anchored in the tendency to try to put disability in its own box, rather than view it for what it is — an interconnected piece of the human experience that affects all members and all aspects of society. “I feel like if I submit a piece to The Times, it’s assumed it has to fit into the disability column,” Mattlin says.
Catapano agrees that the disability perspective should be better integrated across the media, an issue that often comes down to employment. “I believe that having people with disabilities as integrated members of the newsroom and on staff is crucial,” he says. “These things get better when people with disabilities are involved in day-to-day operations.”
New media outlets like HuffPost and Teen Vogue have done a good job of bringing on contributors with disabilities, but it will take more staff positions at media outlets from large to small that better reflect the demographics of disability in America before we start to pull disability out of its box. “Disability perspective is a human perspective,” says Mattlin. “Our news is relevant to everybody.”
This NM column spends enough time dissecting the various ways in which media botches coverage of disability that it’s refreshing to have a series like this to hold up as a positive example. And what The New York Times has gotten right with “Disability” is as much about who is doing the writing as what they are writing about. Catapano describes the project as “a platform for people with disabilities to speak about themselves instead of having others write about them.”
There have been writers with disabilities who have made a mainstream name for themselves and had their work published in the most famous media outlets in the country, but they are rare, and there has never been an instance where so many voices from the disability community have been given such a powerful microphone to talk specifically about issues related to disability. In an increasingly fractured media landscape, major newspapers no longer hold the same monopoly on content that they used to, but in many ways, The New York Times is still the paper of record. At the end of 2017, The Times announced that it had 130 million monthly readers and over 3.5 million paid subscribers. That’s not a platform, it’s a bullhorn.
Of the wheelchair-using voices who’ve grabbed the Times bullhorn, there are many who we have either covered here at NEW MOBILITY or whom we have been fortunate enough to publish, including: Sylvia Longmire, Elizabeth Jameson and Catherine Monahon, Mattlin, Emily Ladau, and Henry Claypool. They’ve used the space to explore topics as varied as how the sharing economy is failing those with mobility impairments, the relationship between physical touch and intimacy, ambivalence to medical advancements that may “cure” disability, online dating as a wheelchair user and how the coming autonomous vehicle revolution must embrace accessibility. Their essays show that disability touches all aspects of society. For mainstream media outlets, a series like “Disability” should be one step in the march to include disability perspective in all manner of coverage.
“Disability” finished up as a weekly series at the end of 2018. It will continue publishing essays, though on a more intermittent basis. A book, About Us: Essays from The New York Times Disability Series, is scheduled to be released later this year. The New York Times has proven that there’s already a vast talent pool capable of producing quality, disability-centric content and an audience to consume it. If other media outlets would like to make their coverage more reflective of the way disability affects the human experience, we’re sure the National Center on Disability and Journalism would be happy to help.