Sunday, October 10, 1999

Awards honor media focus on disabilities

Enquirer contributor

        NEW YORK — When I started writing about disability issues in the mid 1980s, I knew I was taking a major risk. My writing career, to that point, had been built on writing about everything but disability, and few editors purchasing my words had any clue they were conversing and corresponding with a writer who happened to use Braille.

        Sometimes, we do things because, in a moral sense, we have no choice, and that's how the business of addressing disabilities in print began for me. Newspaper stories about disabilities were still mostly maudlin or heroic, and what I wanted to do was just plain write about disability as a fact of life, one that affects 54 million Americans.

        In 1990 (the same year that the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law), the National Easter Seals Society created an event to recognize journalists for portraying people with disabilities in a positive way. Called the EDI Awards (for Equality Dignity and Independence), these accolades have gone through the years to many of our most familiar network news programs and national publications. The biggest thrill, perhaps, is to see how “hip” disability rights has become for the mainstream press.

        The 10th annual EDI Awards were presented Monday night here at the Marriott World Trade Center. Winners included the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, USA Today, Inside Edition, Nightline, Sesame Street and many others.

        The print and broadcast pieces honored featured children and adults with mental retardation, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, blindness, deafness, a variety of spinal cord injuries and more. For many journalists honored, the winner was the only story ever done on such an issue and, as many acceptance speeches reflected, compiling the stories were often life-changing events.

Intimate knowledge
        For me, the journalist who happened not to just write about disability but to actually live with one, the acceptance speeches were promises of a better future. Michael Ryan, writer and contributing editor for Parade magazine, summed up best what it means to cross the able to disabled line. Supporting himself on an orthopedic cane, Mr. Ryan explained that a recent accident made it necessary for him to use a wheelchair for the past three months.

        Suddenly, he recounted, he was seen and treated as a different species altogether. People would ask his wife what he wanted. “And I'd think, "Wait a minute! I went to college. I can talk. I'm a human being.'”

        Those of us who live not just three months but every day with a visible disability know all too well what he was talking about. To have a disability is to be perceived as other-than and less-than. The power of media can change that imposed inferiority.

        As the evening's host, John Hockenberry, put it, “We still have movies like Something About Mary that ridicule disability. “On the other hand, we now have a growing number of journalists — who are saying "These are real human beings.'”

Small steps forward
        Change takes time. As I looked around the room, saw video clips, heard moving acceptances and read snippets of winning stories, I knew that change is indeed happening.

        A special award celebrating 30 years of commitment to diversity and disability went to Sesame Street, where children of different races and abilities have always been daily fare. I have always been a fan of the PBS program, knowing that there kids will see a child in a wheelchair, an adult using sign language, people of all races — all as equal threads in the fabric of the neighborhood.

        Michael Loman, Sesame Street executive producer, summed up the way the world should be when he said, “For 30 years, we've been showing children of all kinds, all races, all abilities.... They all have a place on Sesame Street.... Everyone is valued, everyone is cared for and everyone gets a seat at the table.”

        Sometimes, I am truly proud to be part of the American press.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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