Freelance Journalist

June 29, 2023 (Updated )

There are more than one billion disabled people globally and approximately 16 million of them live in the UK. Disability is often referred to as the world’s largest minority group — yet the community is still poorly represented in the media, if at all. And, when disabled voices are heard, the overwhelming majority of these stories still contain gross stereotypes, sensationalism, or a focus on trauma.

How we tell stories about disabled experiences matters. Bad reporting directly affects how non-disabled people treat us in the real world, from people in our daily lives to politicians writing policy. At the same time, being misrepresented in reporting can have a significant impact on overall well-being. Compassion, accuracy, and fairness should be at the heart of all journalism — and it’s important we get it right.

Journalists don’t have to be disabled or have an encyclopaedic knowledge of disabled realities to report on disability — but we still need to be wary of stereotypes and allowing assumptions to skew our reportage. All journalists, at all levels of our careers, need to be open to learning more and responsible reporting — here’s how to make a start.

How Are Disabled People Represented In The Media?

Right now, depictions of disability are often limited to a series of stereotypes and sensationalism. Inspiration porn and trauma porn are the biggest culprits.

Coined by disability activist Stella Young, inspiration porn refers to the portrayal of disabled people as inspirational, partly — or solely — because of their disability. Speaking at TEDxSydney, she explained: “I use the term porn deliberately because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another people.” In other words, content is made for a non-disabled audience to feel good, rather than telling an accurate story.

stella young, a woman with blonde hair and of short stature in a wheel chair, talks on a red stage to a filled room
Stella Young talking about inspiration porn at TEDxSydney (Image Credit: TEDxSydney/Flicker)

“We’re not real people, we’re there to inspire. I’m not here to inspire you, I’m here to tell you that we’ve been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing, and to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional.”

Similarly, trauma porn signals when a typically marginalised group’s pain is spotlighted to provide entertainment. You’ll usually see these stories crop up in red tops, real-life titles, or churned out by press agencies.

It also ties in closely with problems of objectification, where disabled people are effectively dehumanised by making their disability the sole focus of the story, rather than portraying them as a nuanced person. At the same time, journalists often infantilise disabled people — typically, this happens when disabled sources are passed over in favour of speaking to carers and parents, thus dismissing the voice of the disabled person which the reports are based upon.

Stereotypes are also woven throughout the narrative — for example, depicting disabled people as burdensome to carers and a drain on society.

Journo Resources
“Much like with the word ‘fat’, there’s this idea that saying ‘disabled’ is a dirty word, yet so many disabled [people] would rather that than be made out that we’re this weird ‘other’.”
Emma Flint, freelance journalist with disability

Most prevalent, though, are the archetypes of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ disabled people. Some disabled people are lauded for “overcoming” their challenges and celebrated for essentially managing to live a non-disabled life. Conversely, there are those who “succumb” to their disability and are not able to fulfil societal expectations by combating their “misfortune”.

Exploring Historical Views Of Disability

To understand how we ended up with such misinformation around disability, we can look to history.

In the past, disabilities were most often seen as a shameful impairment. Only very occasionally were some disabilities considered auspicious — in India, a visually impaired child is said to bring good luck to their family, while physical military injuries were seen as ‘honourable’. These are very much anomalies and disabilities were largely viewed in a very negative light.

As early as 2,000 BC in Rome, there was infanticide of disabled children, and people who were “mentally defective” were prohibited from marrying. It became common practice in 1500s Europe for doctors to “cure” mental illnesses by drilling holes in their patients’ skulls in order to let out the devil or evil air. At best, people with disabilities were seen as weak and pitiable, as seen in the depiction of Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Headline: Why do Disabled People Have to be Tiny Tims at Christmas? Intro: Charles Dickens introduced the young Tim Cratchit to the world generations ago. Ever since, the character has been an emblem of A Christmas Carol.
A piece by Melissa Parker for The Unwritten. (Image Credit: Screenshot)

Nowadays, we have laws protecting disabled people from discrimination — namely the Equality Act 2010. As a result, it can be tempting to think everything is fine. But scratch beneath the surface and there’s a lot of work to be done — and journalists are pivotal to creating real change.

What Needs To Change?

Improving depictions of marginalised groups in the media starts with increased representation in newsrooms. Since 2016 the proportion of journalists with a work-limiting disability has increased from 10 percent to 22 percent, but this doesn’t tell the full story. Disabled journalists still face significant barriers entering the newsroom and statistics like these don’t show the types of jobs people are working in.

Founder and editor of Lacuna Voices Punteha van Terheyden says: “I generally dislike most headlines in mainstream titles because they are often sensationalist, clickbait-y, and largely insensitive.

“It sounds so simple, but inclusivity has to be at the core of the commissioning every time. [Editorial] line-ups need to be representative across all dimensions — age, gender, sexuality, disability, race, etc. Not just because of their disability, but because of what they’re doing.”

Question Your Approach: Ask These Simple Questions Every Time You Write A Story

• Am I interested in this person as a complete human being?

• Do I think they’re interesting because of what they’re doing, or because they’re doing it while disabled?

• Am I depicting them as a two-dimensional person with a disability or a nuanced person?

• Am I sensationalising this person’s experience?

• Am I reducing them to a hero or victim narrative?

Additionally, key players in the industry have to stop limiting disabled reporters to disability coverage. “I see far too much opinion work where the writer has, quite transparently, been asked to filet themselves for narrative gold,” says freelance journalist John Loeppky. “Let disabled reporters learn the skills of reporting on a boring council meeting, for example, and I think you have a stronger industry.”

Editors and hiring managers need to prioritise flexible and remote work opportunities to ensure disabled journalists feel confident applying, as well as making the application process fully accessible by including audio and text descriptions. There should also be more intersectional representation of the disabled community — and it’s vital to remember that not all disabled people have the same life experiences. There are many people and stories to include.

Freelance journalist Izzie Jani-Friend adds: “I think there needs to be a more open discussion about disability and just a better understanding that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility and making the industry more diverse. Just listen to us, individually.

“I’ve had people say, ‘You can’t accommodate every single person’s needs’, but if [a hiring manager] listened to each person’s needs, [they’d see] they are actually pretty basic and don’t cost a lot of money.”

Journo Resources
“I’ve had people say, ‘You can’t accommodate every single person’s needs’, but if [a hiring manager] listened to each person’s needs, [they’d see] they are actually pretty basic and don’t cost a lot of money.”
Izzie Jani-Friend, freelance journalist

Paying Attention To The Words We Use

It’s up to all journalists to improve coverage of disability and disabled people — one of the key barriers to accuracy is language. Terms such as ‘special needs’, ‘specially abled’, ‘differently abled’, and ‘handicapped’ attempt to put a positive spin on disability, to pacify the world into seeing disabled people as ‘just like them’.

But why should disabled people be portrayed as just like non-disabled people when we are not? What disabled people do deserve is to be treated with respect in our own right. In non-disabled efforts to make disabilities more palatable, our lives have been twisted into platforms of inspiration or trauma for the non-disabled masses.

Shying away from the language of disability only feeds the stigma. If you cannot use the word “disability” without awkwardness or shame, then do not report on the topic.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Punteha van Terheyden (L) and Izzie Jani-Friend (R)

For freelance journalist Emma Flint, inappropriate or outdated terminology needs to be tackled immediately. “It isn’t always the reporting but the language around disabilities that can impact me more, such as when reports refer to [being] able-bodied as the contrary to being disabled — but I’m able-bodied and I’m disabled,” she shares.

Flint adds: “Much like with the word ‘fat’, there’s this idea that saying ‘disabled’ is a dirty word, yet so many disabled journalists, myself included, would rather that than be made out that we’re this weird ‘other’.”

Some examples of inappropriate language include but are not limited to: ‘tone-deaf’, ‘wheelchair-bound’, ‘psycho’, ‘crazy’ and ‘special needs’. All of these terms perpetuate historical slurs and negative images — and they should be avoided in all reports, whether talking about disability or not.

For example, people aren’t “wheelchair-bound”  — because for wheelchair users, a wheelchair is a tool of empowerment, not a prison. Always use ‘able-bodied’ in the correct context, and not as an antonym for ‘disabled’. And, remember not all disabled people’s stories are the same — make sure you’re accurate and inclusive with your images and represent all types of disability, whether you’re reporting on a story about disability or not.

Ableist Language Watch: Common Phrases To Avoid

Specially-abled / Handicapped → Disabled / Disability

Wheelchair-bound Wheelchair user

Confined / Bed-bound Chronically ill / Fatigued

Crazy / Psycho / Mental Mental health

Overcoming disability / In spite of disability  You’re not strong in spite of being disabled, you’re disabled and strong

The disabled → Disabled people

As a reporter, you should ask the interviewee for their preference on how they wish to be described. Never make assumptions — or assume that disability is relevant to the story. While some people prefer identity-first language — for example, ‘a disabled person’ rather than ‘a person with disability’ — others prefer to have the disability mentioned after. It is up to you as a journalist to represent your interviewees correctly.

When approaching a real-life feature, you have the responsibility to represent that person’s story accurately, without using stereotypes.

Tell the story honestly. Consult your case studies and ask how they want to be represented and, above all, do not undo all your hard work by allowing a sensationalist headline to take over the story. Prioritise quotes from disabled folks instead of relying on carers of disabled people to provide all the insights.

Finally, when it comes to opinion writing, stay in your lane. If there’s an issue impacting the lives of disabled people and you are not disabled, do not take up space by writing about it. It’s time to let disabled folks get to the front of the queue.

Simple Dos and Don’ts To Remember:


• Avoid the easy sensationalist sell;

• Include disabled voices of all experiences; do not limit our experiences to a stereotype;

• In-depth research when covering disability;

• Hire disabled writers, producers, and editors;

• Show the full nuanced experience of disability;

• Highlight human rights abuses. Laws mean nothing when there’s no one holding official bodies to account.


• Encourage disabled writers to divulge their trauma for a story.

• Assume you know enough about disabled lives to write about us without research.

• Decide that one disabled story applies to all of us.

• Assume people’s preferred language.

• Exclude us from the newsroom by having inaccessible offices, only providing full-time work roles, or refusing to allow remote or flexible working.

• Expect disabled people to do the emotional labour of sensitivity checking for free.

Hannah Shewan Stevens
Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, editor, speaker and press officer based in Birmingham. She is most enjoys writing about disability, social justice, sex and relationships, and human rights, and her work can be found in publications such as Refinery29DazedThe Independent, and EachOther.

Stevens is also a sex columnist for The Unwritten and has recently completed her first accreditation in delivering Relationships and Sex Education.

Header image courtesy of Pexels