Study examines media coverage of police shootings and people with disabilities

police badge, gun and handcuffsThe Ruderman Family Foundation is calling on news outlets to create a new paradigm for how they cover stories of police shootings of people with disabilities.

“We need to escape the pattern of ‘mental illness’ and think instead about disability,” the Foundation writes in a new report released March 8. In America we try to cure illness, but we are obligated to accommodate disability…

“Disabled civilians have the right to interact with police forces with as much safety as any other individual. To make that possible, the media will need to stop treating these cases as either isolated incidents or a problem of dangerously ‘crazy’ people who need to be contained, but rather as linked, intersectional, issues.”

An estimated a one-third to half of all people killed by the police each year have disabilities. Despite such estimates, which are generally deemed to be on the low end, disability is often just a minor factor in media coverage of such tragedies.

For example, the impact of Eric Garner’s diabetes and asthma received little coverage in the discussion surrounding his death. Rather, media coverage often seemed to blame Garner’s death on his weight, with most of the rest of the reporting focused on the racial aspects of the tragedy, the report argues. Likewise, Sandra Bland’s epilepsy and John Williams’ deafness received scant attention.

Contrarily, the report highlighted the media’s interest in the role of Freddie Gray’s lead poisoning, pointing to multiple Washington Post reports that focused on the intersection of his circumstances and disabilities.

The report synthesizes these stories to reveal a variety of patterns, including the practices of failing to mention disability, using an impairment as a way to evoke sympathy, and blaming the disability as the cause of death, among other trends.

It also lists a number of recommendations for news outlets, such as working to highlight “disability as a commonality in police violence” and emphasizing people-first language.

“As we advance into the 21st century, disability encapsulates an increasingly powerful set of concepts that push us to redefine what it means to be a member of society and demands we rebuild society so that it’s accessible to all,” the report states. “When disabled Americans get killed and the media loses sight of their stories or segregates them from each other, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”