Journalism Prof Has the Scoop on Disability Issues and
By Kathi Wolfe
Some of us spend most of our lives searching for what we
want to be when we grow up.
That is certainly not the case with Beth A.
Haller, professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Towson,
Md., and author of Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on
Mass Media, published by The Advocado Press.
Haller, born in 1961 in Fort Worth, Texas, has been, as
journalists say, an "ink-stained wretch" since she was a child. When I
was 9 or 10 years old, my dad had an old printing press, Haller said in a
recent telephone interview. I put out a little newspaper and distributed
it around our neighborhood. My parents were big (news)paper readers. I liked to
know what was going on. I worked on my high school newspaper.
In 1983, Haller earned a B.A. in journalism from Baylor
University in Waco, Texas, and, in 1991, an M.A. in journalism from the
University of Maryland at College Park. In 1995, after working at newspapers in
Texas and Illinois, she received a Ph.D. in mass media and communication from
Temple University in Philadelphia.
Today, Haller is one of the world's foremost experts on
the media and disability issues. Since 1990, she has conducted research on
images of people with disabilities (PWDs) in media such as newspapers, movies,
TV shows and blogs. Almost daily, she posts reports on her blog "Media
dis&dat," a database of news and information about PWDs and
Between April 2009 and April 2010, there were 400,000 hits
on her blog, which she started in 2008, Haller said. I wanted to have one
place for everything about disability thats in the news. Ive found
it helpful for me to go back (to the blog) and look at stories.
Representing Disability in an Ableist World is
a cornucopia of information and criticism of the American cultures
portrayal of people with disabilities, from the annual Jerry Lewis telethon to
news coverage of assisted suicide to the R-word campaign (which refers to
intellectually challenged people) to the satirical TV show South
Park to disability media.
Five stories shed light on programs,
practices, and tools designed to increase the participation of women with
disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
education and careers throughout the U.S.
People with disabilities have always had a
problematic relationship with the countrys mass media, author Mary
Johnson wrote in an e-mail message. Johnson's book, Make Them Go
Away, critiques how society views disability and how the media reports
it. Beth gives students and activists the hard data needed to press for
It (Hallers book) covers the whole gamut of
todays media, added Johnson, former editor of Ragged Edge
(formerly The Disability Rag). What I really appreciate ... is the
work (she has) done on the new media the blogs ... and other online
media (which) shows how theyre changing the way disabled people
can control their own story.
Haller's first job out of college was as a
general-assignment reporter for the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News.
After a year or so, she moved on to reporting on health and medicine. I
have chronic respiratory problems, but I dont identify as a person with a
disability, she said.
As she reported on health, Haller realized that she knew
more than she thought she did about the culture of medicine. I grew up
with my mom, who was a nurse, and my granddad, who was a doctor. I knew how
For the Amarillo paper, Haller wrote a series of stories
on the education of people with Down syndrome. They werent being
institutionalized. They were helped through early intervention. Im proud
of the award I received for (the series) from the National Down Syndrome
Congress. I was just as ignorant as the next reporter when I did it.
The people with Down syndrome whom she interviewed "opened
my eyes to people with intellectual disabilities and the stereotypes and myths
we have about them. One elderly man had three kids who were out of the house.
His wife had died. His son at home, who had an intellectual disability and who
was about 40, took care of him. He (the elderly man) was working class. When
his son with the intellectual disability was born, the doctors said he should
be institutionalized. He told the doctor, Were taking our kid
home. Its powerful to hear stories of how people fight the
establishment to give their children a better life.
As part of her reporting on people with intellectual
disabilities, Haller interviewed a woman in a group home who, she said, "was
one of the most intelligent, common sense-filled person Ive ever met in
my life. She only entered the group home when her mom died. She really blew
away the stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities.
While working on her master's degree at the University of
Maryland, Haller took a feature-writing class. I wanted to challenge
myself. I wanted to do something that I wouldnt normally have done.
She decided to interview someone at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.,
because she knew the area had a large deaf community. "I didnt speak sign
language, and Id have to work with an interpreter.
Haller interviewed the (then) receptionist with
Gallaudets student government office. She and her twin were from
somewhere in Canada. They were the only deaf people in their family, who were
anti-sign language. (Their parents) made them sit on their hands if they used
them to sign. They came up with their own way to communicate. It taught me a
lot about what one community has to go through even in their own family to live
As a result of that experience, Haller wrote her master's
thesis on the media's coverage of the Deaf President Now movement. It was
content analysis, she said. I wondered if anyone (had) looked at
media representation of deaf people or people with disabilities.
Haller became further immersed in issues of disability and
the media when she attended the annual meeting of the Society for Disability
Studies in Rockville, Md.
Experiences in her youth helped her become aware of people
with disabilities, she said. When I was growing up, Eric, the second son
of my next-door neighbor, had an intellectual disability. Erics like my
younger brother. Hes in his 40's. We saw the 'Harry Potter' movie
Though some of the children Haller knew growing up became
drug dealers, Eric turned out better than half the kids in the
neighborhood! He has a job as a dishwasher. Growing up with Eric sensitized me
a little bit.
Hallers mothers best friend was a polio
survivor. She was my mom's bridesmaid. She (the polio survivor) died, and
I never got to know her, but growing up, looking through the wedding album, I
saw someone with a significant disability.
In the early years of her work, Haller learned that people
in the disability community werent very keen on the media. Even
more people then than now were trapped in nursing homes, and the ADA had barely
passed, Haller said. They just saw the media doing a bad job and
thought, Why bother about that?
Times have changed, Haller said. Its turned
around. I see so many people in the disability studies world. Everybody knows
you need to win the media if you want to win on disability issues. People know
you have to get the public on your side through the media.
People nowadays believe that traditional media are
becoming less relevant, she said.
You dont need them as much to get word out
about yourself (or your issues). It would be great if you could get a
front-page New York Times story. But you can let hundreds of thousands
know through the Internet as well.
News media as an entity often still doesnt
understand the disability experience, Haller said, but theres a lot
more individual journalists who do get it. Journalists like a good story.
Its based on who has the byline.
The biggest problem in the entertainment media occurs long
before production, Haller said. If the casting call isnt
accessible, then actors with disabilities cant audition. If they
cant audition, they cant get work.
Once an actor with a disability is hired, he or she is
bound to have some influence, she said.
Marlee Matlin (for instance) had to have influenced
The West Wing and The L Word when she was in those (TV)
shows. They had to include her signing. They knew deaf people would be
watching, and they had to make clear what she was saying to hearing
Chill Mitchell, an actor who uses a wheelchair, influenced
the TV show Ed, Haller said.
There was a scene showing his character getting
ready for work in the morning. For many viewers, it was the first time they saw
someone in a wheelchair get dressed. Because the actor has a disability, he got
This summer, Haller and Lingling Zhang, professor of mass
communication research at Towson University, conducted a survey on PWDs and
their views on the media.
Nobody has ever asked people with disabilities what
they think about the media, Haller said. Questions were asked about
traditional and new media, news media, disability media and TV and movies. At
least 350 people should have taken it.
Haller contacted independent living centers and other
disability groups to find respondents for the survey. By early fall, we
should have some of the results (of the survey). Independent living centers,
disability advocates and others will be able to use the data to start a
dialogue to advocate for better media coverage.
People with disabilities can talk anecdotally about their
experiences with the media, William G. Stothers, a former ombudsman for the
San Diego Union (now the San Diego Union-Tribune) said in a
telephone interview. But Beth can provide statistics and analysis as
evidence of media representation of people with disabilities. The other side of
it is that Beth works in a university. Her work filters out to generations of
students who will enter journalism or media-related fields.
Stothers knows of what he speaks. He is the former editor
of Mainstream, a now-defunct disability press publication, and the
former deputy director of a National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation
Research media project.
Haller has an invaluable historical perspective on people
with disabilities and the media, said Cyndi Jones, former publisher of
Mainstream and former director of the NIDRR media project. Because
shes done so much work for so long, Beth has the big picture on
disability and media. She knows when somethings (in the media) new and
when its just the same old thing.
Haller's e-mail address is: email@example.com.
The Advocado Press.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She writes frequently
on disability and the media.