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Journalism Prof Has the Scoop on Disability Issues and the Media

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 BethProfessor and author Beth Haller 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 disability-related issues.

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 that’s in the news. I’ve 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 culture’s 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.

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“People with disabilities have always had a problematic relationship with the country’s 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 change.”

“It (Haller’s book) covers the whole gamut of today’s 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 they’re 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 don’t 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 hospitals worked.”

For the Amarillo paper, Haller wrote a series of stories on the education of people with Down syndrome. “They weren’t being institutionalized. They were helped through early intervention. I’m 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, ‘We’re taking our kid home.’ It’s 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 I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t speak sign language, and I’d have to work with an interpreter.”

Haller interviewed the (then) receptionist with Gallaudet’s 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 their identity.”

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. Eric’s like my younger brother. He’s in his 40's. We saw the 'Harry Potter' movie together."

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.”

Haller’s mother’s 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 weren’t 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. “It’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t understand the disability experience, Haller said, “but there’s a lot more individual journalists who do get it. Journalists like a good story. It’s based on who has the byline.”

The biggest problem in the entertainment media occurs long before production, Haller said. “If the casting call isn’t accessible, then actors with disabilities can’t audition. If they can’t audition, they can’t 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 people.”

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 things right.”

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.”

Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass

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 she’s done so much work for so long, Beth has the big picture on disability and media. She knows when something’s (in the media) new and when it’s just the same old thing.”

Haller's e-mail address is: The Advocado Press.

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She writes frequently on disability and the media.

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