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Why Article Titles Matter When the Media Covers Disability

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I have a website and a Facebook page that advocates for disability rights, and shares the “giggles and gripes” of everyday life for people with disabilities. So, I am constantly researching and trying to keep abreast of all disability related news. One of the things I am always acutely aware of is the language used in the articles and stories I peruse. Is it inclusive, accessible, non-judgmental and person-centered? One can usually tell the tone and intention of an article by the choice of language used in the title. And this is where I begin to run into hurdles.

News stories (particularly in the mainstream) are notorious for using problematic language in the titles of their stories, which leads readers to focus on the disability in question, disregarding the individual the story is supposed to be featuring. This can result in a genuinely inspirational story becoming inspiration porn instead.

You know what I’m talking about. Those titles that give disabled people everywhere an unsettling visceral reaction: “Classmates Vote Couple With Down Syndrome Their Prom King and Queen” — this headline focuses on the actions of the non-disabled people and does not even mention the couple’s names. Or “’Wonder Woman’ Overcomes Disability to Represent Australia in Table Tennis” — her story is turned into inspiration porn, she’s wrongly described as “overcoming” her disability rather than succeeding as someone who happens to have a disability, and once again, her name is not mentioned.

When I see a title like this, my knee-jerk reaction is to skip it and not bother to read it. I’ve learned, however, that the title does not necessarily reflect the article’s perspective. The first story is about 16-year-old sweethearts Dylan Hughes and Amelie Barker being crowned prom king and queen, their reaction to it, their relationship and their future plans together. It highlights who they are, what their dreams are and how they receive the support to fulfill those dreams. The second story is about Paralympian/Olympian Melissa Tapper, her career and achievements, and how she adapted to fulfill her goals. These are just two examples of the hundreds of fantastic articles with unfortunate titles about real people and their lives, dreams, hopes, talents and experiences.

I would like to see a shift in how stories about people with disabilities are presented to the public. Person centered language is key. Feature the individual, not the disability or the able-bodied “heroes” involved. Encourage readers to see the disability as a part of the individual and not the defining feature. Share the individual’s internal life, philosophies and experiences, rather than framing their circumstances as tragic. And it all starts with the title. The title is the first thing a reader sees, so let it accurately represent the story you wish to tell and the person(s) you are featuring.

A simple alteration in a title can not only can not only make it more inclusive, but can ultimately suggest greater depth: “British Sweethearts Dylan and Amelie ‘Really Chuffed’ to be Crowned Prom King and Queen. Is Marriage in Their Future?” and “Paralympian/Olympian Melissa Tapper Adapts to Disability and Represents Australia in Table Tennis” seem like much more interesting stories to me. What about you?

Getty image by Andrey Popov.

Originally published: September 3, 2019
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