Bad Disability Journalism: Suffers from Mental Illness or Suffers from a Punch in the Face?

The use of “suffers” to describe people with various disabilities is my #1 “to-avoid” tip when I talk disability and journalism (#2 is “wheelchair bound”). It especially shows up in cases of police use of force. In last March’s Ruderman Foundation White Paper, Lawrence Carter-Long and I wrote:

The most current disability style guide for journalists was produced in the fall of 2015 by the National Center of Disability Journalism (NCDJ) at Arizona State University. The guide is excellent in terms of offering reporters the best language to use when describing particular disabilities and should be consulted regularly. Its “terms to avoid” section may be even more relevant for this study, particularly the following passage:

Stricken with, suffers from, victim of: These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life.

In too many contexts, the media describes victims of police violence as “suffering from” disabilities such as schizophrenia, when what they are suffering from is police violence, possibly manifested through bullets, tasers, pepper spray, or nightsticks. People suffer from abuse. People suffer from a society that has been designed only for the typical. If an individual describes themselves or another person as “suffering,” they can of course be quoted, but journalists must not assume suffering as fact merely because of the existence of a condition, impairment, or diagnosis. A journalist should handle quotes containing ableist language just as they would quotes containing racist or sexist language.

Here’s an example from Cleveland, in a story about a disabled woman being punched by CPD.


Cleveland woman punched by police officer while handcuffed suffers from mental illnesses, family says


The Cleveland woman punched in the face Thursday by a police officer suffers from mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, family members said.

It sounds to me like she was suffering from being punched in the face. The suffer here is being used, rhetorically, to blame the act of police violence (and to defend her) on the disability.

Also paragraph 2: “Ciara Perez-Rodriguez, 21,suffered bruises and swelling on her face and arms in the altercation with police officers, according to her father, Louis Perez.”
And towards the end: “The incident comes when Cleveland police are under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice meant to reform a department plagued with complaints about excessive use of force and how police officers handle residents suffering from mental illnesses.”

I’m much more interested in these kinds of local news stories written by beat reporters than in the big flashy features (although I’m happy to critique those as well). We need to shift basic norms in how cases like this get report.

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