Thursday, October 18, 2018

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Journalism award prompts disability focus

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    Katherine Schneider, a former UW-Eau Claire psychologist, uses her Seeing Eye dog, Luna, to get around as Schneider is blind. Schneider began a journalism award three years ago.

    Andrea Paulseth photo

As a respected clinical psychologist, author and an advocate for people living with disabilities, Katherine Schneider has received a lot of attention from the news media through the years.

“It has run the gamut, from the inspiration porn ‘Blind Girl Sees with Her Fingers’ stuff to fair and accurate reporting about books I’ve written and causes I’ve championed,” Schneider says of her experiences with the media. “I’ve also been a source for stories on disability issues and stories about nondisability issues related to my work as a clinical psychologist. All of this experience and the experience of colleagues who are disability activists convinced me we can do better.”

Those experiences also convinced Schneider that she could play a role in making positive change. Three years ago, the UW-Eau Claire senior psychologist emerita established the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability contest. The Schneider Award recognizes reporters who produce quality stories that focus on disability issues and accurately reflect the lives of people with disabilities.

Schneider, who has been blind since birth, hopes that by bringing attention to the work of those reporters who are doing it well, it will inspire other journalists to be more diligent in their reporting and move beyond the kinds of stories that don’t accurately represent the lives of people with disabilities.

“That inspirational kind of stuff may be remarkable, but that’s not life as most of us live it,” Schneider says of stories the media often write about people who live with disabilities.

The award program — the first national journalism contest devoted exclusively to disability coverage — is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s prestigious Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

In its three years, the contest has received more than 200 entries from leading journalism organizations across the country. Each year, the first-place winner is awarded $5,000 and receives an invitation to speak at the Cronkite School. The second-place winner receives a $1,500 award, and additional honorable mention awards of $500 may be given at the discretion of the judges.

In the fall Schneider traveled to Arizona to present the 2015 award to Heather Vogell, a ProPublica reporter whose work exposed the ways children with intellectual disabilities are physically disciplined in schools. Past Schneider Award winners have included such high-level journalists as Dan Barry of The New York Times and Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The top stories submitted for the award include sources who are people with disabilities. Those stories also incorporate data with personal narratives and often talk about alternatives to the practices the stories highlight. 

‘Do better’

While in Arizona for the awards ceremony, Schneider talked about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the difference that civil rights legislation has made in the lives of people by mandating access for people with disabilities to public places and services and to government services.

“The 19 percent of Americans who have disabilities have benefitted from curb cuts, ramps and electric door opener buttons,” Schneider says. “So have the 81 percent of Americans who don’t have a disability at this time. Definite progress has been made.”

But, Schneider says, journalists should ask themselves questions about the impact of the ADA on journalism: Are there more journalists with disabilities and are they receiving needed accommodations? Are news media websites more accessible to those who use screen-reading technologies? Are videos captioned for hearing-impaired people? Are they described for visually impaired people?

“The most complex part of the question of how much access has improved is how much have we improved coverage of disability issues,” Schneider says. “I grew up blind and have led an interesting life, including being assisted by attractive guide dogs for 42 years. I’ve had more than my fair share of media coverage. I know we can do better.”

At the Cronkite School of Journalism, Schneider spent time educating the next generation of journalists. She talked with students in four journalism classes and gave two interviews.

In addition to the journalism award, Schneider also supports the Schneider Family Book Award. That award, administered by the American Library Association, honors the best children’s book each year about children and adolescents with disabilities.

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