Award honors journalists who write quality stories that focus on disability issues

| Judy Berthiaume

As a respected clinical psychologist, author and an advocate for people living with disabilities, Dr. Katherine Schneider has received a lot of attention from the news media throughout 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 non-disability 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 her 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.

This 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 Dan Barry of The New York Times and Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The top stories include sources who are people with disabilities, combine data with personal narratives and often talk about alternatives to the practices the stories highlight.

Schneider says she was impressed and encouraged by the work done on the winning stories, as well as by the number and the quality of all the stories submitted each year.

While in Arizona for the awards ceremony, Schneider talked about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the difference that piece of civil rights legislation has made in the lives of so many 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 also should be asking themselves questions about the impact of the ADA on the field of journalism: Are there more journalists with disabilities and are they receiving needed accommodations in their work? 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.”

For example, Schneider says, when despite the significant amount of publicity around the popular novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” there were no book reviews written by blind people even though one of the main characters in the book is blind.

“So I wrote one and got it into a fairly large market newspaper in my state,” Schneider says.

The Cronkite School of Journalism’s National Center on Disability Journalism has been a strong partner in her journalism award program.

The NCDJ has valuable resources to share with journalists, including a website that is a treasure trove of information, offering everything from credible sources to language tips on how to fairly and accurately represent people with disabilities, she says.

“They also have good stories about people with disabilities and the issues we face in living the good life,” Schneider says. “They pass the sniff test, which is ‘If this story was written about you, would you gag?’”

While visiting 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 about reporting on people with disabilities.

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 that captures the disability experience for children and adolescents.

“About a dozen years ago, I established awards within the American Library Association for children’s books with disability content because I felt that field could use improvement in its depictions of characters with disabilities,” Schneider says. “Those awards have been very successful with more and better books being written each year.”

It was the success of that program that inspired her to create the Schneider Disability Journalism Award program.

“I looked around for another hill to climb and settled on journalism,” Schneider says.

Photo caption: Dr. Katherine Schneider and her Seeing Eye dog, Luna

Photo credit: Andrea Paulseth, Volume One