A woman I barely know walked up to me the other day and said, “I simply love your book, it is like walking 1,000 miles in another man’s shoes.” Another man, who I haven’t seen in over 40 years, wrote me and said that he felt my struggles paralleled his as he struggled with his gayness in the 70’s and 80’s.
My point is people enjoy feeling deeply about their fellow human beings and they enjoy seeing themselves in other people’s stories. I have kept those two things in mind as I have considered what to tell journalists who will tune in to the National Disability Journalism Center webinar featuring my book “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance. You can register for free for the webinar here.
I pray the book pushes way past cliches and offers several themes and events which can lead to good stories for journalists interested in compelling stories about disabilities.
I tell the stories of my birth and the birth of my Down syndrome son, Jason, in great detail. There is real drama in both tales and I would suggest every parent who has confronted a diagnosis like Down syndrome or Cerebral Palsy can tell an equally powerful tale.
The tension between fight and flight is a constant theme in good storytelling and that struggle is omnipresent in raising a handicapped child. Most of the time parents do what they have to do and soldier on, but there are always moments when you’d just like to scream. My late wife Jean experienced that when she spent three years trying to toilet train Jason. I see very few of those genuine moments in disability reporting.
So often reporters write disability stories from either a “oh those poor people perspective,” or a “golly gee whiz these people have such courage” perspective. I see very few stories that portray the irreverence, humor and routine of dealing with disability challenges. I do not believe that every family with a disability is a sitcom waiting to happen, though ours probably was. But still a really honest portrayal will get beyond the clinical, beyond the stereotypes and portray people pursuing a path filled with laughter AND tears.
My book emphasized the quest for “normal” that both Jason and I experienced. Disability journalism so often emphasizes “exceptionalism:” The first, the best, the most courageous. I believe there’s real drama in the quest of disabled people to just “be.” Portraying the frustration with not being “normal” could produce a far more authentic portrait.
I could have written an entire chapter, or perhaps a book, on siblings’ interaction with a disabled child. Too many stories I see push siblings into a corner and make them non-players. Disability journalists should not miss an opportunity to write authentic pieces about siblings, and not just hero siblings. I am talking about people who love their disabled siblings but are also willing to discuss the trials, hurts and frustrations.
Throughout the book and into the sad, final chapter I emphasize the individuality of the disability journey. No two people are alike in their journey but no two disabled people are alike in their journey either. Journalists don’t always seem to recognize that. There is often a formula for stories about the disabled and that formula should be trashed. It usually takes “the kid had it tough and then he did this extraordinary thing” angle. Each disability tale should describe the total journey with success and failures, and not simply pursue the one big triumph. That is just not authentic.
Finally, I honestly believe I broke ground with my discussion of how my son Jason dealt with his grief over his Mom’s death. I believe every market has a tremendous story about that subject. It seems to be largely unexplored territory.
Journalists are storytellers. No beat is as rich with genuinely compelling stories about the authentic journey of a disabled family if we drop our preconceived notions and write what we see rather than what we expect to see.