I think it was the story about traffic roundabouts that didn’t even mention how hard they are for blind people to navigate that did it for me. “Why don’t the media cover disability angles on stories?” I fumed. Too many disability pieces are about superheroes who walk on water and just happen to have a disability or stories about curing a particular condition. There’s more to our stories! As I calmed down, I decided what I could do was work with some recognized organizations to give awards to good journalism about disability issues. Here’s part of a press release about the results of morphing “Why don’t they?” into “How can we?” Time will tell if giving awards increases good journalism. I’m betting yes!  

Center for Investigative Reporting Wins Inaugural Award Recognizing Disability Coverage

Oct. 8, 2013

A series exposing the routine failure on the part of police to protect the developmentally disabled at California care institutions is the inaugural winner of the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

California Watch, part of The Center for Investigative Reporting, is the recipient of the international award, the first devoted exclusively to disability coverage. The award includes a $5,000 prize and is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University under a grant from Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who also supports the Schneider Family Book Awards.

CIR’s award-winning package of stories, “Broken Shield,” was written and reported by Ryan Gabrielson. Carrie Ching and Marina Luz produced an accompanying animated video, titled “In Jennifer’s Room.”

“With painstaking thoroughness and dynamic storytelling, reporter Ryan Gabrielson showed how a California police force designed to protect developmentally disabled patients failed to investigate horrible, violent abuse of patients,” said contest judge Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair of Journalism at the Cronkite School. “The stories make you mad and break your heart at the same time. And, most important, they got real results. Severely developmentally disabled patients are safer today because of Gabrielson’s work.”

The second-place award, with a $1,500 prize, went to Gareth Cook for his New York Times Magazine piece “The Autism Advantage.” The story details how autistic workers at one innovative Danish company are being drawn into the modern economy and excelling at their jobs.

Two honorable mention prizes of $500 each also were awarded. They went to Daphnee Denis and Hoda Emam for a video documentary, “Playing by Ear.” The video, which focuses on one man’s dedication to goalball, a fast-paced sport designed for the visually impaired, was published at Narratively, a platform developed in 2012 that features in-depth stories around a different theme each week. The site was named one of Time magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2013.

The second honorable mention award went to Broughton Coburn for a long-form piece he wrote for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. “Second Chapter: A Portrait of Barry Corbet” chronicles how a famed mountaineer continued to enjoy the outdoors after a helicopter crash left him paralyzed from the waist down.

The first-place entry, “Broken Shield,” also was a 2013 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. Additionally, it won a 2012 George Polk Award and a 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. Gabrielson will accept the Schneider Award and discuss his work as part of the “Must See Mondays” speaker series at the Cronkite School on Nov. 25 at 7 p.m.

Judges reviewed 72 entries from journalists around the world. In addition to McGuire, the judges were Tony Coelho, former U.S. congressman and primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act; Leon Dash, the Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism and the director of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Cyndi Jones, former director of The Center for an Accessible Society; and Jennifer Longdon, a disability rights advocate and former chair of the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues.

“When I first agreed to judge this contest, I thought, ‘Hey, how many entries could there be anyway? Maybe 20, and half worth a second look,’” Jones said. “Well 70-plus entries later, as we began final deliberations, we still had 15 entries on the table, all of which were great. Not easy by any means. The entries were terrific and so varied in disability, slant, topic, style, medium and length. This was a terrifically wonderful problem to have.”

People with some kind of mental or physical disability make up at least 19 percent of the U.S. population; however, people with disabilities are frequently under-covered by the mainstream press or that coverage is inaccurate or incomplete, Schneider said. “The commonest stories are about a cure for a condition or a superhuman who overcomes the disability. I wanted to help highlight good stories and chose to work with the NCDJ and the Cronkite School because of their commitment to fair and accurate journalism that includes diversity.”

The goal of the contest is to help set a standard for disability reporting, said Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite School and director of the NCDJ. “We want to hold up as an example work that displays a deep and nuanced understanding of the issues and challenges experienced by the millions of people who live with physical or mental disabilities,” she said. “This year’s winners did that far beyond our expectations, and they did it by telling compelling human stories and by holding power accountable.”