I just got back from a fabulous volunteer vacation in Phoenix. Somebody has to go to Phoenix where it’s always sunny and the temperature during the day was in the sixties, right?

My volunteering was not building a house for Habitat or restoring habitats for cactus wrens. It involved doing what I know how to do, guest lecture university students. I lectured four classes and gave two interviews about journalism about people with disabilities. At the end of the day I got to present the award for excellence in disability journalism to Heather Vogell of Pro Publica for a piece she wrote about the over 267,000 per year uses of restraints and seclusion for children with disabilities in U.S. schools. This was the third year of the award and it received over sixty entries by all sorts of news media. It’s run by the National Center on Disability Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. They have a great website www.ncdj.org complete with a style guide on language about disabilities, sources of information on disability issues and examples of well done stories including Heather’s.

When I was talking about disability journalism with students I talked about the poor stories that treat people with disabilities as objects of charity, people to be cured or put them up on a pedestal in stories that activists call “inspiration porn” where they’re noble, saintly creatures who climb mountains in their wheelchairs on a daily basis. I asked these young journalists to ask themselves three questions about the pieces they write, record or video:

  • If it was about you, would you like it or be ready to gag?
  • How would any event you wish to report on be different if you were blind, deaf, a wheelchair user or had any disability?
  • If this story talks about a problem, does it also talk about possible solutions?

Then of course I had to talk about accessibility of the story, be it captioned for the Deaf, audio described for people who are blind and pictures alt text tagged with a short description for blind users of the Internet.

The students were attentive and asked great questions. Every time I do this I learn about the world of journalists. One class was trying to write five word headlines that are both inviting and represent the content of the story. We threw around should they call me a “blind psychologist” or not and we ended up concluding it depended on the point of the story whether my blindness was relevant or not.

I was treated very well, accompanied from place to place by a friendly staff member, fed well and made to feel I was making a valuable contribution with my day of service. Of course Luna made numerous friends and said it was worth it to endure two ten hour days of travel. The university housed us in a very nice hotel with beautiful green grass within ten feet of our room door for her pooping pleasure—not an easy thing to find in Phoenix! The fact Luna considered herself on vacation was shown by her stretching out luxuriously on the king-sized bed, something she never does at home.

We came back to Eau Claire on Giving Tuesday. One friend met us at the van from Minneapolis and gave us a ride home and another had tuna noodle casserole hanging on the door for my dinner. While I was in Phoenix I saw a woman who had read to me (as a volunteer) when I was in grad school forty years ago. We’d stayed in touch occasionally and it was a highlight of the visit to see her in person. We both commented on how you never know where volunteering will take you.

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