Producing Positive Disability Stories: A Brief Guide

 Haben Girma

Haben Girma is the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30. Haben travels the world consulting and public speaking, teaching clients the benefits of fully accessible products and services. She’s a talented storyteller who helps people frame difference as an asset. She resisted society’s low expectations, choosing to create her own pioneering story. Haben is working on a book that will be published by Hachette in 2019.

 Haben created Producing Positive Disability Stories: A Brief Guide, which is excerpted below. 


Producing Positive Disability Stories: A Brief Guide


How we describe disability experiences in the media can help or hurt the disability community.

Positive portrayals promote inclusion, increasing opportunities for education, employment, and social integration. People with disabilities represent the largest minority group, numbering one billion worldwide. Reaching an audience of this scale benefits media producers. Those who choose to produce positive disability stories also move us towards a more inclusive society. While we can’t change our past, we can influence our future through the messages we send.

Positive Messages To Send

  • We respect and admire disabled leaders, just as we respect and admire our non-disabled leaders.
  • We can always find alternative techniques to reach goals and accomplish tasks. These creative solutions are equal in value to mainstream solutions.
  • We’re all interdependent and go further when we support each other.

Harmful Messages To Avoid

  • Non-disabled people should feel grateful they don’t have disabilities. This perpetuates hierarchies of us versus them, continuing the marginalization of people with disabilities.
  • Successful people with disabilities overcame their disabilities. When the media portrays the problem as the disability, society is not encouraged to change. The biggest barriers exist not in the person, but in the physical, social, and digital environment. People with disabilities and their communities, succeed when the community decides to dismantle digital, attitudinal, and physical barriers.
  • Flat, one-dimensional portrayals of people with disabilities. Stories that reduce a person to just a disabled person encourages potential employers, teachers, and other community members to similarly reduce the person to just a disability. We are all diverse and participate in multiple communities, and flat stories actually make it harder to participate in many communities.
  • Avoid victimizing language when describing medical conditions and other aspects of the disability experience. E.g., “She is blind” is neutral, but, “She suffers from blindness” encourages pity.
  • Avoid using the phrases “special needs,” “differently abled,” and person-first language like, “person with a visual impairment.” These linguistic gymnastics perpetuate stigma. We plainly state other human characteristics. We write, “She is a girl,” rather than, “She has a special gender.” The words we use to discuss disability should similarly be straightforward. Tiptoeing around our differences is also cumbersome. E.g., “He uses a wheelchair,” compared to, “He is a person who uses a wheelchair.” Keep it simple and just say “disability” or the specific disability. The word disability has some great connotations: civil rights, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Hawking, innovation, and more. Society will move away from the stigma associated with the word if we promote more positive disability stories.