Tips for media covering the Disability RC

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Dear Australian Media,

I am writing to you as part of the 20 per cent of Australians with disability who need your help to expose a terrible epidemic and stop it in its tracks. This epidemic has occurred out of sight and out of general public knowledge, and has impacted vulnerable Australians at all ages and in all settings.

Man working a video camera (Credit: Ponsulak Kunsub / EyeEm / Getty Images)Abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence have long permeated the landscape of disability in Australia, behind closed doors, in our schools, healthcare centres, group homes and countless other settings. These stories will shortly be exposed and shared widely through the media, and a light will be shone into dark places.

As you know, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability (Disability RC) was opened at the Brisbane Convention Centre on 16 September. It was fought for by disability bodies and advocates for over five years. You may even be involved in reporting upon it.

The protracted battle for the RC was a result of the high rates of violence and abuse experienced by people with disability, often behind closed doors. The reported figures are both staggering and shocking, at least for those outside the disability community. These figures are not surprising to those of us with lived experience of disability, for whom abuse, violence, neglect and exploitation are too often our reality. We need the royal commission to hear our experiences of abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation committed against us, and to hear our ideas for what needs to change.

The media played an important role in getting us to a royal commission, with strong, sensitive reporting on violence against us, ensuring that the voices of people with disability were heard loud and clear. Now, the media will play a role in how the royal commission paves the way for lasting change and in reducing rates of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability in the future. It will also play a role in enabling survivors of trauma to share and start healing from their experiences.

The royal commission matters to me personally, as I am vision- and hearing-impaired, and like countless other people with disability in Australia, I will be making a submission to the RC about my experiences. I am relieved that people with disability now have a space in which to share their lived experience of the violence and abuse we can experience, particularly when a truly empathetic, compassionate submission process is established, with additional provisions for anonymity if desired. I am also deeply apprehensive about the manner in which media may report upon the confronting testimony which will undoubtedly be presented to the RC.

What do we need from the media? Firstly, the voices of people with disability need to be front and centre in shaping the future. The media has a role to play in respectfully allowing the person with disability to retain power with respect to their story in reporting upon their story — try to use their voice first.

 

"Journalism occurs under stringent, rapid deadlines, however many people with disability will need more time to tell their stories."

 

It is also best practice that if reporting upon a personal story, consent has been gained first to share the experiences of a person or people with disability. Please allow them to view a finished product prior to publication in case they want to make amendments to the story, in the interest of accurately and respectfully presenting their story.

Approaches made to individuals who are traumatised need to be appropriately made with respect to the sensitivity of their experience and to minimise re-traumatisation in asking the person to relive their experience. If you are asking someone to be interviewed or interviewing someone, empower them to decide what and how much they share with you by explicitly stating that they can stop whenever they want or only disclose what they want to share. Meet in a location that will enable the person to feel safe in sharing their story, i.e. away from anyone who might overhear the discussion, in a physically accessible location if needed and in an emotionally safe space for the person.

Responses to trauma are wide and varied — you need to be willing to be empathetic to the emotional reaction to an interview request or an interview itself.

Another issue to consider is the use of language in your reporting. The use of a term which might otherwise seem benign can be deeply offensive or hurtful for people with disability. For example, the term blind used in relation to sensory loss of vision is acceptable, however to state that someone is dressed like they are blind is ableist. Some information about ableist language can be found here.

Journalism occurs under stringent, rapid deadlines, however many people with disability will need more time to tell their stories. This may be because of the level of trauma to which they have been exposed or, for some people, because they have communication barriers.

Finally, reach out and speak to trusted organisations in the Australian disability community who can help you with making appropriate approaches to and interviewing people with disability. The organisations that are run by and for people with disability are the experts on what causes violence against people with disability and what can be done to solve this epidemic. Some other tips for ethical reporting can be found here.

Angry, scared, traumatised ... Empowered could be added to that list, if the media use their voice with responsibility and empathy, to help us raise ours.

The next public hearings for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability will take place from 2 to 6 December 2019 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

 

 

Jane BrittJane Britt is a National Policy Office for Blind Citizens Australia and a disability consultant for many disability organisations and a freelance writer.

Main image credit: Ponsulak Kunsub / EyeEm / Getty Images

Topic tags: Jane Britt, disability, royal commission

 

 

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Existing comments

I enjoyed the article but have some concerns about directions to journalists on how and when to report. It's easy to conceive the imperative to media organizations of "getting the scoop" or "exclusive" but don't discount the importance of timing to maximize impact. ABC 4 Corners One Nation / NRA story was prepared more than a year prior to its media release coinciding with the 2019 Federal election; similarly the 7.30 report on mistreatment of race horses was timed to the Spring racing carnival. The real trick the media need to employ is how to keep the reports salacious enough to generate click-bait interest for a protracted time. Unfortunately, Royal Commissions don't result in fundamental or systemic change; Westpac is a classic example of knowing right but choosing otherwise... and a reading public no longer surprised by astronomical statistics or implausible fines. I wish the cause well...but caution against trusting or guiding the media
Ray | 26 November 2019


During the course of this year I read all 558 pages of David Marr's "My Country". Marr is a well-respected journalist and his articles reveal a person of integrity and sensitivity. That is a high standard and one required of anybody in the media, most especially in regards to reporting about personal stories of people. In regards to people with a disability there can be no excuses for not exercising empathy and restraint.
Pam | 27 November 2019


The article also highlights the frustration of those employed to advocate for the disabled: it shouldn't surprise that the entire scene is an ethical minefield, with no regard for personal and professional disclosures that strengthen the case for media attention being made, as Jane has done. Add to that the attention span of a public brought up to switch onto the latest sensational news-bromide and it shouldn't further surprise that the long-term, slow-change end of social causes where the disability sector belongs is so resigned to being heard with a deaf ear. Where dramatic change occurs is piecemeal as in the instance of a young friend, incapacitated by spina bifida, who on his mother's demise found himself admitted to an aged-care facility where he was housed with 80 year-olds. A chance meeting with a PhD student of mine who is the ministerial advisor apprised me that this was wrong. A personal approach was made to the Minister and my friend was much more comfortably and appropriately rehoused. One has to wonder then about all the others still waiting in the queue, and for whom circumstances have to get worse before their needs -and rights! - are addressed. Pay attention, Media!
Michael Furtado | 29 November 2019


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