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WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson, Editor of Ragged Edge Online, has been covering the U.S. disability rights movement since 1980, when she founded The Disability Rag magazine, which The Wall St. Journal called "one of the most important publications coming out of the disability rights movement."

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Mary Johnson's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Disability Issues

When Charleston, SC. attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote in her Feb. 16, 2003, New York Times Magazine cover story Unspeakable Conversations that "the peculiar drama of my life has placed me in a world that by and large thinks it would be better if people like me did not exist," she was defining for all women who live with severe disabilities (and for all people, not just women, who are disabled) the essential problem with media coverage: It has been easier for news media to pretend that disability -- and disability issues -- simply do not exist, rather than to cover them as the public issues they are.

It isn't precisely that disability issues aren't covered. The problem is the way they're covered, or, put another way, what's reported and what's ignored. I'll revisit this theme often in my blog postings, but to start you off, here's a short list: a story about a chipper valedictorian on crutches will win out in the newsroom every time over a story about disparities in education. The story of how quadriplegic Brooke Ellison's 45-year-old mother dropped her own life and went to Harvard University to be her daughter's caregiver rises to the top of the fluff feed as the mother-daughter duo's book, Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey, climbs the charts -- yet out of over 700 news items devoted to the "inspiring story," only a handful mention the problems Brooke Ellison faced at Harvard due to the university's architectural barriers -- and not a single one broadens the issue to ask why Harvard University remains laden with architectural barriers over two decades after a federal law mandated access. A story about the crowning of Ms. Wheelchair America trumps any searching look at job discrimination against women with disabilities -- although a shouting match between pageant contestants in Wisconsin which devolved into mass organizational resignations made national news and briefly shone a light on the larger issue of lawsuits against inaccessible businesses (which Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin had filed, to the horror of other see-no-evil pageant officials).

That coverage was a rare exception. Yet even the focus on the "larger issue" of "lawsuits for access" remained mired in the "one person's story" format which plagues disability coverage. You'd never know there was an actual disability rights movement in this country, with articulate activists, with a history, with goals, with positions on things like nursing home reform, the right to die, Medicare/Medicaid legislation, "national security"...

Disability continues to be covered as either a human interest story or an issue affecting only a small "special" group of people -- "the disabled." Stories about discrimination report on one woman filing a lawsuit rather than the larger problem of discrimination facing millions nationwide.

Is this any different from the problems women who aren't disabled face in trying to get accurate and substantive media coverage? Not necessarily -- other than the fact that it seems problems women face with media coverage are doubled when it comes to women who have disabilities.

Don't forget: disability issues don't simply affect women who are already disabled. They affect all of us. My postings will return to that fact often, examining not only what the media didn't cover, but pointing out how the issue might have been covered -- and what a difference such coverage could make in the public debate.


Mary Johnson's Biography

Mary Johnson, Editor of Ragged Edge Online, has been covering the U.S. disability rights movement since 1980, when she founded The Disability Rag magazine, which The Wall St. Journal called "one of the most important publications coming out of the disability rights movement." The award-winning Rag is now an entirely online publication, at www.raggededgemagazine.com.

Her articles about disability rights have run in the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today, the Village Voice, The Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review and others.

From 1999 to 2004, she served as Deputy Director for the national Center for An Accessible Society, providing background information to journalists on disability issues.

Mary Johnson's most recent book, Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights (Avocado Press, 2003), reports on attacks on the Americans with Disabilities Act by conservative and free-market critics. Her other books include To Ride the Public’s Buses: The Fight that Built A Movement (2001); Making News: How to Get News Coverage for Disability Rights Issues (1993); People with Disabilities Explain It All For You: Your Guide to the Public Accommodations Requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1992).


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