After seeing a media piece about Australia’s NRL player Mat Rogers’ son being diagnosed with autism, disability advocate Lisa Cox wants news outlets to take more responsibility for the important role they play in shaping social attitudes about disability.
The headline – ‘I felt there’s something not quite right’: Mat Rogers reveals son’s autism – perpetuates a false narrative around autism. While Mat and Chloe’s experience is theirs, running media pieces that position people with disabilities as having something wrong with them or that a diagnosis is a bad thing is not fostering diversity and inclusion.
Lisa Cox, who works with the media to help them with messaging around disability, said Mat’s words are not the real concern.
“Whether we agree with his words is not the point; Mat is entitled to feel as he wants. It was a lovely article, but the problem is how those specific words not only got into print, but were also pulled out in a large bold font and sensationalised,” Lisa said.
“This is hurtful for those in the disability community who want to be better understood, and damaging for those without a disability who want to better understand the community.”
Annette Densham, writer and mother of an autistic child, said headlines like this are mortifying. “When my son was in primary school when he was diagnosed with autism, I truly thought it was the end of the world. So much of the media’s language around autism had left me feeling the diagnosis was the end of his life and there was no hope. People who knew nothing about autism were buying into the negative stereotypes, ostracising the kid from all social interactions because of ignorance and believing everything the media says is true,” she said.
“But it wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite. My son has defied all the negative stereotypes to graduate high school. But how can these young people be what they can’t see? When the media doesn’t show all sides and uses language like they did in this piece to make it sound like a diagnosis is the worst thing that can happen.”
Will Wheeler, founder and director of Neurodiversity Academy, said amplifying these sorts of messages about neurodivergent people is harmful to the neurodivergent community like himself.”
Lisa wants to use examples like this to educate the media about solutions and best practice. She also believes the industry needs to be more conscious about how they frame people with a disability in their work, which according to a UN report on WHO data is the world’s largest minority.
“We have made great progress over the past several years for diversity and inclusion. The power of media can shape how we interact and view others. When the media use emotive and divisive language to describe anyone with a disability, it sets the disability community back. Because it then becomes perpetuating stereotypes,” Lisa said.
“When I first found out that I was going to be disabled for the rest of my life, I was upset. That’s largely because I had 24 years worth of harmful media stereotypes – like this article – that told me that my life would now be worthless.”
“Even though I’d grown up around people with disabilities and had friends in the community, years of journalism negated any hope I may have felt, because I always saw media pieces that position disability as a bad thing or something horrible.
“Newsroom staff need to be more aware of the crucial role they play in shaping social attitudes, not just for the 20% of Australians with a disability, but also for people without one.”
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