Disability Voices Heard This Year, Despite Media Resistance

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Disability rights activists received an almost unprecedented amount of media attention this year. However, the coverage was a fraction of what it should have been, considering how central disability activists were to at least two major national stories.

Disability activists achieved an almost unprecedented amount of press coverage this year, largely due to two stories that grabbed media attention – Million Dollar Baby and Terri Schiavo.

In January and February of 2005, Not Dead Yet kicked off a public awareness campaign regarding Clint Eastwood’s use of an inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of life with a severe spinal cord injury to enlist audience sympathy for killing a quadriplegic woman in “Million Dollar Baby.” The disability critique and protest of Eastwood’s movie was covered in the London Telegraph, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Associated Press, among others.

Disability activists were also covered in the media circus surrounding the struggle over the life of Terri Schiavo. In March of 2005, disability activists joined other protesters outside the hospice where Terri Schiavo was being starved and dehydrated to death. In addition, several major national disability groups endorsed the congressional “Terri’s Bill” – legislation to provide an avenue of appeal for Terri Schiavo’s parents in their efforts to save her life from her guardian’s decision that she must die. As a result, disability activists were covered in major papers across the country, and included in televised media in over 100 news segments.

But that’s not exactly cause for celebration, say disability activists.

“Terri Schiavo died in that hospice, and guardianship remains a potential death ship for everyone in it,” says Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that organizes opposition to legalized assisted suicide, non-voluntary euthanasia and other forms of medical killing. “And of course, “Million Dollar Baby” all but swept the Oscars.”

Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, wonders if the outcomes would have been different if more people had been aware of the disability perspective in either instance. In the case of “Million Dollar Baby,” disability activists were the first and loudest voices protesting the movie. But they got shoved aside and ignored over time while the controversy was reframed in terms of the “culture wars.”

“We fought an uphill battle to be heard all year,” said Drake. “The media – whether it’s Fox News or the New York Times – frames these stories as part of the so-called ‘culture wars.’ There was little room for liberal disability rights groups with an anti-euthanasia perspective in that framework. It was even more tragic in the case of Terri Schiavo. I would bet most people knew where Howard Dean and Tom Delay stood on the issue, but were unaware that 26 national disability groups opposed the removal of her feeding tube.”


Diane Coleman, Stephen Drake

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