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Inspiring 'overcomer' stories are newsroom cliches
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July 10, 2001 -- "Erik Weihenmayer had just become the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, putting him on the 'Today' show and the cover of Time magazine. The sighted folks were inspired again, and I knew what was coming," wrote Kathi Wolfe in the July 1 Washington Post Outlook section. Wolfe, who's blind, has written about disability issues for both Mainstream Magazine and Ragged Edge magazine, as well as national mass media. Her "He's Your Inspiration, Not Mine" piece in The Post (online at, which was picked up last Sunday by both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Louisville Courier-Journal, seems to have struck a chord.

"Supercrips are everywhere in the media," Wolfe went on. "The person with no use of her arms who paints masterpieces with her feet, the guy with Tourette's syndrome who becomes a radio announcer, Stephen Hawking explaining the universe from his wheelchair. And, of course, that blind mountain climber.

"But realistic stories about people like me don't often make it into print or onto TV. As Joseph P. Shapiro wrote in 'No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement"': 'While prodigious achievement is praiseworthy. . . it does not reflect the . . . reality of most disabled people, who struggle constantly with smaller challenges, such as finding a bus with a wheelchair lift to go downtown, or fighting beliefs that people with disabilities cannot work, be educated or enjoy life as well as anyone else.'"

A scan of major newspapers in recent weeks says Wolfe -- and Shapiro --have it right. While there do seem to be more stories discussing disability issues than in the past, there are also these: "Renata di Pietro is almost blind. She recognizes things -- when she can -- by shapes, movement and colors. Born prematurely, she developed severe myopia and damage to her retinas when she was given too much oxygen at birth. But her disability did not stop di Pietro, 49, from pursuing a career as an opera singer." Hartford Courant staff writer Constance Neyer's July 5 story, "Singing From the Heart: Soprano Overcomes Disability, Uses Voice to Connect with Audiences" (online at ) is typical of the "overcomer" genre. Such cliches seem to be a formula accepted, and often encouraged, by editors. Sometimes a story is done for no other reason than the fact that the person has a disability; but a person profiled for legitimate accomplishments or skills will also get the cliched treatment if it's learned she has a disability. It's such a routine approach that it seems most reporters and editors don't realize they're being formulaic.

Detroit News reporter Joe Lawlor's June 3 piece on McKayla Hanson is headlined "Cancer left no obstacle for girl, 13: Flushing teen excels after chemo, amputation" (online at In the same paper, a news brief three days later, headlined "Disabled woman aims to win Miss Michigan," reports that Madonna Emond, 20, "aims to become the first Miss Michigan with a disability." One of Emonds' legs is inches shorter than the other, the result of a sports accident. "Nevertheless, she doesn't let the disability stop her. Emond is a volunteer in the Special Olympics Program as well as the Association for Retarded Children, Safe Rides, and SADD." Omaha World-Herald reporter Cliff Brunt wrote on May 20 that "Anselmo-Merna long jumper Marty Myers uses his disabled right arm as motivation, not as an excuse. ... He has not let it stop him. The freshman not only qualified for state in the long jump, he plays football and basketball."

"Don't get me wrong," Wolfe writes. "I like to read news reports on disabled people, at least when they're about issues -- health insurance, discrimination, education -- that concern me and my peers.

"Just keep us in some kind of real context."

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