How disability is treated : NPR Public Editor A story provokes ire and joy

How disability is treated

A story provokes ire and joy

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

When journalists frame a story, they create a hidden structure of assumptions to support the premise. When listeners or readers object to a story, they are sometimes rejecting the frame. This phenomenon was evident by the audience reaction to a recent NPR story about a gravestone depicting a child leaping out of his wheelchair. A picture of the memorial repeatedly surfaces on social media.

Seeking out the background, an NPR reporter tracked down the parents of the deceased child and told the story of how their beliefs inspired the monument to their son, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair.

The parents' beliefs became the frame for the story, particularly the headline. While some people found joy in the story, audience members who disagreed with the parents' views took issue with NPR for making those ideas prominent and not adding additional perspectives that reflected a more modern take on disability and ability.

Read on to see what reporter Emily Barske found as we looked into the reporting behind this story and consulted with an expert source on journalism about disability.

We also address a complaint (to which we found no substance) that NPR identifies the political leanings of people and organizations only on the left. It's a charge we've heard before. This time, reporter Amaris Castillo examined it.

Castillo also shares a favorite story about a secret school for girls in Afghanistan.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The language around disability

A recent NPR piece told the story behind a gravestone that was created by the parents of Matthew Robison, who had cerebral palsy. When he died at age 10 in 1999, his parents wanted a grave monument that showed him leaping up from his wheelchair, which he had used throughout his life. Some audience members took issue with it, while others were inspired.

Ciera-Sadé Wade tweeted: This is #ableist. Parents can remember their child how they want, but @NPR this is highly irresponsible of you to highlight. Wheelchairs are liberating because they allow their users to experience life. Rethink this story.

Matthew Johnson tweeted: Ugh. The wheelchair is something that liberates folks for more participation, not something to be liberated from. I also reject the idea that heaven is a place without disabilities (it would be a place where there is full access though!). NPR: talk to disability justice people!

Meredyth Bass tweeted: I'm not sobbing, you're sobbing. Lovely.

Danny Miller tweeted: This is why we do what we do. So that some day our kids will be free of their wheelchairs.

Supervising editor Fernando Alfonso III, who assigned the piece, said NPR pursued it because the image of the gravestone has been circulating on Reddit for years, but the story behind it wasn't well known.

The photo "has often garnered a lot of interest because of how unique this gravestone is, the artistry of it, and one of the main questions that people have kind of danced around on the site is, 'Who was this boy, and why such an ornate memorial for him?'" Alfonso said. They wanted to find out.

In response to some audience members' views that the piece was ableist, he said he understands that how people perceive wheelchairs is not monolithic.

"In the case of this story, this was a family [where] the parents of this child didn't necessarily see the chair as something freeing for their loved one," Alfonso said. "And that is the perspective they held, and I think it is something valid and worth exploring in a story."

Highlighting the family's perspective isn't an issue — but not including a perspective about ableism is where the piece falls short, said Kristin Gilger, the director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

In the piece, NPR used the phrase "spent his entire life in a wheelchair." Gilger said that language isn't accurate.

"People don't spend their entire life in a wheelchair. They are in and out of a wheelchair," she said. The NCDJ recommends language like "someone who uses a wheelchair."

The Associated Press Stylebook, which recently updated some of its disability guidelines, recommends avoiding "stories or photos meaning to portray something positive or uplifting, with the unintended implication that a disability is negative and that disabled people are objects of pity or wonder."

The stylebook also says: "Avoid writing that implies ableism: the belief that abilities of people who aren't disabled are superior."

The story on the gravestone reminded Gilger of backlash on social media when news coverage about scientist Stephen Hawking's death described him as being free from his wheelchair at last. Hawking's disability was "an integral part of who he was," she said.

Wheelchairs can allow the people who use them "to participate in the world in a way they might not otherwise be able to," she added.

Alfonso understands that this is a polarizing topic, but he said the story "is not to take away anything from people who feel wheelchairs are freeing, and I have immense respect for people who feel that way. But this is a glimpse into one family's life. And I think it would have also been a disservice to our readers to not show that perspective."

The story of the family's desire to honor their son is certainly worth telling. Reporting from disability viewpoints would have been worth including, too. — Emily Barske

Labels: Using "left" and "right"

Susan Sternberg tweeted: Once again @NPR uses "left-leaning." Have never, in decades of listening (& supporting local station @WNYC), heard @npratc use "right-leaning," or — as is often appropriate for January 6th & other attacks — "rightwing." @NPRpubliceditor."

The written version of the referenced story from All Things Considered described the Economic Policy Institute as "left-leaning" — though the think tank says it is nonpartisan. The radio version of this story did not use the term. But we don't find that NPR's approach is lopsided. We did a search and found examples of NPR and member station journalists also using the terms "right-leaning" and "right-wing" on All Things Considered:

  • In a June story about Republicans' effort to weaponize immigration ahead of the midterm elections, All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro said: "Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is escalating his clash with the White House over unaccompanied migrant children who cross the southern border without their parents or guardians. This has been a growing focus for Republicans and right-wing media."
  • In January, All Things Considered aired a story by tech correspondent Shannon Bond about online groups losing clout in the year since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In both the digital and audio versions of the story, Bond described these figures and groups as "right-wing" and "far-right."
  • In this February story on All Things Considered about an FBI raid of Congressman Henry Cuellar's home, Texas Public Radio producer Sofia Sanchez described the official as having taken "right-leaning stances on abortion rights, gun control and immigration."

We also reached out to Tony Cavin, NPR's managing editor for standards and practices, for additional insight on the usage of these terms. In an email, he said ATC uses both "right-leaning" and "right-wing" when necessary and provided a list of examples.

"At NPR we encourage the use of descriptions rather than labels, but there are times when terms such as right or left-leaning or right or left-wing help listeners and readers understand the dynamics of the story," he said. — Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Secret schools for Afghan teen girls

Since taking power in Afghanistan nearly a year ago, the Taliban has banned teenage girls from attending secondary school. NPR international correspondent Diaa Hadid and NPR producer Fazelminallah Qazizai brought Goats and Soda readers inside a house on Kabul's outskirts, where a 21-year-old woman named Nazanin is defying the ban through a secret school she started for a group of girls. "If we follow the Taliban, we'd just stay home," Nazanin told NPR. "No. We have to do something." Other secret schools are emerging, as well. It's a story of bravery, rebellion and hope. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute