Beth Haller, PhD

Beth HallerBeth Haller teaches Disability Studies and Media Studies at Towson University in Maryland, where she taught full-time in the Mass Communication Department from 1996-2020. She is adjunct faculty for the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Disability Studies master’s and undergraduate programs, for York University’s Critical Disability Studies graduate program in Toronto, Canada, and for the Minor in Disability Studies at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Haller is co-editor of the 2020 Routledge Companion to Disability and Media(with Gerard Goggin of the University of Sydney and Katie Ellis of Curtin University, Australia). She is the author of Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media(Advocado Press, 2010) and the author/editor of Byline of Hope: Collected Newspaper and Magazine Writing of Helen Keller (Advocado Press, 2015). She was formerly co-editor of the Society for Disability Studies’ scholarly journal, Disability Studies Quarterly, (2003-2006).

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Haller helped found the Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) in 2016, with Patricia Almeida of Brazil, a journalist and mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, and Catia Malaquias of Australia, a lawyer and mother of a son with Down syndrome. Find out more about GADIM here:

Haller currently maintains a blog on disability issues in the news, Media dis&dat. She has been researching media images of disability since 1991, when she did a master’s thesis at the University of Maryland-College Park on the coverage of Deaf persons in The Washington Post and New York Times. Her Ph.D. dissertation at Temple University investigated elite news media coverage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Beth Haller has her research on media and disability published in Disability Studies Quarterly, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, Disability & Society, Journalism Studies, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Research in Social Science and Disability, Journal of Comic Art, Journal of Magazine and New Media Research, Mass Comm Review, and Journalism History.

Text from Video:

Hi, I’m Beth Haller. I’m a professor of mass communication at Towson University in Maryland. Also teach disability studies there and at several other campuses. I teach at York University and in Toronto in their disability studies program, and at university of Texas Arlington in their disability studies minor. I’ve been doing research since the early nineties about media representations of people with disabilities. I have a, kind of unique relationship to the ADA because my dissertation on how the news media covered it. Before I went to Temple University in Philadelphia to get my PhD, I was at University of Maryland College Park getting my master’s. I started that in 1989 and there’s a reason for all these numbers and these dates. In 1988 is when the Deaf President Now movement happened at Gallaudet University in DC.

I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew about what was happening because I was a journalist before I became an academic. When I started at College Park in 1989, I ended up doing an article for a class about a Deaf student at Gallaudet. And I got very interested in the Deaf community that there’s a huge Deaf community in the DC area. I ended up doing my master’s thesis on how the Deaf community was represented before, during and after Deaf President Now in the New York Times and the Washington Post. That was a jumping off point because when I left college park the ADA had just been passed. And when I got to Temple to start working on my PhD, I knew that I wanted to still work in the area of disability and we just have this major disability rights law passed.

I remember it more as a focus of my research, because I don’t necessarily remember seeing the actual coverage on the day it happened in 1990, but I do remember looking at all the coverage because that was the subject of my dissertation. It was really interesting to look at it as an academic and to kind of watch it happen and then not happen as it moved into the future. So my dissertation looked at kind of how the mainstream news media, you know, all the big news magazines and the major newspapers back then. And so I finished my dissertation in 94, graduated in 95. It was very early days of the ADA, so it wasn’t really being implemented yet. As the years have passed, it’s been very interesting to watch how things weren’t happening.

I think what we all thought was going to happen was Congress passes this major disability rights law, and then people will follow it because it’s now federal law not to discriminate based on disability. But that isn’t what happened. And from a media standpoint, that really kind of hurt the ADA. I think they thought that same way that it’s now law and everything will be fine. There was such history being made, covered in the media so badly that the activists thought they could get this passed and then everything would be fine. They didn’t need the media for anything. And so I come onto the scene, I start going to society for disability studies meetings in the early nineties, and started presenting my research and even the disability community in those first, early years, right after the ADA, didn’t understand why the media was important because I remember presenting at a conference, at a disability studies conference and people coming up to me and saying, Oh, that’s really nice that you do work on media.

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Um, but you know, we have bigger things we need to be dealing with. You know, getting people, jobs, getting people a proper education, getting people out of nursing homes. My response to everybody was how do you think you’re going to do that if you’re not getting out information in the public opinion. So if you’re not able to change public opinion, how can you get these things accomplished? And how do you get public opinion changed? You get a proper narrative going in the media. And now there’s actual like disability studies research and disability activists who talked about this in the early two thousands about they took the wrong tactic after the ADA was passed and decided that, you know, it was passed, it would get enforced. Yay. We can move on. Um, but unfortunately the business kind of narrative came into the mix and they control the message that was in the media.

And so for quite a number of years after the ADA was passed, it wasn’t being enforced because there was this narrative in the news media that it was an unfunded mandate and well, we never saw a person with a disability in our store. Why do we have to do all this stuff? Well, of course the reason they didn’t see a person with a disability, that was a wheelchair user in their stores because it wasn’t accessible or nobody came to their website because it wasn’t accessible, but they didn’t get that. And the lot of the journalists didn’t know people in the disability community and the disability community was very wary of the news media because they’d done such a bad job, but any news coverage in my opinion is better than no news coverage usually. And so the business community really took over the narrative and had this really kind of negative, perception of the ADA that was funneling into the media.

And then people just didn’t know about it because it wasn’t getting covered that much. There was a national poll done, I believe in like 1995, of Americans, what they knew about the ADA and other disability rights issues, only 18% of Americans in 1995 had even heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I think if I’m remembering the stats, right. And so to me, that is the fault of not engaging with media to do stories about that. And I know it’s very difficult even today. It’s very difficult to get the media to do a more complex policy, legal government related story about disability and not one of those kind of inspiration kind of narrative stories, but, um, it’s still worth fighting to try to get those stories into the media. And the other kind of like data point, I would say about what I always tell my students when we’re talking about the ADA is the ADA’s enforcement depends on who’s in the white house.

So we had quite a number of Republican presidents who did not care about the ADA being enforced for like eight years. So that’s why it really only got more enforced once Barack Obama became president. So there’s a lot of external factors that meant that the ADA was not one to be changing things as radically as we would have hoped what we were thinking back in 1990. The ADA has had impact in more recent years. Like I said, since president Obama came into office and it was just getting enforced. I use a lot of these kinds of examples in my class of news stories about, you know, the ADA finally being implemented. And one that I, a couple that I use, one is about a little city in Pennsylvania. The headline, the headlines of a lot of ADA stories still are kind of, I say, they have this like blaming tone.

Like, you know, things are expensive because the ADA things are closing because of the ADA. And I always tell my students that the narrative should be flipped. The story really is why didn’t this town and Pennsylvania comply with the ADA for, you know, however many years, 20 years. And so that to me is the real story. Um, this one headline was about, you know, this town I believe was Logan’s Port, Pennsylvania. You know, the headline was, you know, they will most pay $8 million for some kind of ADA compliance that they were finally going to do. I’m thinking like 2008 or something. And I’m like, okay, that $8 million would have been a lot less if they’d just been compliant back in 1992 when they were supposed to be compliant, but they’re still blaming the ADA. But now I think people, the general public now knows a lot more.

And I actually chalk a lot up to social media because now people are getting like, not a mediated story through the news media and some journalist or some newscaster, they’re actually on social media with people with disabilities and see what their life is like. And I know in the last couple of years when there was kind of an assault on the ADA and people were in Congress, were thinking about and the president, was thinking about figuring out a way to knock it out, I saw a lot some on social media because they were finally aware that there was a disability rights law and they said it should stay. It should not be repealed. And so I think the media have a lot of power. And now that we have this very personal media of social media, people get to know actual people with disabilities in their community, and they see the benefits of having things in braille or having captioning or having wheelchair ramps, or just thinking about asking somebody before you barrel ahead and create something that may be inaccessible.

So I think the general public is a lot more aware than they were in 1995 when only 18% of people had even heard of the ADA. And even if they haven’t heard of ADA, they’re in favor of disability rights. And I think that’s one thing that came out of that survey even back in 1995, is that they might have heard of the ADA. But if you pose to Americans, the concepts of disability rights, then they agree with that. They don’t think people should be discriminated against just because they need a ramp to get into a building or, um, need a sign language interpreter to apply for a job. So I think there’s a better feeling among the American public in terms of understanding disability rights and making sure that, you know, everybody has equal access. And also, I think people now understand that people with disabilities are them are their friends, are their family members.

And so a lot of the kind of like hidden stuff that was happening before the ADA, where people with disabilities were being hidden in their families, or nobody talked about it. I even noticed that when I started teaching at Temple, when I was a grad student, the younger generation, because a lot of them had been grown up inclusive education, there was no shame. They were proud to talk about their own disability, their parent’s disability, their sibling’s disability, you know, are still remember one of my students. We had a discussion, actually one of my journalism classes and one student she was talking about that her mother was fluent in sign language because both of her grandparents were deaf. And so her mother’s first language was sign language, even though she was hearing another kid was like, you know, my brother has down syndrome and he said it with pride.

So I think kind the cultural change that the ADA brought is really powerful too, because that is what gets you to the place, if you’re a business person that, Oh, okay, well maybe I should be more open to hiring somebody with Down Syndrome to work at my grocery store or whatever. Um, so I think having that kind of cultural change where people are now, including the disability community as part of the American citizenry, then that is a very powerful thing. I think that the ADA did. Yeah, if the ADA stays around, I think that’s a really good part of our future because it’s a really good law. It was written really well. And, um, it just needs to be enforced at all times. And I think, you know, we learned about how it could be enforced in those eight years that President Obama was in office.

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And I think we can continue to learn that and the justice department and department of Ed and all the other federal agencies that enforce it, I think the community knows how to reach them and tell them to enforce things. And people I think are even getting a little bit better. Even the business community understands now that people with disabilities are a major part of our consumer culture. And now, you know, with the pandemic and, um, you know, everybody kind of working online, you know, people with disabilities have been, can be the leaders. They’re the ones that have been doing the work around, try to make a living when they’ve not been able to go to an inaccessible building. So I think the future is bright if we will listen to disabled people about what the world needs to basically embrace everyone and accommodate everyone. And there’ll be a better future for everyone because, you know, we talk about the kind of hidden benefits of access for everyone.

So, you know, think about all the people that use curb cuts for their wheelie luggage and all the UPS guys that use for cuts for rolling their hand carts and you know, all the bars that use closed captioning because they’re loud, you know, so everybody gets benefits from disability-related access. And I think it can only get better if we will learn to trust that the disability community can lead us because they’re the ones that are the most innovative and kind of entrepreneurial about making sure that they can move forward in the most, you know, access-friendly ways. So I think there should be a lot more listening to people with disabilities in the future. And they’ve already worked out the problems that we’re now dealing with in a pandemic. And you know, I think they can help us build a future. That’s better for everyone, whether you have a disability or not.

So what can we steps can we take right now? I think just being, if you’re not a person with a disability being a good ally, if you’re a family member being helping to make sure that the person in your family with a disability is empowered to be independent and, you know, giving them all the support they need, if you’re a person with a disability, making sure that the world is accommodating to you and everybody needs to, you know, focus on the kind of making the world completely accessible. Like, you know, a lot of people live in houses that cannot be made accessible and a lot of things are grandfathered into the ADA because they were, you know, built long before the ADA existed. But there’s other locations. There’s online, there’s video chatting, there’s all kinds of work arounds. And I think we can all embrace.

And we’ve got to quit whining about this stuff because, you know, I mean, I’m talking to you in the middle of a pandemic, but I hear so many people complaining about things that I’m like, you know, this is all good. If we can all still be connected, it’s fine. And things are going to change. We need to learn to adapt. People with disabilities can teach us how to adapt. And they have a major disability rights organization called adaption as well. And so, I mean, I think that’s the key, um, for all of us is to start learning, to roll with it, learning, to adapt and make sure that we’re bringing everyone along into this new world that we’re going to have to fashion post-pandemic. And that it’s accessible to everyone that we’re all equal, that we’re making sure that supports and what people need are in place.

And then we can be a better community. It’s kind of a weird time to be talking about all this. I mean, I know it’s the ADA and 30th anniversary. I’m very glad that it is here and still exists, but I really feel like we can use the model of the ADA from 30 years ago as we move forward. And since we’re going to have to restructure so much of our world, why not do it accessibly this time? I think the ADA can still give us guidance, even though it’s 30 years old. I mean, I think it can, it was built to lead us into the future, just like a lot of our founding documents were. And I think if we look at the spirit of everything that’s been passed in the good way of giving people rights in this country and we follow them, we will fashion the future of some of a place that is hopefully very accessible and make sure that everybody has equal access to our world.

In partnership with Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
Author: Beyond Awareness: Bringing Disability into Diversity Work in K-12 Schools & Communities, and children’s book Ed Roberts: Champion of Disability Rights, ADA 30th Anniversary Edition

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