Washington D.C., Sept. 4 – Joe Shapiro has been working in journalism since the 1970s—but his expertise has never stopped him from going out and chasing a story. “We don’t sit in big offices with assistants. We’re doing it ourselves,” Shapiro said.
This summer RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, presented Shapiro with an Excellence in Journalism Award during an annual summit on the future of people with disabilities. The event consisted of networking, as well as panels on employment, media inclusion, fighting bias, and intersectionality. Fellow journalist Judy Woodruff also received an award.
As a veteran reporter, Shapiro has had the opportunity to write on all types of policy. What makes his work special, though, is that he always considers the disability perspective—even if the issue doesn’t seem like a disability issue on the surface.
“A common thing in the lives of people with disabilities that they get discounted,” Shapiro stated in his speech. “Having an understanding of disability just informed my reporting much more, made it better.”
Shapiro first started covering stories about disability in 1987, when Justin Dart and Lex Frieden were first drafting a bill that would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the time, Shapiro was still working for US News. He received an unexpected call from a woman working for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, who told him, “there’s this group of Reagan appointees to a commission on disability and they are meeting in a hotel in Washington and drafting something.” According to Shapiro, “That seemed odd and interesting. And I went.”
In the 31 years since, he has covered stories on disabilities ranging from veterans to athletes. In 1993 he published the book No Pity on the fight that people with disabilities have in forging a new civil rights movement. A recent project of Shapiro’s has been covering the issue of sexual assault within the disability community.
“People with intellectual disabilities are raped at seven times the rate of other people, people without disabilities,” Shapiro told the audience before playing a clip from his story. “I wanted to tell the story because people with intellectual disabilities, have been telling me about this issue for years.”
In the part of his radio piece that he shared, people with intellectual disabilities were in a class on healthy relationships. The class chanted, “My body is my own. I get to decide what’s right for me,” before dancing to Aretha Franklin. “That is a great radio moment, that’s why—what I love about radio, the idea that I went there and here they are talking about they want respect and take a break and get up and dance to Aretha Franklin singing Respect.”
When asked why other journalists do not incorporate the facet of disability into their stories, Shapiro admitted he was not sure. “I’ve done so many good stories by looking at—just issues that everyone else covers, but looking at it from a disability perspective.”
Shapiro confessed that, at least in part, the lack of inclusion likely stems from the absence of reporters with disabilities themselves. “That’s a barrier, a ceiling that you’ll keep breaking.”
However, his response was not was not without hope. “A new generation of younger people with disabilities—as they have more opportunities, better education… It’s going to change.”