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Disabilities Beat: A new chance to hear the disability community

A graphic with a red background. The first level of text is the WBFO NPR logo. There is a line below it and then another line of text reading "Disabilities Beat."
Every Wednesday, hear 7-8 minute Disabilities Beat reports on WBFO during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
The WBFO Disabilities Beat is funded in part by the Peter & Elizabeth Tower Foundation.

This episode kicks off WBFO’s new weekly Disabilities Beat segment. But as we create a new space for stories from the disability community to be shared, how can you, the listener, interact with this segment? What can you expect to learn? Disabilities Beat Reporter Emyle Watkins asked some of our sources what you can expect and we break down what ableism is.

Additionally, as part of this initiative, we are also rolling out new accessibility features for Disabilities Beat stories and WBFO.org. Weekly Disabilities Beat segments will include an online transcript and our website now includes a new accessibility widget. Visitors can customize their user experience by adjusting displays including font size, text spacing, contrast, saturation, a dyslexia-friendly font, and more. Look for the accessibility menu, which is a blue circle with a white symbol of a person with outstretched arms, on the right side of our website.

Plain Language Description: This episode explains what topics you will learn more about during the weekly Disabilities Beat segment, which will air every Wednesday. You will hear from three people in the disability community who share their thoughts on discrimination and stereotypes that people with disabilities experience. You will also learn how news is changing for people with disabilities and what people with disabilities hope the community will learn from this new segment.


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I'm Emyle Watkins and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat. I'm excited to share that this is our first week of our new Disabilities Beat segment. I want to take this first segment to reintroduce you to what we cover.

Emyle is pictured smiling at the camera. They are a white person with long brown hair and brown eyes. They are wearing a black blouse and standing outside.
Dallas Taylor
Emyle Watkins outside of Buffalo Toronto Public Media's studios in 2023.

We're one of very few news organizations across the country to have a dedicated Disabilities Beat and full-time disability reporter. And what's made us unique is that when many people think of disability, they think in terms of health. They might think disability reporting means writing about healthcare or medical treatments.

But here at WBFO, we look at disability through the social perspective. Can people with disabilities access, transportation, housing, education, and employment? What barriers exist that prevent or hinder people with disabilities from having equity in our society? And what does it mean to be disabled? What is disability culture and how do we understand the experience of being disabled?

As a disabled journalist, I know firsthand hearing stories about disability may be new to some and can often challenge beliefs about disability that we've formed. Throughout our lives, we see and experience ableism, or discrimination against disabled people, and internalize it. Even if you have a disability, your own ableism is something you end up confronting when you get to know the disability community better. So I reached out to a few of my sources to get their advice on how you can engage with the disability community through this new segment.

Sophia Roberts: And I would say there's a lot that the disability community has to offer in terms of all things in life, talents, skills, observations, perspectives, movements, all kinds of things. And I think disability is a thing that, they say it's a club you can join at any time.

Emyle Watkins: Sophia Roberts considers herself an ally and has worked with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities for over two decades. She says that when she came into the disability field, she was told she would be a mentor to people with disabilities, but found it ended up being the other way around.

Sophia, a white woman with short dark hair smiles at the camera. She is wearing glasses, black dangle earrings, a necklace and an orange-pink blazer.
Courtesy Sophia Roberts
Sophia Roberts smiles at the camera in an undated photo.

Sophia Roberts: I think that that's a myth that I would love to see busted. I think people with even very significant disabilities who many times get overlooked or just get looked at as needing help have a lot from their experience. They have a lot to teach and a perspective that's very, very valuable.

Emyle Watkins: She says in her years working with the disability community, she's learned:

Sophia Roberts: All of us have things we can do and things we can't do. All of us deal with ableism even if we aren't disabled and it's not directly targeting us. We deal with the attitudes of ableism in our lives and in our society, and it does affect us. And I think I would love to see that change.

Emyle Watkins: And Roberts points out hearing the stories of people with disabilities may challenge your preconceived notions of disability, and that's okay.

Sophia Roberts: The first time I heard someone with a very significant speech and physical disability and learning disability speak about their deep thoughts actually about current events, I felt a feeling of surprise inside of me. And I noticed that and I thought, why did I have that? Why am I surprised that they have these deep thoughts? And I honestly think the answer is because I had not been exposed to that before. My school wasn't integrated. I didn't have [an] opportunity to meet people with disabilities when I was young and I'm a little older. So notice those things and realize that's some of your preconceived notions and things that you may have been taught by the absence of things, not by someone telling you.

Emyle Watkins: And as self-advocate Izzy Cruz points out, many of us grew up with a different image of disability in the news, but thanks to self-advocates, a movement of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, news is changing. People with disabilities are demanding better coverage that more fully encompasses experiences of disability.

Izzy Cruz smiles and holds up a peace sign. He is wearing a blue striped tracksuit, and sunglasses, and is sitting in a power wheelchair.
Courtesy Izzy Cruz
Izzy Cruz holds up a peace sign in an undated photo.

Izzy Cruz: I feel like disability coverage, like news stories and things like that when we were kids or when I was a kid, I should say, wasn't really as prominent. Back then, you just used to see kids get recognized or be mentioned in something if they were getting something or if they were approved for something big that they fought for. And now I feel like disability news and information is more prevalent now than it was back then because we have people like myself and so many others that stand up for people with disabilities and the disability community as a whole. Because if there weren't people who did, how would our news be able to get out there? How would people know that something was happening in the disability community if it wasn't for us?

Emyle Watkins: As Cruz shares, he hopes hearing experiences of disability on the radio helps people understand what we have in common.

Izzy Cruz: If you're thinking that you're the only one that's going through these kind of situations, you're not. We all go through these things. They all might be a little different, but we all have similar stories and we all have a story to tell.

Emyle Watkins: Additionally, Cruz says media coverage has made a difference in how the disability community is understood by those with power.

Izzy Cruz: The New York state government is finally starting to get a grip on things that people in the disability community need, such as being able to access just their regular sidewalks or being able to access buildings that weren't accessible before because of the lack of support that the disability community had.

Emyle Watkins: Lastly, disability advocate Mike Rogers shared with me that he hopes people see our community in a new light.

Frank Cammarata, a white man in a black tee shirt and orange pants, sits in a chair to the left of  Mike Rogers, a white man with short greying hair, wearing glasses, a pink polo and tan pants and using a power wheelchair. They are talking and holding papers.
Emyle Watkins
Frank Cammarata, Erie County's ADA Coordinator and Director of the County's Office for People with Disabilities and Mike Rogers, Western Region Coordinator for the Self-Advocacy Association of New York talk with each other at the ADA anniversary press conference

Mike Rogers: The only thing I've ever wanted people to take away is that people are people and don't be afraid of them. The able-bodied world is still kind of a little bit squeamish about people with disabilities in general. There's still that old stereotype about ableness. They have something wrong with them or they can't be like I am when all of that is just fake. That's not true. Yes, we have our challenges and disabilities, but that doesn't mean we're not like you. There's that dividing line that people have and I think you have to start going over the wall, going over to the other side, crossing the street.

Emyle Watkins: And his advice to listeners?

Mike Rogers: Enjoy the coverage. Learn what you learn and like with any other show, enjoy the show. Don't think of it always as a teachable moment. I have to learn and absorb. You don't have to be a scholar every time you listen about a person with a disability or a problem that somebody might have that needs to be solved. Just take it in as a person, as if you were having a conversation with somebody.

Emyle Watkins: If you're ready to hear more from our disability community, you can tune in to WBFO on Wednesdays during Morning Edition, and All Things Considered to hear this segment. We also have this segment, including a transcript on our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins and thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
Related Content
  • On this episode of the Disabilities Beat, Emyle Watkins speaks with Erie County’s newest Family Court Judge, the honorable Shannon Filbert, about her perspective as a judge with a disability on what people with disabilities should know about family court. We break down some misconceptions about family court, the role disability can play in custody hearings and where the family court system could improve.
  • On this episode of the Disabilities Beat, Emyle Watkins speaks with Kevin Smith, the director of Mental Health Peer Connection, about how peer-led services are helping to bridge a treatment gap. We also learn about their Renewal Center, which offers a peer-led alternative to a psychiatric emergency room.