NYU Local, Disability, Representation

NYU Local is an independent news site at NYU. I write for Washington Square News, NYU's independent student newspaper. Note: this is a personal blog and I'm writing here in a personal capacity, outside my position as Opinion Editor with WSN. 

In one of my first journalism classes at NYU, my professor organized a short panel and Q&A on the subject of diversity in journalism. One of the speakers referenced this 2009 NY Post cartoon comparing Obama to a dead monkey.

Talking about how such a racist cartoon saw the light of day, the speaker highlighted the lack of reporters of color occupying high-ranking positions in the newsroom.

"There weren't enough voices in the upper echelons of the paper stopping that cartoon," Frankie Edozien, the speaker, said at the time. "Nobody was saying 'this will cause you a problem.' People in privileged positions have to be aware of their blind spots."

NYU Local published a profile of a disabled burlesque performer at NYU. She has the same disability as me — cerebral palsy.

Here's an archived version of the piece as I read it for the first time. This is how it began:

Initially, she seems like the typical NYU student. Coffee in hand, sitting in the Tisch Lounge, consistently distracted by various friends yet still somehow getting things done.

But then she gets up and saunters across the room to the door. It quickly becomes clear through how she walks that she is not like the rest. Is she drunk? Injured? Winner of an award for clumsiness?

Hey, it's really obvious that this student walks capital-D Differently. She's at NYU and an arts student and interesting or important enough to be the subject of a profile, but the most important thing you need to know about her —beyond the coffee and being easily distracted— is that she is "not like the rest" because of how she walks. We're even treated to the writer's stream of consciousness, her guesses as to, jeez, what is wrong with her?

The jibe that physically disabled people walk drunkenly is nothing new, but it's still completely out of line for NYU Local to publish it.

NYU Local and the WSN have long been rivals. We're competing in the same space to be NYU students and professors' first call for NYU news -- I get that. Back in August 2014, I commended them on a story about the NYU Secrets admin. I'm happy to give them credit both here on this blog and on social media when they do right.

But when they screw up, I'm gonna call them out on it.

Those lines should never have made it into the final version. I don't have any insight into the internal workings of NYU Local, so I don't know how many people read that piece and gave it the green light. I also don't know how many people with disabilities are on senior staff at the news site. But I guess the answer to the second question is zero. I genuinely can't comprehend how someone who knows people with disabilities (as friends, not as subjects of profiles -- y'know, real, complex people with lives outside our drunk, clumsy walks) could have okayed that piece.

It reminds me of the chimp cartoon I mentioned above. People familiar with disabilities, who had some insight how this would read to someone unfamiliar with the performer, either don't exist in senior positions at NYU Local or aren't being listened to when they do raise concerns.

And that sucks.

In the time after I posted about this on Facebook, the article was amended. The second paragraph has been removed. You can see it here. It also now includes this line at the bottom:

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article contained language that was offensive and discriminatory to those with CP. NYU Local regrets the error. 

Obviously, it would've been better if NYU Local had caught the offensive, discriminatory language prior to publication, but I appreciate how quickly they moved to change the article when it was brought to their attention. I wasn't the one who did —I don't have a rapport with either of NYUL's editors in chief nor the writer of the piece, although I do know the performer— and we haven't spoken directly about any of this.

I didn't write this piece as a call for an apology -- I'm just glad the damn line has been taken out. Journalists hold a privileged position, though. We have a responsibility to call out this sort of screw-up when we see it. I hope people call me out when I fall short, and I'll continue to do so when I see journalism that can do better.