Yvette Fang interviewed Suzanne Levine for the Disability Visibility Project™ at StoryCorps San Francisco on October 4th, 2014. In this clip, Suzanne and Yvette talk about how they met, and Suzanne talks about her work around journalism and the disability community. She talks about her early work as a photographer, and about the creation of the National Center for Disability and Journalism. Transcript below.
[Music: percussion and piano]
Yvette Fang: So Suzanne, it’s been really wonderful to reconnect with you, and our reconnection kind of reminded me of how we initially met and how we became friends.
Suzanne Levine: Well, we met going to a project, going to Beijing for the women’s conference in 1995… I think it was. The NGO forum on women.
Yvette Fang: You have a better memory than me, that’s for sure.
Suzanne Levine: [laughter] And we… it was part of an organizing group to bring women from around the world, women with disabilities. Mainly from the US, but there were efforts from around the world to come together at the forum to address disabled women’s issues. I went as a photographer, as a woman with a disability and as a photographer documenting our travels and experiences.
I think for me, I’ve always been interested in photography, and when I was in graduate school I actually got diagnosed with a disability and for the first time identified and had more of a … just, all the pieces of the puzzle started to be put together. And so I felt like it was important to be vocal and to document, and I think I just had an internal need to make what wasn’t visible in me, visible on paper, or in an image, and to communicate it. And so, it became a community that I identified with very strongly,
So, yeah, I was a freelance photographer, and I wanted to work primarily in the disability/civil rights community, documenting everyday life and the issues involved with people with disabilities, so that ranged from … I actually photographed you a lot, and you became my model.
Yvette Fang: I remember. I do remember, I have proof to show for that, for those years.
Suzanne Levine: [laughter] But, I remember one in particular, there was one in your living room where I looked up at you and the lighting was, you were sitting in the bay of the window –
Yvette Fang: Yes
Suzanne Levine: And you looked really strong and just looked … It was one of my favorite images of you. Another one we staged was for a brochure on violence against women with disabilities. I think it’s really an important issue because there are … A lot of people don’t think that women with disabilities are subjected to violence, but in fact there is abuse by caregivers, by partners, just like everybody else and a lot of times it’s not as acknowledged as much as it should be. Shelters need to be wheelchair-accessible, need to be accessible for people who are deaf, as a safe place to go to, and a lot of times that’s not always thought about. That was their awareness campaign.
[Music: percussion and piano]
As I was photographing and photographing local Bay Area organizations, disability organizations like Through the Looking Glass. Through the Looking Glass does parenting with disabilities. Parents with disabilities assisting their children. Working closely with them and understanding their organization, and then there would be some kind of news item, and they would be interviewed as a source for the news, but it just got all twisted around and the news media didn’t really understand what Through the Looking Glass was about.
Meanwhile, it was getting more and more difficult for me to physically photograph and I felt like I needed to change, adapt and change. So, the National Center for Disability and Journalism, I founded in 1998, which was a journalism education organization to work with journalists and educators on how to report on disability issues. Most people don’t get that kind of training and I worked with a handful of journalists who were involved in a diversity, a journalism diversity circle in the Bay Area, where disability wasn’t a part of that. It was more about gay, lesbian, race, gender.
It was probably one of the most difficult moments, because there is a lot of skepticism of, that disability wasn’t really a diversity issue. But, eventually we all came around, I brought in a facilitator, we had a lot of conversations and decided that the best thing to do was to start a journalism education organization.
I loved being in front of the class, I have to say, and working with students who had no knowledge about disability and starting them off with assumptions about disability. We’d write on the board the negative and positive stereotypes basically, and leave that in the background and then when we’d go through and analyze different articles, we’d then refer back to these stereotypes so that people would understand where they were putting themselves into, where the stereotypes were being put into the story.
And then, what I tried to promote was a three-pronged approach to get more neutral and accurate reporting and that was by looking at the sources that they used. Sometimes they would source medical professionals when it had nothing to do with medical issues but the person had a disability. Sometimes also to look at the angle or the tone of the story. Then the last one which is always a favorite was the language and what kind of language and how do you refer to a person with a disability.
Yvette Fang: Yeah, well, I mean, it’s a very um… it never ends, you know? You may feel like you’ve done your job this year and then next year something happens and you may be feeling like you’re back to square two. Not one anymore, but ..
Suzanne Levine: Well, I think that’s why it’s important that journalism schools integrate disability reporting issues in their curricula. That it’s not just, you know when they do the diversity section, that they include disability as part of that. And… it’s not an easy fight, I think the perception is the pie is only so big, and there is only so much room and only so much time. But the fact is, is that, you know, when so many people have a disability and it’s so much a part of our normal life, that it’s something that should be integrated in the curricula.
[Music: Melodic keyboard]
It was pretty tough to maintain the non-profit and constantly look for funding. I was very fortunate in that I put the word out that I was looking for somebody else, a university to take on the non-profit, and after a couple of different opportunities and discussions, it ended up going to Arizona State University in their Walter Kronkite School of Journalism.
I don’t know if — I want, I want to feel like it’s — I think the survival of NCDJ is an accomplishment. Whether we have fairness and accuracy in news reporting? I think that’s just such an ebb and flow thing, and I’m not convinced it’s always … Sometimes it’s good and a lot of times it’s not.
[Music fades out]
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Disability Visibility Project™. (2017, March 27). DVP Interview: Suzanne Levine and Yvette Fang. Retrieved from: http://wp.me/p4H7t1-Nbj
A photo featuring Suzanne Levine and Yvette Fang taken on October 4th, 2014. The woman on the left is Yvette Fang. She appears to be of Asian descent, has short dark hair, is looking at the camera and smiling. She is wearing earrings and a light blue shirt. The woman on the right is Suzanne Levine. She appears to be white, has long curly brown hair that is pulled back in a half ponytail and is wearing glasses and an aqua colored shirt. She is looking at the camera and smiling.
Produced for the Disability Visibility Project™ by Geraldine Ah-Sue and Alice Wong with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the story of our lives. For more: www.storycorps.org and www.disabilityvisibilityproject.com