Disability Reporter Award Winner

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Hear from the winner of the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s national contest for disability reporting, the only such award in the nation. Chris Serres is the 2016 winner of the Katherine Schneider Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

CHRISTINA ESTES: EVERY YEAR ASU'S WALTER CRONKITE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM PRESENTS THE KATHERINE SCHNEIDER AWARD. "ARIZONA HORIZON" PRODUCER ALLYSA ADAMS TALKED TO CHRIS SERRES ONE OF THE WINNERS ABOUT THE SERIES.

ALLYSA ADAMS: CHRIS, THANKS FOR JOINING US. YOU AND YOUR TEAM AT THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE RECEIVED THIS AWARD FOR A SERIES CALLED "A MATTER OF DIGNITY." TELL ME WHAT THE SERIES WAS ABOUT.

CHRIS SERRES: FIRST OFF, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR HAVING ME. IN EARLY 2015, ME AND A TEAM OF REPORTERS AT THE STAR TRIBUNE SET OUT TO TRY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE DAILY LIVES OF PEOPLE IN MINNESOTA WITH DISABILITIES. THAT WOULD INCLUDE PEOPLE WITH PHYSICAL AND DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES. WHAT WE HAD HEARD WAS PEOPLE ALL OVER OUR STATE WERE BEING SEGREGATED, BOTH IN GROUP HOMES AS WELL AS IN WORKSHOPS, SHELTERED WORKSHOPS. AND WE HAD CONCERNS ABOUT THAT. AND SO WE SET OUT TO TRY TO UNDERSTAND WELL, WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS FOR PEOPLE THAT ARE LIVING IN THESE HOMES, WORKING IN THESE WORKSHOPS, AND WHAT WE FOUND IS THAT PEOPLE WERE BEING UNNECESSARILY SEGREGATED, AN LIKELY IN VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW, AND THAT PEOPLE IN WORKSHOPS WERE MAKING AS LITTLE AS 50 CENTS AN HOUR DOING MENIAL LABOR, AND THAT MANY OF THEM HAD NEVER BEEN ASKED WHAT THEY WANTED OUT OF THEIR LIVES, WHAT THEIR AMBITIONS WERE, AND WE FELT DUTY-BOUND TO TELL THEIR STORIES.

ALLYSA ADAMS: AND ONE OF THE BIG THINGS THAT YOU FOUND, I MEAN, PEOPLE MIGHT THINK, OH, YOU'RE PUTTING FOLKS TO WORK WHO MIGHT NOT HAVE OPPORTUNITIES FOR JOBS, WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT, BUT WHAT IS THE BIG -- ONE OF THE BIGGEST THINGS YOU FOUND WAS SEGREGATION. THAT WAS ONE OF THE BIGGEST ISSUES, WASN'T IT?

CHRIS SERRES: SEGREGATION WAS A HUGE ISSUE, AND WE CAN'T MAKE ACROSS THE BOARD STATEMENTS ABOUT WHAT'S RIGHT OR WRONG FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES. I MEAN, THERE'S A SAYING THAT IF YOU MEET ONE PERSON WITH AUTISM, YOU'VE MET ONE PERSON WITH AUTISM, RIGHT? AND SO WE WEREN'T THERE TO MAKE ACROSS THE BOARD DECLARATIONS BUT AT LEAST IN OUR STATE WE HAVE SEEN AS MANY AS 12,000 PEOPLE CONFINED TO THESE SEGREGATED SETTINGS AND WE JUST COULDN'T BELIEVE THAT THERE WERE THAT MANY PEOPLE THAT SHOULD BE CUT OFF FROM MAINSTREAM SOCIETY, THAT SHOULD BE CUT OFF FROM A REGULAR JOB, FROM A REGULAR HOME AND FROM OPPORTUNITIES THAT YOU AND I TAKE FOR GRANTED.

ALLYSA ADAMS: I GUESS ONE OF THE OTHER ISSUES YOU FOUND WAS THERE WASN'T MUCH ROOM FOR THEM TO ADVANCE AND IMPROVE IN THESE SEGREGATED WORKSHOPS. THEY WERE JUST STUCK BECAUSE THERE WAS -- THERE WAS NO OPPORTUNITY FOR THEM.

CHRIS SERRES: THAT'S RIGHT. AND YOU USE THE WORD STUCK. THAT TERM, EVERYWHERE WE WENT IN MINNESOTA WE HEARD THAT TERM, STUCK. PEOPLE WERE STUCK, STUCK, STUCK. TO A LARGE EXTENT, MINNESOTA, LIKE MUCH OF THE COUNTRY KIND OF GOT STUCK IN AN OLD MODEL, A PATERNALISTIC MODEL OF CARE FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES. YOU KNOW, WE CLOSED DOWN THESE LARGE STATE MENTAL HOSPITALS BACK IN THE '70S AND '80S, AND THEN WE INCREASINGLY PUT THEM IN GROUP HOMES OR IN SHELTERED WORKSHOPS AND THEN WE SORT OF FORGOT ABOUT THEM, AND AGAIN AND AGAIN WE CAME ACROSS PEOPLE THAT HAD NEVER BEEN ASKED WHAT THEY WANTED OUT OF THEIR LIVES, YOU KNOW. WE MET A YOUNG MAN THAT SPENT EVERY DAY PICKING UP GARBAGE IN A LANDFILL. HE WAS MAKING LESS THAN A DOLLAR AN HOUR PICKING UP GARBAGE IN A LANDFILL. AND NO ONE HAD EVER REALLY ASKED HIM, IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT TO DO EVERY DAY. WE FELT IT WAS REALLY IMPORTANT TO TRY TO DRAW OUT THEIR STORIES TO FIND OUT WHAT THEY WANTED OUT OF THEIR LIVES. BECAUSE SO MANY OF THEM DID FEEL STUCK AND THEY FELT ISOLATED.

ALLYSA ADAMS: YOU LOOKED AT GROUP HOMES AS WELL, AND FOR MANY OF US, THE THINKING HAS LONG BEEN THAT GROUP HOMES ACTUALLY GAVE PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES SOME INDEPENDENCE, THEY WERE ALLOWED TO MOVE AWAY FROM THEIR FAMILIES, TO HAVE AN INDEPENDENT LIFE, BUT THAT REALLY ISN'T THE CASE. IT'S NOT HOW IT'S TURNED OUT IN A LOT OF THESE CASES, IS IT?

CHRIS SERRES: ONE OF THE CONCERNS IS NOT SO MUCH THE GROUP HOME ITSELF AS BEING A BAD THING BUT THE DEGREE TO WHICH PEOPLE WERE BEING SENT FAR AWAY FROM THEIR HOME COMMUNITIES, AWAY FROM THEIR FAMILIES, AWAY FROM THEIR FRIENDS. PEOPLE BEING SENT HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY, IN OUR CASE, TO THE NORTHERNMOST REACHES OF MINNESOTA TO THESE GROUP HOMES WHERE THEY WERE SURROUNDED ONLY BY OTHER PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AND RARELY LEFT -- ALLOWED TO GO OUT. THE CONCERN THERE WAS NOT SO MUCH THE GROUP HOME MODELS BUT THAT THEY WERE BECOMING INCREASINGLY ISOLATED AND DEPRESSED AND THAT THAT WAS CONTRIBUTING TO ITS OWN PROBLEMS. PEOPLE IN THOSE KINDS OF SITUATIONS TEND TO ACT OUT, RUN AWAY, ATTACK OTHERS, AND IT WAS CONTRIBUTING TO ALL KINDS OF OTHER PROBLEMS THAT -- IT WASN'T JUST THIS GROUP HOME.

ALLYSA ADAMS: DO YOU THINK THAT IN JOURNALISM HOW WE REPORT ON DISABLED PEOPLE IS CHANGING? IS IT BECOMING JUST WE REPORT ON THE INCIDENTS OR WHEN IT'S A HOT TOPIC, OR ARE WE INTEGRATING THEM IN OUR PROFESSION AS WELL?

CHRIS SERRES: I THINK SO. I THINK THAT WE HAVE TO VIEW -- WE HAVE TO STOP THINKING OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AS THE OTHER. WE ALL KNOW PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES, ONE OUT OF FIVE PEOPLE HAS A DISABILITY. WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF THIS NOTION IT'S A MARGINAL GROUP. IT'S A CLUB ANY ONE OF US COULD JOIN AT ANY TIME. ANY ONE OF US COULD BECOME A PERSON WITH A DISABILITY. SO I THINK THERE'S MORE OF A RECOGNITION OF THAT. I ALSO THINK THAT THERE'S MORE OF A TREND TOWARDS COVERING DISABILITIES AS A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE. SO, I MEAN, VIEWING IT AS, LOOK, YOU KNOW, PEOPLE HAVE A RIGHT TO LIVE AND WORK IN THE COMMUNITY AND SEE IT AS A RIGHT AND COVERING IT FROM A DISABILITY RIGHTS LENS, FROM A CIVIL RIGHTS LENS, IS CRUCIAL TO REPORTING ON THIS TOPIC.

ALLYSA ADAMS: CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR AWARD. CHRIS, TO YOU AND TO YOUR TEAM WE APPRECIATE YOU TALKING WITH US ON HORIZON.

CHRIS SERRES: THANK YOU. IT'S AN HONOR AND A PRIVILEGE.

Chris Serres, 2016 winner of the Katherine Schneider Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

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