Minneapolis Star Tribune wins 2016 disability reporting award from ASU


A Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation into state-subsidized sheltered workshops in Minnesota has won the top honor in the 2016 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

In “A Matter of Dignity,” Star Tribune reporter Chris Serres, along with reporter Glenn Howatt and photographer David Joles, reveals how hundreds of Minnesotans with developmental disabilities are segregated and neglected in a state system of sheltered workshops.

The investigation found that hundreds of adults with disabilities have been sent against their will to live in remote and dangerous group homes. The five-part series tells the stories of adults with Down syndrome who spend their days collecting trash for $2 an hour and workers with brain injuries who scrub toilets for half the minimum wage and relates how one young woman with bipolar disorder escaped from her group home and threw herself in front of a speeding car.

The Schneider Award is the only journalism awards competition devoted exclusively to disability reporting. It was established in 2013 with the support of Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth and who also supports the national Schneider Family Book Awards. The reporting contest is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Second place went to WAMU 88.5, the NPR station in Washington, D.C., and third place was awarded to ProPublica. Judges also gave an honorable mention to Business World in New Delhi, the first international news outlet to be honored in the contest.

Schneider Award judge Jennifer Longdon, a writer, speaker, advocate and policy adviser on disability issues, said the Minneapolis Star Tribune series was impressive for “its exhaustive chronicling of the experience of adults with disabilities in Minnesota — from the indignities of sheltered workshops to the hopeless years-long wait for vital services that never arrive. These memorable stories were masterfully told while preserving the dignity of the individuals profiled.”

Serres will accept the award and a $5,000 cash prize on behalf of the Star Tribune Nov. 28 at the Cronkite School, where he also will deliver a talk on his work to students, faculty and the public. His appearance, which is part of the school’s “Must See Mondays” lecture series, will be at 7 p.m. in the school’s First Amendment Forum. It is free of charge and open to the public, and sign language interpreting will be provided.

Judges awarded second place and a $1,500 prize to web producer and reporter Martin Austermuhle of WAMU public radio station in Washington, D.C., for “From Institution to Inclusion.” The series of radio broadcasts and digital reporting chronicled the history of a 40-year-old class action lawsuit that closed Forest Haven, the institution where residents of Washington, D.C., with intellectual and developmental disabilities were sent to live. Austermuhle also reported on the city’s difficulties in caring for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Third place and a $500 prize went to David Epstein of ProPublica for “The DIY Scientist, the Olympian, and the Mutated Gene,” a story of do-it-yourself genetics that helped a 39-year-old Iowa mother named Jill Viles solve her mysterious degenerative muscle disorder. Working with “This American Life” producer Miki Meek, Epstein wrote the podcast script and narrated the story of Viles’ quest to understand what had caused her fat to melt away and her muscles to wither.

Business World of India correspondent Sonal Khetarpal received an honorable mention and a $500 prize for “Insensitive Inc.,” an accounting of employers in India who are implementing inclusive workplace practices, such as flex-time, for employees with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

In addition to Longdon, the judges for this year’s contest were Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter Leon Dash, now Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; John Hockenberry, an award-winning reporter who hosts “The Takeaway,” a radio news program that airs on almost 200 stations across the country; and Amy Silverman, managing editor of the Phoenix New Times alternative newsweekly and the author of a new book, “My Heart Can’t Even Believe it: A Story of Science, Love and Down Syndrome.”

Since 2013, the top Schneider Awards have gone to Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, Dan Barry of The New York Times and Heather Vogell of ProPublica.

“The winners have all produced important watchdog journalism that advances the understanding of disability,” said National Center on Disability and Journalism director Kristin Gilger, who is the associate dean of the Cronkite School. “The quality of this year’s entries was more impressive than ever, a sign that disability issues are beginning to receive the kind of media attention that is warranted, given the number of people who live with disabilities.  We’re extremely proud of all of the winners and look forward to honoring Chris Serres in November.”

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