Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Behind the scenes at the disability news service, Disability Scoop

From The Commercial Appeal in Memphis:

One of the fastest-growing online sources in the country for news on developmental disabilities is being produced on a dining room table in Midtown Memphis with little more than two laptops, three phone lines, and a cat.

Shaun Heasley, 32, and Michelle Diament, 28, founded and write, an online daily covering a cross-section of developmental disabilities. (Both are pictured.)

Less than three years old, the website draws about 60,000 unique visitors and 145,000 page views a month, and has been cited by The Washington Post, USA Today and Education Week.

Diament is a former Washington correspondent with Gannett News Service who also worked for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Heasley is a photographer who worked for Reuters covering the White House. He also covered the John Edwards and John Kerry presidential campaigns in 2004.

They started Disability Scoop in 2008 after seeing an absence of a wide-sweeping, fast-paced, objectively written news source.

"They have in a very short period of time become a considerable voice in terms of the disabled community," said Peter Bell, executive vice president for programs and services for Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy organization. "I'm amazed how quickly they get their information out there," he said. "It's nice to have someone who can keep tabs on a variety of things."

"Special Olympics has worked closely with Disability Scoop co-founder Michelle Diament on story ideas, leads and discussing the industry overall," said Dr. Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. "We see her content as a great industry source ... and also a great means to connect with our key constituents."

Their subject may be growing in importance. A federal study released May 23 found about one in six U.S. children are diagnosed with a developmental disability, a leap of 17 percent between 1997 and 2008.

The study, based on data collected over an 11-year period by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reflects more reported cases of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental delays. Factors that may have contributed to the rise are more premature births and the use of fertility treatments, researchers said. (According to the CDC website, many fertility drugs increase a woman's chance of multiple births. Multiple fetuses have a high risk of being born prematurely, and premature babies are at higher risk for health and developmental problems.)

Diament, a Memphis native, and Heasley, who grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, lived in Washington for about two years before settling in 2006 in Memphis, where she freelanced for People magazine and he shot photos for ad agencies. "Washington was all politics all the time," said Diament. "We wanted a different lifestyle."

Diament's brother Steve Diament has Asperger's syndrome, often characterized as a high-functioning autism.

"I saw what my family encountered," trying to get information, she said. They and other parents dealing with disabilities were largely dependent on advocacy groups, magazines or sources with a narrow focus. "There needed to be a centralized place to find information that was timely and user-friendly," she said.

The couple taught themselves Web design and set up shop on their dining room table, often with their cat, Trolley, balanced on someone's knees. (He was found near the trolley tracks.) They posted daily, mining Washington contacts, research journals and disability advocates and scouring newspapers. They used grass-roots marketing: mass e-mails, Facebook and Twitter. "We had no idea if it would work," said Heasley, "but it kept getting bigger and bigger."

The pair follow hot-button issues, such as the use of seclusion and physical restraint to control the intellectually disabled in the classroom. They liberally cover legislation and scientific studies, but they don't shy from stories like that of Jes Sachse, a Canadian college student with a rare genetic condition who posed for risque photos in a spoof of American Apparel's claim to use ordinary girls in its ads. The story was headlined "Can Disability Be Sexy?"

Developmental disabilities are generally defined as those that appear before age 22. Disability Scoop focuses on intellectual disability (the preferred term for mental retardation), autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Heasley believes technology and social media are rapidly speeding up public acceptance of the disabled. "People are much more willing to talk openly than they were 10 years ago."

Supporting that argument is Ability magazine, a bimonthly that now ranks 13 among the top magazines of the world, according to Ability. The magazine covers health and disability issues and features celebrity interviews.

Another example of disabilities' higher profile is the appearance of Lauren Potter, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome, as a cheerleader on the hit TV show "Glee." Jackson was once turned down for a spot on a real-life cheerleading team, Diament wrote in an interview with Potter. But her role on the show has made her a popular figure in her own school.

Heasley and Diament work 50 to 60 hours a week now, including selling ads. But they plan to build a pool of freelance reporters. They'd also like to get off the dining room table.