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Chicago Tribune Wins 2017 Disability Reporting Award

October 18, 2017

A Chicago Tribune investigation into the mistreatment of disabled adults in Illinois group homes won the top honor in the 2017 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability, the only journalism awards competition devoted exclusively to disability reporting.

In “Suffering in Secret,” Tribune reporters Michael J. Berens and Patricia Callahan identified more than 1,300 cases of documented harm since July 2011 in Illinois' taxpayer-funded group homes and their day programs. The reporters uncovered at least 42 deaths linked to abuse or neglect in group homes or their day programs and uncovered state records of residents fatally choking on improperly prepared food, succumbing to untreated bed sores and languishing in pain from undiagnosed ailments.

Second place went to the Brian M. Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle. Third place was awarded to Mona Yeh, Sonya Green and Yuko Kodama for reports aired on Seattle-Tacoma public radio station 91.3 KBCS, and honorable mention went to Belo Cipriani of The Bay Area Reporter.

“PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, who served as a judge, noted that the Chicago Tribune’s investigation had real consequences in Illinois, where state officials vowed increased transparency and oversight of taxpayer-funded group homes and legislators are considering laws to force reforms. The license of one group home provider highlighted in the series was revoked, and residents were moved to other facilities. “The amount of time that went into this project and what the reporters were able to uncover just blew me away,” Woodruff said.

The three-part series was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting as well as the winner of the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism and an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in 2016.

Berens and Callahan will accept the first-place award and a $5,000 cash prize Nov. 27 at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where they also will deliver a public talk on their work. Their 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 and captioning services will be provided.

The second place Schneider award and a $1,500 prize were awarded to Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle for an investigation that revealed how Texas officials systematically denied special education services to thousands of children. The seven-part series, “Denied,” found that Texas placed a cap on how many children could receive special education services, saving billions of dollars but denying services to children with disabilities ranging from epilepsy and blindness to autism and attention deficit disorder.

Judges said they were shocked by Rosenthal’s revelations. The state’s actions, they said, showed a complete disregard for children with disabilities and their families.

Third place and a $500 prize went to Yeh, Green and Kodama for two radio pieces chronicling the experiences of one wheelchair user trying to navigate public transportation in Seattle. “Dorian Wants Transit Policy Toward Disabled Persons to Change,” aired on the Seattle-Tacoma public radio station 91.3 KBCS and was supported by the Association of Independents in Radio.

Cipriani, who is blind, received an honorable mention and a $250 prize for a series, “Seeing in the Dark,” published in the Bay Area Reporter. Cipriani writes about the disabled community in the Bay Area, challenging stereotypes about disability ranging from sex to parenting.

Judge Tony Coelho, a former six-term U.S. congressman from California and the primary sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act, said Cipriani is an important voice and one of a growing number of people with disabilities who are “writing about the everyday lives of people with disabilities.” Too often, he said, reporting on disabilities is “about us” rather than “by us.”

In addition to Coelho and Woodruff, 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, and Jennifer Longdon, a Phoenix-based writer, speaker, advocate and policy adviser on issues related to disability.

The Schneider Award 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 the Cronkite School.

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