Emily Flores on challenging mainstream narratives and creating a platform for disabled Gen Z voices
Emily Flores started Cripple Media at 15 years old with one aim: to give young disabled people the space to report on the issues that affect them. Inspired, in part, by media misrepresentation and bias, Cripple has reported on everything from Free Britney to systemic ableism. In doing so, Flores has successfully created a growing online community that shifts the lens in the way disabled people are viewed. We chatted with Austin-based Emily about the origins of Cripple Media, why publications like Cripple are essential in telling stories first-hand, and her hopes for the future.
Was there a specific moment that made you want to start Cripple?
Retrospectively, there were a lot of moments throughout my childhood that led me to want something to change. But it wasn't until one of my first jobs as a freelance journalist that I realised that one of the big problems that lead to stereotypes and misconceptions was the lack of accurate reporting on disability issues in journalism and the lack of representation of disabled voices in the media. As I got started as a journalist, I realised how expansive the online dis-community really was. How amazing, cultural, and multi-dimensional our community really was. It was such an amazing feeling, as a journalist but also just as a 14-year-old.
I had never talked to another disabled teen in my life. As I began making connections and started reporting, I noticed how almost no stories in journalism truly centred disabled people in their own stories. And I realised that this was because the reporters who were writing it, were non-disabled, thus operating from a ‘non-disabled gaze.’ Stories that would talk about disabled kids, and paint their lives as 'tragic', 'heartbreaking', and 'inspirational', would be the most common ones I'd see, and would be the ones that would reduce us to the feelings of non-disabled people, and would no longer allow for readers to see us as people.
At the same time this was happening, I was going to high school, and because of my muscular
dystrophy, I depend on caregivers for assistance throughout the day. Throughout school and most specifically high-school, speaking up for myself and setting boundaries with caregivers was something I had always struggled with, and it became a huge thing for me in high-school, as adults around me would make decisions about my body, complain about disabled students in front of me, etc. Because of those experiences happening at school and happening on the internet where I existed, I felt like not being heard, dehumanised, and being belittled were indelibly part of the young disabled experience. And I felt like it was important to document that part of this experience, and challenge the narratives that are about us in the media, and rewrite them at Cripple. So ultimately, because of that, I felt it was important to create a space for young disabled creatives so that we can take back our power in the media as much as we can.
It’s incredibly important to have alternative media outlets that challenge mainstream narratives. Is this something that you aimed to create with your platform?
Yes! It is something we hope we are doing. Because so often, the current stories that are about disability issues, that are written by non-disabled reporters, tend to fail to represent our communities and the issues that we face. For example, another type of story that we commonly see is when reporters cover a systematic issue that is experienced by disabled people. For example, a specific law or governmental policy, such as Social Security in the US, and the story still centres the able-bodied people that are in the disabled person's life (like their caregivers, their parents, partners, doctors, etc) rather than the disabled person, the actual source. At Cripple, all of our staff are young disabled people. We aim to cover issues that directly impact us and cover topics that are impacting people from our community. Our goal is to cover disability and stories from our community accurately and truthfully because that's what journalism is.
How does it feel to watch your platform grow?
I feel so honoured, and it's also just an incredible experience. It's been cool to receive messages and emails from people telling us that they wished we existed when they were younger. It's almost like a pinch-me moment when that happens, and we still hope we're doing that and offering a community for teens and kids like us. It’s been great to see our team grow too. Since we started, we've gotten an amazing group of editors and more awesome writers, and many of these people became my first best friends. I could not imagine growing up without them.
Do you have a job alongside working on Cripple Media?
Yes! I'm now a student at the University of Texas in Austin, where I work as a researcher at the Centre for Media Engagement. Aside from journalism and media representation, I'm also really passionate about tech, cybersecurity, and digital politics. At the CME, our team's research focuses on how corporations, oligarchs, and other anonymous actors use tech and social media to influence public opinion online. We do this by studying computational propaganda, which is the spread of disinformation and misinformation online.
What advice would you give young people who want to start their own publication?
It's really exciting to work on impactful work with other teens like you! If you have an idea to create a space, zine, platform, etc, I'd like for you to know that we need you, and we can't continue or further our work without you. If you believe in something, know that there's always a community here to support you.
How can independent publications and platforms be better supported?
Independent publications can be better supported by mainstream news media organisations amplifying our work and helping us get financially funded!
Do you have any exciting plans coming up?
Currently, we are working on some cool and exciting video and audio projects that we are producing, that hopefully will be out soon!
Words: Grace Goslin