Disability Inclusion editor Lucia Rios named Media Person of the Year

When Lucia Rios studied journalism in college, a professor pulled her aside to give her some career advice. He told her not to let herself be assigned to the disability beat.

"I'm so glad I didn't listen to him, because I think that stories about individuals with disabilities and their family members are very important. And I think that the way that we report them and share them is equally important," Rios said.

She shared that story in accepting the Media Person of the Year award from the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America on June 8. Rios was honored for her work as co-editor of the Disability Inclusion series, a multi-year series that runs in The Lakeshore WM, Rapid Growth and Second Wave Southwest Michigan. The three West Michigan publications are part of Issue Media Group,  a national network of online media outlets leveraging the power of solutions-based journalism to report on community change.

Lucia Rios at the WMPRSA PRoof Awards ceremony with The Lakeshore's ME Shandra Martinez, DAKC Development Director Peggy Helsel, IMG Co-Founder Paul Schutt and Rapid Growth's Publisher Tommy Allen.

"One of the things I've learned and one of the things I've lived is that I'm not going to be a feel-good story. And in many stories, we see people who are extra, extra inspirational or very defeated. What we are able to do with the Disability Inclusion series is to humanize that perspective, but also share dignity. We look at language and look at the way the reporter is writing the story. I think that helps as far as to bring a lot of education."

Rios hopes the series serves as a model for better and more accurate coverage of the disability community in other publications. 

Makes sure it ‘rings true’

The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan. The goal is to expand the series to more publications across Michigan, says IMG co-founder Paul Schutt. 

"Lucia Rios has provided unique leadership for the Disability Inclusion series," Schutt says. "Lucia brings her lived experience in the disability community to help us ensure that we get the stories right. She reviews each story helping us avoid stereotypes, outdated and outright offensive language for folks in the disability community. This has allowed us to make sure each story rings true and encourages those covered to share the stories with their networks."

Peggy Helsel, director of development for Disability Advocates of Kent County, attended the award ceremony to support Rios. 

“We were delighted to join others in honoring Lucia as she received the 2023 Media Person of the Year award,” Helsel says. “We thank her for her leadership in the Disability Inclusion series.  The series has provided an opportunity for Disability Advocates of Kent County and our sister organizations across the state to focus attention on the many barriers that prevent people with disabilities living their life as they choose.” 

Tommy Allen, publisher of Rapid Growth, agrees.

"Under Rios' leadership, our Disability Inclusion series paints a refreshing portrait of West Michigan that demystifies stigma with knowledge and removes barriers of access,” Allen says. “This ensures those who identify with the disability community, and who live, work, or are seeking to visit our region of the state, are seen and centered so they feel like they belong. Rios' voice is vital in helping people discover the best places to live, work, and enjoy themselves in Michigan."

Rios removes barriers and creates access through her presence, voice and activism, which includes her current work with the office of accessibility for Salesforce Inc. 

As a journalist, Rios’ writing has been instrumental in focusing attention on disability issues, including living with her own lifelong disability. She is a mentor to the next generation of advocates and serves on several boards, including the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland area and the Family Hope Foundation. She is also the co-founder of Women of Color Give

In April, Rios received the Ability Award from the Disability Network Lakeshore for her efforts to increase accessibility for everyone.

This article is part of a multi-year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

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