From Disability Planet UK

Media Representation of Disabled People

A Critical Analysis
Overview of the media:


What do we mean by Media?

The term media is defined by Wikipedia as "a means of carrying or communicating information."
For the purposes of the information on this website, the articles will focus on the "Mass Media": a term used to describe the media forms which are specifically designed to reach a large section of the population. These media forms are:

  • Radio

  • Press- newspapers, magazines

  • Print- books

  • Television

  • Film/ cinematography

  • Internet

  • Advertising

NB: these articles do not include the gaming industry

History of Media

Over time Media has been developed to chart and disseminate information to the masses. It has been used to educate, provide entertainment, act as a political platform and used for public service announcements. The time line below sets out how Media forms have developed over the centuries.


Media Time Line






























A critical analysis of Media representation of disabled people.
It is true to say that the media is an extremely important part of our everyday life and as an industry has been critical in the dissemination of information to the mass population. However the influence that the media holds over society has not always been used to society's benefit, particularly in relation to disability, where the media has continued to add to the discrimination of disabled people. The media's contribution to disabled people's discrimination will be discussed through the following areas:

  • The media reinforcement of impairment and the use of the medical model of disability.

  • The media's creation and underpinning use of disabled stereotypes.

  • The role of media influences: media organisations and their employees, political agendas, the intended audience and current societal trends.

  • The use of images, language and terminology related to disability.

  • The under-representation of disabled people in the media.

  • The effect of media on disabled people.


The Medical Model:

The media throughout history has depicted disability through the use of impairment, where as Shakespeare (1999, pg. 164) points out in his article about disability in film "impairment is made the most important thing" and disabled characters are "objectified and distanced from the audience". The media has focused on portraying impairment through the influence of the medical model of disability, where disabled people's inability to interact in normal daily life is a direct result of their physical and/ or mental impairment. Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carole" is an example of this where the "crippled" child of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, is defined by his disability and will only survive through medical intervention.
However since the mid 1970's there has been much call from the disabled community for society to recognise disabled people as equals to non-disabled people, and to take responsibility for societies contribution to creating disabling environments. The call for adopting the social model of disability has seen vast improvements to establishing the human rights of disabled people and much has been set in legislation.
However it appears that the media have been slow to take on the changes and all too frequently do not practice what they preach.

Use of Disabled Stereotypes

The media continue to enforce disability stereotypes portraying disabled individuals in a negative un-empowering way. 
In his 1991 study, Paul Hunt identified 10 stereotypes that the media use to portray disabled people:

  1. The disabled person as pitiable or pathetic

  2. An object of curiosity or violence

  3. Sinister or evil

  4. The super cripple

  5. As atmosphere

  6. Laughable

  7. His/her own worst enemy

  8. As a burden

  9. As Non-sexual

  10. Being unable to participate in daily life

In 2006, the British Film Institute's website breaks down this list into a series of film character examples for each stereotype, from the 1920s up to the present day. The BFI's examples include:

  • the character of Colin from the Secret Garden - a character who falls into the stereotype of "Pitiable and pathetic; sweet and innocent; a miracle cure"

  • the "sinister or evil" Dr No, with his two false hands, from the Bond film of the same name

  • Ron Kovic, the disabled war veteran in Born on the Fourth of July, who is portrayed as "non-sexual or incapable of a worthwhile relationship"

Shakespeare (1999) presents a potential reason behind the use of one of these stereotypes:

"The use of disability as character trait, plot device, or as atmosphere is a lazy short-cut. These representations are not accurate or fair reflections of the actual experience of disabled people. Such stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes towards disabled people, and ignorance about the nature of disability"

In other words, the disability itself is often used as a hook by writers and film-makers to draw audiences into the story. These one-dimensional stereotypes are often distanced from the audience - where characters are only viewed through their impairment, and not valued as people.
Shakespeare (1999) continues:


"Above all, the dominant images [of disabled people] are crude, one-dimensional and simplistic."


The Role of media influences

What we see, hear and read in the media is often decided and influenced by a small group of decision makers. These editors, producers, programmers and budget-controllers are swayed by their own opinions of disability and what they believe will bring in audiences. Historically media examples containing disabled people have largely conformed to stereotypes. These decision makers may feel that they are taking a risk by portraying disabled people outside of the stereotypes which have historically "sold well".
Adding to this problem is the under-representation of disabled people in employment within the media. A 1998 report "Training and equal opportunities in ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5" (page 5) reports:


"Progress was also uneven and generally slow in the employment of disabled people"

Ofcom's December 2005 report "The representation and portrayal of people with disabilities on analogue terrestrial television" reports that progress still remains slow. It cites a 2005 Skillset report, stating that there has been only very minor change in the employment rates of disabled people in the Broadcast Television sector. While a 2003 Labour Market Trends report estimated 19% of the working population to have a DDA-recognised disability, Skillset estimates that within the media industry, disabled people make up only 2.3% of the workforce.
This under-representation of disabled people within the media workforce has obvious implications for the power of the disabled community to influence how it is portrayed within the media. This in turn has an effect on the community at large. Where the media holds a high level of influence over the perceptions of the general public, an under-representation or mis-representation of disabled people has large social implications.
Increasing the percentage of disabled people in employment within the media industry would be a large step towards removing stereotypes and empowering disabled people in the general community. For example, the BBC's The Office, which is produced by a disabled person, uses a disabled character (also played by a disabled person) to address real social issues of disability in employment.
Greenberg's drench hypothesis (Saito and Ishiyama, 2005) highlights the influence that positive examples have on society's perception of disability, stating that "one or two particularly salient programmes might dramatically affect our perceptions of disability and disabled persons".


The use of images, language and terminology related to disability

The language used in the media in relation to disabled people offers a good indication of whether social change has occurred. It is interesting to look at the fact that a lot of the language used still revolves around the medical model of disability. For example:


"Plucky Kate stepping out to a new life" The Star, 2004

The use of the word ‘Plucky' describes a girl who spent two years in a wheelchair. The article continues "But the future is now looking brighter. Katie is learning to walk again, following a year of straightening treatment."
A 2001 Scope article also highlights this continuing trend of newspapers to use negative language, portraying disabled people as sufferers of their own impairment. The article quotes an example from a regional newspaper, using words including: sufferer, courageous, condition, deterioration, plight, brave and normal (as in ‘a normal school').
The terminology used in these and similar articles reinforces discrimination. Using negative, disablist language devalues disabled people and can create a negative self-image.
Haller et al (2006, p. 62) confirms this:


"Even something as mundane as the words used to refer to a group are important because they have ramifications both for the self-perception of people with disabilities and what the general public believes about disability"

The use of positive language and images - focussing on the people, rather than just the impairments - can help to improve both the public image and the self-image of disabled people.



Disabled people over the years have been marginalised within and through the media. These areas are as follows:

  • The media still tends to use the medical model of disability

  • The focus is on the impairment more than the individual

  • Disabled people are under-represented both in terms of employment in the media & portrayal in the media

  • Lots of media forms are inaccessible and broadcasting tends to be at inaccessible times

  • Mainstream media do not recognise the disabled art, media culture

Though the media are beginning to change, it is evident that much more work is needed by the media industry and the disabled community, where both need to work and learn from each other. Particulary mainstream media learning from the disabled media and arts sub culture.
Sutherland (1993) states:


"that the very fact that previous representations of disability have been narrow, confused and unimaginative leaves the way open for disabled writers and film makers. What we can produce can blow the past away."

Through setting polices and codes of practice it will re-enforce these media changes. Currently this has been recognised in the Disability Discrimination Act, the Disability Equality Duty, the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities & the council of Europe's Disabled Persons Action Plan 2006-2015.  

Source: http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/critical-analysis.html

Copyright Lucy Wood

Super Heroes & The Tragic
The under-representation of disabled people in the media or the misleading portrayal of disabled people has far reaching consequences on the disability community, not least when they are portrayed as a "Superhero" or "tragic Villain".
Throughout history these have become the two most widely used stereotypes of disabled people. Barnes (1992, pg11) states that these are,


"one of the most persistent stereotypes and a major obstacle to disabled people's successful integration into the community."

So why is this and how can we get the media to steer away from depicting disabled people in this light?
To answer these questions we will briefly look at the following four areas:

  1. The medias understanding of disability and disability issues.

  2. The use of disability to add atmosphere and dramatic effect to visual and written media.

  3. The use of impairment only viewing, one dimensional characters and the denial of disability as normal.

  4. The representation of disabled people in employment within the media.


Media understanding of disability and disability issues

The depictions of disability as a sin, evil and tragic have widely been disseminated throughout society by religious teachings and beliefs. This along with the historical focus on impairment and physical deformities, have contributed to the way media portray disabled people.
With little or no representation of disabled people in the media workforce, and with the tradition of the segregation of disabled people, attitudes and beliefs about disability have been left unchallenged.
For example, John Merrick the central character in David Lynch's 1980 film "Elephant Man" goes through a roller coaster of ridicule, exclusion, pity and medical intervention. Merrick is resucued by a surgeon and is described as,


"A heavily disfigured man who is ... scraping a living as a side-show freak ... behind his monstrous facade." The Internet movie Database (2006).

As Barnes (1992, pg. 12) states, representing disabled people in this way,


"Dilutes the humanity of disabled people by reducing them to objects of curiosity."


The use of disability to add atmosphere and dramatic effect

The media often use impairment to add atmosphere to a piece of writing, film scene or radio play for example. The use of disability as evil or superhuman leads to one dimensional basic disabled characters who as Harnet (2000, pg 21) states are,


"Used not for their complexity as people but for their easily identifiable impairment which is exploited by scriptwriters for dramatic effect, for emotional appeal or for blatant symbolism".

For example the recent televised programme "The Musical Genius" (Channel 5, 2006) about a 26 year old blind autistic man, with the IQ of a 4 year old. Here the viewer spends one hour watching Derek only through his "extraordinary" music talent and does not get a real sense of who he is. The audience is distanced from him through his incredible musical ability and Derek's impairment becomes an object of fascination.
As Barnes states (1992, pg12) that disabled characters have "'super' qualities in order to elicit respect from non-disabled people."
In newspapers and magazines impairments are used to, according to Harnett (2000, pg21) "embody, or personify evil". For example headlines such as The Sun headline in September 2003 "Bonkers Bruno Locked up".
Barnes (2003, pg9) states "Newspaper articles sensationalising the connection between intellectual impairments and criminality are common in both the tabloids and the 'quality' papers."


 Impairment only viewing, one dimensional characters and the denial of disability as normal.

As previously mentioned the media focus on impairment creates one dimensional characters. The lack of disabled characters in "normal" roles is evident thus perpetuating their absence in the social structure. The lack of disabled people as family members, as employees and employers, as mothers, fathers and partners means that disabled people lack "normal" role models. As Harnett (2000 pg.22) states the majority of disabled characters are,


"more commonly portrayed in dramatic, dangerous or challenging situations."

When disabled characters have been portrayed as "normal", they have often been one dimensional and blend in the background. Often they are not given their own story lines and tend to act as a supporting role. The people surrounding the disabled person seem to grab the lime light and real everyday issues faced by a disabled person are not explored.
This may be a result of media professionals always assuming that the audience is non-disabled.


The representation of disabled people in employment within the media

It is clear that disabled people are under-represented in employment within the media industry. There is a shortage of programme makers, actors and writers etc. However this may not be because disabled people don't want to work within the industry just that they are struggling to be employed
It is clear then that current media professionals need to change their attitudes and allow disabled people and disability to be apart of the agenda.
In the BBC 4 "You and Yours" programme (2003) Richard Rieser (director of Disability and Equality in Education) stated that,


"Broadcasters have the responsibility to represent the society that they're actually broadcasting to".

However Alex Holmes, BBC Executive Producer, highlighted that there is a high degree of "self-censorship ... amongst television producers" and there is a need to give "producers confidence to use disabled actors and presenters."
How ever things are beginning to change. For example in an interview in 2003 the executive produce of Eastenders when talking to Richard Rieser about the inclusion of disabled characters said, (Rieser 2003) "you've got a point but we don't want to make it into a freak show". Now three years on in September 2006 Eastenders is running a major storyline about a down syndrome baby. Only time will tell if they represent individuals with learning disabilities in a fair light.



The depiction of disabled people as superhuman or evil has far reaching consequences such as,

  • Lack of role models for disabled people

  • Continued reinforcement of negative/ misguided stereotypes of disabled people that are applied to the disabled community as a whole

  • The focus of over or under achievement means that disabled people can never be who they are, without striving to overcome their impairment/ disability

  • The distance placed between disabled people and the intended audience underpins the gap between disabled and non- disabled people

However there are many advantages for the media to abandon these stereotypes. Disabled characters offer new angles and story lines, where producers, actors and writers have the opportunity to create exciting new, complex characters. They have the opportunity to influence social policy and societies attitudes to disabled people.

Source: http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/

Copyright Lucy Wood

The Role of Charities in the Continuing Oppression of the Disabled Community

History of Charity

Tracing back charities, many originally came from religious thought: the idea that it is good to help the needy. In the 1300s, the King of France set up the first charity to help blind people. Over the following two centuries this idea grew, with middle classes funding the poor and needy up until the Poor Laws were introduced, legalising begging for people designated as needy.
With the rise of industrialisation, homelessness and poverty grew alongside a breakdown in rural structure & a breakdown of parish care. This vacuum of care led to the introduction of institutions to care for those deemed to be weak - the poor and disabled. The introduction of state-run institutions in the 17 & 1800s led to a very strong medical focus on disability, centring around the idea that disabled people could, and should, be cured by medical means.
This religious makeup, the fact that it was seen within society that needy people should be helped, and the fact that care gaps existed all led to the formation of the modern charity model.


The Definition of Charity

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines charity as:


1: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
2: generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering, also: aid given to those in need; b: an institution engaged in relief of the poor; c: public provision for the relief of the needy

The Charities Bill (July, 2006) states that charitable purpose promotes "the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage;". In relation to oppression of disabled people, this leads us to two obvious questions:

  1. Do the practices and methods of modern charities help or oppress the target audience they were set up to help?

  2. Does the concept of charity itself oppress those it aims to help?


To help us address these two questions we will look at the following areas using two of the UK's leading charities to illustrate our points, those being the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of the Blind) and Leonard Cheshire.
The areas that we will address are as follows:

  • The purpose of charities

  • How charities are established and managed

  • The role of charity advertising and sponsorship

  • The empowerment of disabled people

  • How charities contribute to the disability rights movement


The Purpose of Charities

When we speak about charities we tend to think of a group of non-disabled people helping on a voluntary basis, providing for, educating and caring for those in society who are deemed "needy". This image is mirrored in the purposes stated by the two charities in question. The Charity Commission website records the RNIB's stated aim as:


"To promote the better education, training, employment and well-being of the blind, to watch over and promote the interests of the blind and to prevent blindness."

And Leonard Cheshire's stated objects as: 


"To relieve the consequences of physical and/or mental disability by the provision, in the United Kingdom and overseas, of accommodation, services and support for the spiritual, social, physical and/or mental wellbeing of disabled people, by such means as are charitable, whatever their race, nationality, creed, sex or age."

It is evident that from the statements above that many charities are still stuck in the realms of the medical model of disability, with the RNIB still aiming to "prevent blindness" and Leonard Cheshire looking to "relieve the consequences of physical and/or mental disability".
Tom Shakespeare (2003), states that charities 


"promote medical research and the idea of cure; charities institutionalise disabled people".


How charities are established and managed

Charities for many years have been set up, managed and run by non disabled people and are often impairment specific. They have led to disabled people being controlled and dictated to about what is best for them. These non disabled people who involve themselves in Charities often do so because of a loved one, a friend or a calling to do good for humanity. Through their own experience of what is right they act and speak for disabled people, often promoting the plight of the disability in a way that they experience it and not through the disabled persons experience. This lack of empowerment for disabled people can be seen through the number of disabled people who are involved in the management and employment structure of the charity.
Charities are making efforts to recognise this. For example, only recently (2002) the RNIB changed its name from "The Royal National Institute for the Blind" to "The Royal national Institute of the Blind". 
However, despite the change of name, the RNIB is still largely 'for' disabled people rather than 'of': In a Disability Now Survey (2003) it was found that only 7.7% of RNIB employees were disabled. 
Leonard Cheshire has also been plagued by the lack of representation of disabled people. Leonard Cheshire was established in 1948 when its founder of the same name gave refuge to a friend who was terminally ill. From his Le Court residence in Hampshire a nationwide structure of residential care homes grew and as Finklestein says were responsible "for preventing the development of support systems" Clarke (2003, pg3.)
Clarke (2003, pg 4) reinforces the view of disabled people not being in control in the running of their lives through the Leonard Cheshire homes saying that the organisation has,"no democratic, accountable ways in which disabled people can have influence and control over the organisation.


The role of charity advertising and sponsorship

Though in theory charities would like to see themselves being strong advocates for improving the lives of disabled people, in practice this is often not the case. Charities still experience the same strains and stress of a commercial businesses and financing their activities and services become a major priority. Therefore ethical conflicts occur in the way that charities use advertising and carry out sponsorship activities.
Disability charities use sponsorship and advertising for several reasons:

  1. To educate non-disabled people about disabilities

  2. To raise money

  3. To promote the work of the charities themselv


Charities through advertising and sponsorship campaigns reinforce stereotypes of disabled people that being, dependant, poor, needy, requiring non-disabled people to drag them out of their pit of despair through making minimal donations. The campaigns tend to be impairment driven and purposefully (Swain, 2003,pg 91) "creating distance and inequality between the giver and the receiver".

Swain (2003, pg91) goes onto state that,


"Charity advertising provokes emotions of fear, pity and guilt, ostensibly to raise resources on behalf of disabled people. The images and language have built upon and promoted stereotypes of disabled people as dependent and tragic ... Charity advertising sells fear ... and fails to find a solution because it itself is the problem."

However there is strong evidence that charities still continue to use campaigns of this ilk as ultimately they provide much need revenue.
According to the charities commission website, in 2005-2006 the RNIB spent £11.4million on fundraising, and gained £51.3million as a result. Leonard Cheshire spent £1.6million on encouraging "legacies and individual giving", and raised £12.3million by doing so. One of the RNIB's main campaigns featured a woman who appeared to be crying at the loss of her sight:
Charities are now employing the services of a leading design companies such as the UK design agency Bluefrog, who describe their services as (www.bluefroglondon.com, 2006),


"a group of people who come up with amazing ideas that result in a better world for all of us to live in".

The organisation claims to have "a natural affinity" with charities "aims" where they "simply concentrate on making a lasting emotional connection between organisations they work for and the people who give them money".
Their campaigns offer:


"donors the great feeling that they have helped someone less fortunate than themselves and it raises the money that organisations need."

Some of their clients include Mind, Sense, RNIB and The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS). The campaigns do little to improve the representation of disabled people reinforcing the dependency between giver and receiver. Evidently charities still have a long way to go to improve the image of disabled people in the pubic arena.


How charities contribute to the disability rights movement

The rise of the disability rights movement occurred in the mid 1970's when a group of disabled people left the Leonard Cheshire establishment to set up the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), where the movement called for "Rights not Charity".
Criticisms of disability charities in general are:

  • That they are not run by disabled people

  • That through impairment specific charities they contributed to the segregation of disabled people

  • That they reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled people, particularly through advertising and marketing

  • That the charities themselves benefit as much, if not more, than the people they claim to be helping, and that as part of this process charities receive a positive image, while disabled people are once again portrayed as needy

  • That charity is linked closely to the medical model focussing on the impairment rather than the person, and implying that the impaired person is 'faulty' rather than society

  • Charities plug gaps in state provision with many social services activities being farmed out to charity organisations

Shakespeare (2000, cited swain 2003,pg 91) notes that,

"Charity is way for individuals and society to avoid their obligation to remove social barriers and support needy members of the community".

However things are slowly beginning to improve and charities are beginning to move away form the charity model of disability. Three years on from the quote above Shakespeare states in an article for the BBC's online Ouch website,


"At the beginning of the twenty first century ... many leading disability charities are different beasts to the patronising and amateurish institutions of old. They have been forced to change by the success of the radical disability critique of the last twenty years."

We are now seeing charities moving towards the Rights Model where disabled people are being to empowered, emancipated and enabled by the charities. They are becoming active members of disability charities where charities are increasingly focused on the rights of disabled people to be fully integrated into society. Campaigns are beginning to focus on how society needs to change rather than the disabled person and their impairments.
Nevertheless questions still need to be answered and we should not become too complacent, particularly around the role of charities.
Recently in 2006 on BBC 4 "You and Yours" it was reported that disability Charity Scope was in "financial crisis, with a deficit of more than £10 million." The charity was having to close shops, residential care homes and sell of lots of it's property to cut costs. Scope chief Executive, Tony Manwaring stated that there was a,


"Need to ensure that modern charities, which increasingly provide frontline services, are able to recover the full costs of those services in providing those services".

With charities plugging gaps in state provision it is clear that the role of charities has changed and charities are becoming more like businesses. The whole concept of charity needs revising and the following questions need to be taken into consideration:

  • Is "charity" the right word to use to describe these organisations?

  • Should charities that provide frontline services be set up as proper organisations, where they can receive the appropriate funding to deliver efficient, stable and appropriate services which are seen as a right and not a need?

  • Where these organisations can be set up, run and managed by disabled and non-disabled people equally

  • Where these organisations empower disabled people and no longer have the need to pull the heart strings of the nation, through demeaning advertising and sponsorship campaigns to raise funds

  • Where these organisations have to stop hiding behind the word "charity" and the practices that go with it, to move into a period of modernisation where they have become clearly defined credible organisations.

  • Where the disability community needs to embrace this change, with the willingness to try new ways to influence, control and be part of changing social polices and practices.

Source: http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/the-role-of-charities.html

Copyrights Lucy Wood

Parents Perspective
A Critical articulation of the perspective of parents of disabled children.


Access to information and education

Though all new parents must learn to provide for and support their children, parents of disabled children often find themselves isolated and must work harder to develop support networks. For example, whereas the average new parent will know many people who have also had children and can offer advice, a new parent of an autistic child may not have access to any other parents of autistic children.
Even when dealing with the medical profession, this can be a problem for parents. Problems of diagnosis often exist, and even after diagnosis, a lack of understanding in the medical profession can be evident. As doctors themselves are very much focussed on the medical model of disability, they often seek to 'cure' the child, rather than helping parents understand the social context. As parents look to the medical profession for advice early on, this can potentially form the basis of their opinions and outlook on disability.


Understanding and accessing service provision

Though the social model of disability is becoming widely accepted, and more services are being put into place for both disabled adults and children, parents of disabled children still face the problem of finding out what is available and gaining access to it for their child.
This issue is further confused by fragmented social structure and a lack of standardisation. What one local authority does, a neighbouring authority may not. The Guardian (2005) referred to this as a 'Postcode lottery' when reporting on a September 2005 Ofsted report. The report stated "services for children with special needs depend on where they live, not on what they need."
In addition to this, even when it has been established that services can be offered in an area, there are often breakdowns in communication within local authorities and confusion over where responsibility lies.
A 2003 Audit Commission report spoke about just this issue, and was covered in Disability Now (2003)


"One of the main problems encountered by the 240 families contacted for the research was the lack of coordination between local statutory services. Parents often found themselves passed from pillar to post because of a lack of information about entitlements and clarity over which agency was responsible for what, often having to repeat painful stories again and again."

Even simple issues such as accessing Disability Student Allowances can often take months of chasing up and fighting bureaucracy to overcome. This can lead to parents being unable to access the support when it is most needed. It seems that there is an attitude of reactive provision, rather than proactive service.
Additionally there are many areas where parents are offered a 'take it or leave it' service, with little say in how this is delivered. This lack of empowerment oppresses the disabled child, as often neither they nor their parents can control large aspects of their lives.
Lack of accessiblity and care provision also pose a problem for parents of disabled children. For example, the 'Changing Places' initiative, run by a group of organisations including Mencap, is currently campaigning to have appropriate changing facilities put into toilets across the country. The Changing Places website (2006) tells the story of Toby, an 8-year old boy with multiple learning disabilities, whose mother Julie has to change him on toilet floors through lack of appropriate facilities:


"There are virtually no Changing Places toilets in the UK. For Julie and her family this places a huge restriction on where they can go and what they can do."


Overcoming stereotypes and misperceptions

A particular problem in media coverage is a reliance on stereotypes. Stereotypes are used by the media for several reasons:

  • Laziness - stereotypical storylines, characters and articles are an easy option that carry no risk of upsetting the status quo

  • Lack of understanding - writers and broadcasters genuinely believing and reporting on the stereotype

  • Commercial interest - articles such as 'Dyslexia doesn't exist' are used to create controversy and sell newspapers

This presents a particular problem for parents who take some of their own knowledge of disability from the media. Indeed, an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons recognised this issue, mentioning the problem of parents abandoning babies of restricted growth due to a media-created stigma:

"That this House notes that approximately one in 25,000 births to parents of average heights is of a baby of restricted growth; that such babies are sometimes rejected by their parents because of the stigma associated with the disability; that children and adults of restricted growth and their families are subjected to a constant media barrage of thoughtless discrimination, comment and misplaced jokes via the media, the wider public and some professionals; notes the excellent work of the Restricted Growth Association and the Dwarf Athletics Association UK; and calls on those with influence in the media, in education and in the medical profession to present positive images of those with restricted growth, and to challenge the stereotypes associated with the conditions."

Parents of disabled children also face the task of having to try and re-educate society away from stereotypes and on what the reality actually is. This is doubly hard when they must also explain to their children why the media is misrepresenting them.



Parents face a multitude of tasks to ensure their disabled children are treated equally and have the support structures so that they can be independent members of society.
Things are changing in some areas. Access to support networks and general information on disabilities has been helped through the internet. The rise in technology has also helped disabled children to communicate on an equal footing.
Problems of access provision are slowly getting better, as the issue is more widely talked about and measures are put in place. Disability Now (2003) reports on the creation of a Children's Minister, and the requirement for councils to "have a single named professional take charge of a coherent package of services for each child" as a major breakthrough for parents of disabled children. Another positive step has been the Council of Europe's (2006) commitment to "a co-ordinated approach in the provision of user-driven, community-based services and person-centred support structures" for disabled people.
The Council for Europe (2006) also recognise the issue of doctors focussing on the medical model of disability. They state that, in relation to disabled people, healthcare services must be "respectful of clients' rights" and that health care professionals "focus more on the social model of disability".

Source: http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/parents-perspective.html

Copyright Lucy Wood

Hidden Impairments: Social Barriers & Ethical Issues
Though disability issues are higher on the agenda than they have ever been, and the social model of disability is becoming widely accepted, disabled people are still affected by social barriers.
This article will examine the social barriers & ethical issues surrounding hidden impairments, concentrating on Hearing Impairment, Mental Health, and Learning Disability.



The language surrounding disability used within mainstream media is often still negative. This is especially true regarding hidden impairments, possibly due to a lack of understanding. When dealing with mental and learning disabilities, the media often uses very strong negative language. One example of this (amongst many) was a March 2006 article in The Sun, reporting on a dyslexic postman. The article used the following words "fool", "barmy" and "struggling", and included two separate quotes stating that the dyslexic postman "can't read" and "can't read properly", despite the postman himself saying earlier in the article that he can read, but has difficulties with certain combinations of numbers. Ethically, this is quite damaging and has strong implications for dyslexic people. The Sun has a very wide readership, and language such as this presents a false, negative image of dyslexics to a very large number of people.
Taking the previous example of The Sun's article, some of the implications for the wider community are quite damaging. For example, following the ridicule of the dyslexic person in employment, other dyslexics may not declare their dyslexia for fear of the same treatment. This can lead to a lack of support, can mean they struggle in a job they could otherwise excel in, and could potentially lead to issues of self esteem and mental health. Aside from the fact that some dyslexics will not declare their dyslexia, people who actually do declare their dyslexia face the problem of others believing the negative image and equating dyslexia with stupidity.
The creation and perpetuation of these stigmas creates a vicious cycle where people with hidden impairments isolate themselves through not declaring their impairment. Because they do not declare or discuss their impairment, other people in society don't have an understanding of the reality of the impairment. Therefore they lose their identity and find themselves segregated from the community. Recently Mind ran a campaign attempting to tackle exactly this issue: raising the awareness of mental health issues and helping people to feel comfortable talking about it.
Stephen Fry also recently tried to tackle this issue. He made a BBC documentary called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. He spoke very candidly about depression and interviewed several prominent celebrities about their experiences with depression. The program was widely reported in the media and, though some of these articles included negative language, the vast majority simply relayed Fry's own words, spreading the reality of depression to large numbers of people.

This is a good example of Greenberg's drench hypothesis, from his 1988 article Some uncommon television images and the drench hypothesis. The drench hypothesis is that one or two programs can cut through all of the built up negative stereotypes and stigmas and re-educate large numbers of people, changing their attitudes to disability and disabled people.


Access to the Media

In addition to issues around media coverage of disabled people, the ability of disabled people simply to access the media still remains an issue. For instance on television, most programs don't have sign language interpretation. Though some signed programs do exist, they are usually repeats and often shown at inaccessible times, such as the very early morning. Three implications of this are:

  1. Disabled people must stay up very late and access the media at times the general population does not

  2. The low general viewing figures at the times these programs are shown, and the fact that signed programs are often repeats, means that non-disabled people rarely watch signed programs

  3. Interaction with non-disabled people relating to popular programs is limited, as they often cannot share viewing of the same programs


Similar problems exist with subtitles. Though the BBC and terrestrial television are now careful to subtitle most programs, many digital and satellite channels do not. Even the BBC's own freeview channels (BBC3, etc) often repeat BBC1 programs with the subtitles removed. Additionally, subtitles are often not correct, missing information, or in language that is not easily accessible to the deaf community.
One very positive change in the media relating to deaf people has been the growth of the Internet and other technologies such as communication through mobile phones.
People with learning disabilities also face barriers relating to accessing the media. In some areas, particularly news coverage, the language used is often very complex and full of jargon. This could be improved very simply by including short summaries and iconography, meaning that the articles or programs would be accessible to all.


Specialist Programs

Though some impairment-specific programs still exist, such as See, Hear, with the social model of disability there has been a move away from impairment-specific programs. The wider idea is that disability & impairment issues would be integrated into general programming. Alex Holmes, a BBC Executive Producer, spoke about this on the BBC's You & Yours program (2003):


"I see this as a positive move away from the high degree of niche programming, that actually what we ought to be moving towards is the raising of disability issues and the use of disabled actors and performers across the broad spectrum of our output rather than just in the odd magazine show."

In practice this has not happened: several impairment-specific programs have being phased out, with little-to-no coverage elsewhere. Additionally, where coverage does exist, it often does not include the issues that people with hidden impairments face every day.
Another issue here is that, though the disability arts movement is quite strong, the output of this community is not widely broadcasted. An example of this is the film Nectar, the story of a Deaf swimmer. Though the article won several awards within the disabled community, including the ‘Audience Favourite' award at the London Disability Film Festival, the film has not been widely shown and is difficult to purchase.
Richard Rieser (2003), Director of Disability Equality in Education sums up the issue of a lack of representation in mainstream media when he says:


"So I think there is a real need to set some sort of target, if we're going to not have niche programming, which I agree is probably not a good idea, but at least it guaranteed some output whereas in some weeks now there is no output at all"



Though there have been some steps forward in removing social barriers to accessing the media, and fighting against unethical coverage of hidden impairments in the media over the last few years, there still remains a lot to be done. The Internet and new technologies have opened up many new opportunities. The things that must be done to make things better are quite widely recognised, for example using the ‘drench hypothesis' to change attitudes, and Richard Rieser's idea that we must set targets on including disabled people in mainstream programs if we are to remove niche programming. One very hopeful note for the future is that these ideas will become part of legislation, following the publication of the Council of Europe's Disability Action Plan (2006) which states:


"Disabled people need to be present in advertising, on screen, on radio and in print to bring about a paradigm shift in perception for disability and disabled people; a real change in attitudes by all members of society can then become a reality."

Source: http://www.disabilityplanet.co.uk/social-barriers-and-ethical-issues.html

Copyright Lucy Wood