Common media stereotypes

“Studies of the representation of disabled people have shown that disabled people are habitually screened out of television fiction and documentary programmes or else occur in a limited number of roles. It is as if having a physical or mental impairment is the defining feature of a person to such an extent that it makes a character less than a whole character: it subtracts from personhood and undercuts one’s status as a bearer of culture.” (Evans 1999, p 275)

As Barnes (1992) has pointed out, most people form their ideas about disability from the mass media – in particular TV and film – which tend to reproduce “superstitions, myths and beliefs from earlier less enlightened times.” He lists a number of stereotypes that are maintained and disseminated through mass media channels.

The Disabled Person as Pitiable and Pathetic – exemplified by Tiny Tim in Christmas Carol, the Elephant Man and the Children in Need telethon. Disabled people are portrayed as pitiful, encouraging patronage and sentimentality rather than genuine compassion: “This entirely negative view of disabled people appears regularly in the news media … perpetuating the myth that disability is synonymous with illness and suffering.” Unfortunately, as Barnes points out, very often the charities who claim to have their best interests at heart is guilty of portraying disabled people as pitiable in order to raise money for the cause. Not only do the representations destroy self confidence in people who have the impairments, but also by perpetuating the notion that disabled people have something ‘wrong’ with them, they are effectively alienating them from non-disabled society. This is inherently related to the individual tragedy model of regarding disability, seen most vividly in the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s images and what they imply:

The models usually conform to accepted notions of beauty, and so the horror of deviant body parts is emphasised on a ‘canvas’ of visible perfection or normalcy.

Other ads highlight the potentially awkward or embarrassing social situations that can be faced by people with MS, loss of control of body parts and functions, which also serve to exacerbate stigmatising of the ‘sufferer as victim’.

The Disabled Person as an Object of Violence – euthanasia, eugenics, as well as victimisation by non-disabled people taking advantage of their vulnerable position. “Besides reinforcing the notion that disabled people are helpless, pitiable and unable to function without protection, these stories reinforce, albeit implicitly, the Eugenic conviction that the ‘natural’ solution to the problems associated with impairment is a violent one.”

The examples Barnes offers are women characters from Hollywood films – ‘blind’ Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, ‘paraplegic’ Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The characters, who are already vulnerable by dint of being women, are rendered even more helpless by their impairments and suffer torment and violence at the hands of their aggressors.

The Disabled Person as Sinister and Evil – exemplified by Shakespeare’s Richard III, continuing through literature (mad, maimed Captain Ahab, Long John Silver) and film portrayals (Dr Strangelove, disfigured James Bond villains), where evil is seated in the body of a disabled person, and possibly the result of revenge lust. He also cites examples of David Lynch using a dwarf to represent evil in Twin Peaks, and limping criminal types in Dirty Harry and The Sting. Barnes claims this goes back to (over 40) Biblical representations of cripples associated with sin and sinners. “Newspaper articles sensationalising the connection between intellectual impairments and criminality are common in both the tabloids and the ‘quality’ papers. The overall message coming out of these stories is that such people cannot be trusted, are a danger to children and should be locked up.” Davis (2000, p 196) citing Freud, explains that such disabled persons are bitter, wronged by Nature, and seeking reparation for “early wounds to [their] narcissism.”

The Disabled Person as Atmosphere or Curio – continuing the tradition of the Freak Show, disabled people are included in the plot to add an atmosphere of “menace, mystery or deprivation“, in this way “dilut[ing] the humanity of disabled people by reducing them to objects of curiosity.” Barnes notes the voyeuristic nature of such blatant displays of disabled people as exotica, since they encourage “lewd fascination with impairment.” He asserts that they also “perpetuate the unfounded belief that appearance is inextricably linked to a person’s moral character and value.” Examples are the ‘half soldier’ in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as the pivotal character introduced into the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the doctor’s assistant Fritz, whose clumsiness and taunting of the monster ultimately result in its becoming evil:

The Disabled Person as Super Cripple – overcoming the odds, managing to fit into ‘normal’ life. “This triumph over tragedy approach conveniently excludes the central point that disability is a social issue which cannot be addressed by misplaced sentimentality over individual impairments.” This ranges from trailblazing Paralympians to children receiving exaggerated praise for relatively commonplace achievements. Not only does this create myths (for example that blind people have extra sensitive hearing to compensate for their visual impairment, thus impacting on society’s willingness to make information accessible in Braille), but it also demeans the experiences of other, less high-profile people: “emphasising the extra-ordinary achievements of disabled individuals … implies that the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people – disabled or otherwise – are unimportant and irrelevant.

The examples Barnes cites are Christy Brown, both in the accomplishments of the writer and poet, as well as the filmic interpretation of his autobiography My Left Foot, starring Daniel Day Lewis, and the fictional character Ironside, whose superior intelligence and demeanour meant he could outwit the smartest of criminals.

It is interesting to note that the organisation ADAPT (until 1990, the American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit) is guilty of using this stereotype of disabled people in their campaign, particularly in the Capitol crawl. In one of Tom Olin’s celebrated pictures, 8-year old Jennifer Keelan was shown making the difficult climb. Although the protest and the images received wide coverage and were most probably instrumental in getting the ADA passed in 1990, just months after the campaign action, some did question the use of such imagery to get the point across, most notably Disability Rag editor Mary Johnson, who wrote:

“One might question why a movement intent on showing that disabled people are adults, not children, would make their central media image a child” (cited in Kamalipour & Carilli, 1998 p 96).

The Disabled Person as an Object of Ridicule – Mr Magoo, Forrest Gump, or comedy sketches ridiculing visual or speech impairments (Ronnie Barker’s characters in Clarence and Open All Hours) amongst others. Obviously this kind of representation creates huge obstacles for disabled people to overcome: “On the one hand, it seriously undermines what little opportunities they have to be taken seriously by non-disabled society. On the other hand, it has the capacity to sap their self confidence and esteem. This is especially the case for disabled children as parents of such children are only too aware.”

This kind of treatment is especially demeaning since the disabled person becomes the butt of the joke; an object of ridicule.

The Disabled Person as Their Own Worst and Only Enemy – the idea that disabled people should just get over their impairments and stop feeling sorry for themselves, which would allow them to be more optimistic and ‘rise to the challenge’. Example is the Hollywood portrayal of Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, where he rises to the challenge after “successful sexual encounters with Mexican prostitutes“. Barnes claims the myth in able-bodied society holds that disabled people are bitterly self-destructive since they cannot cope with their own impairments, whereas in fact the anger that disabled people express is a legitimate reaction to their exclusion from non-disabled society.

The Disabled Person as Burden – probably one of the most soul-destroying aspects of disability is the notion of being a burden (which has been cited as legitimate cause for surgeon assisted suicide). Barnes notes:

“the view that disabled people are helpless and must be ‘cared’ for by non-disabled people […] fails to recognise that with appropriate support disabled people are able to achieve the same level of autonomy and independence as non-disabled people. It comes from the notion that disabled people’s needs are profoundly different to those of the non-disabled community and that meeting those needs is an unacceptable drain on society’s resources.”

This has significant connotations within the education and employment spheres, since if a person is denied access to education employment becomes a challenge, and minus employment a person becomes dependent on society or the benevolence of others for livelihood. The fact that society’s resources are unacceptably drained provided impetus and justification for the widely cited and subsequently condemned Nazi dehumanization and extermination of disabled people in the 1930s. (See “Existence Without Life” below).

Connected with this is the idea of the proliferation and maintenance of a ‘carer’ community: one which serves its own interests since it inevitably involves providing employment and income. Davis (2006) points out that the industry dedicated to the research, treatment and care of illness is the largest economic sector in most parts of the world. A huge question in disability studies is whether the services provided by such systems actually cater more for the needs of disabled people or for the non-disabled beneficiaries. In addition, such rationale extends the belief that society would be better off without such unnecessary drains on resources.

The Disabled Person as Sexually Abnormal – this stereotype essentially focuses on the male experience of disability, with the crippled man rendered unable to perform his husbandly duties “Hitherto disabled people have, with few exceptions, been portrayed as incapable of sexual activity” (Hephaestus in Homer, Lady Chatterley’s husband in Lawrence). Although there are historical allusions to sexual deviance in women being related to madness or relapse to atavistic models, Barnes does not seem to have considered them, merely focusing on women’s disabilities as reasons provided for male infidelity. Although he does not see how this contradicts his earlier assertion that mentally impaired people pose a threat to society, especially children, since schizophrenics are portrayed as sexually deviant predators. The point is that Barnes himself, in his understanding of disability, makes no distinction between physically and mentally impaired people, which serves only to confuse matters. Nevertheless, he then introduces the idea of the ‘oversexed maniac’ that is Quasimodo, with his ‘unhealthy lust’ for Esmeralda.

He also introduces the idea of the “wounded male“, as a figure possibly sexually enhanced or rendered heroic by a particular impairment (the eye patch of Nelson or Moshe Dayan), and points out that this has no female equivalent.

The Disabled Person as Incapable of Participating Fully in Community Life – the idea that disabled people are omitted from everyday scenarios “rarely shown as integral and productive members of the community; as students, as teachers, as part of the work-force or as parents. The absence of such portrayals feeds the notion that disabled people are inferior human beings who should be segregated.” This continues the idea of disabled people as burden, as vulnerable, since being dependent and disempowered they cannot survive by themselves. Media portrayals perpetuate the notion that disabled people cannot secure employment, hold down a job or even contribute in any meaningful way to society. Disabled people are not invited onto chat shows to give their opinions on anything other than disability. Through the denial of vital public recognition and support, such (non)portrayals “effectively impede disabled people’s struggle for self determination and independence.”

The Disabled Person as Normal – although at first hand this would seem to be ‘inclusive’, and part of the goal of challenging normalcy, the issue is not as clear cut. Including disabled people in narratives without emphasis on their impairment is ostensibly a good thing, but the protagonists are still subject to stereotyping (patronising, when their surnames are not acknowledged, or when “normal abilities are emphasised while impairments are downplayed or ignored“). This counters the activist position that disability should be celebrated, not ignored. In addition, the characters are often one-dimensional, with personal experiences of disability (and the disabling effects of society) remaining unexamined. A further problem is that the normalisation of disability “tends to obscure
the need for change“, undermining the work that champions for change are trying to achieve. As such, although such inclusion of disabled persons in narratives where the disability is inherent to their appearance would seem to be positive steps, they are not actually dealing with disability in any meaningful way.

Such stereotyping by the media, Barnes argues, is “fundamental to the discrimination and exploitation which disabled people encounter daily, and contribute significantly to their systematic exclusion from mainstream community life.”

“The only solution with any hope of success is for all media organisations to provide the kind of information and imagery which; firstly, acknowledges and explores the complexity of the experience of disability and a disabled identity and; secondly, facilitates the meaningful integration of all disabled people into the mainstream economic and social life of the community.” (Barnes 1992, p 19)

Since, according to Barnes, roughly 12% of the UK population (at the time of writing) were disabled people, a figure he predicted would rise (as a result of medical progress and an ageing population), media disablism is “no longer simply morally and socially reprehensible it is economically inept.”

Barnes recommends that wherever possible, disabled people included in storylines should not be presented as one-dimensional characters, but “complex personalities with a full range of emotions and activities“, interacting on an equal level with non-disabled people in a variety of situations. He also recommends employing disabled actors to play disabled roles wherever possible, and making sure that they are “representative of the sexual, racial, ethnic, gender and age divisions in the disabled population as a whole” (1992: 23).

Oliver (1990) accuses the mass media of having violated the real experience of disability, of not providing adequate disability role models and failing to challenge societal prejudices. Although he concedes there is some recognition of the ways disabled people have been misrepresented, there still remains much to be done: “the best that can be said is that dominant images are being challenged but they are far from being replaced by more authentic ones” while identity formation has been limited by cultural portrayals of disabled people as “superheroes or pathetic victims” (p 62).

One problem of this kind of stereotyping is that it becomes part of the dominant ideology, and thus a source of oppression. Since the dominant ideology is inherent in all areas of cultural and social life, it becomes a reality that is difficult to question or oppose, and may even be invisible to those who are oppressed, since they “cannot perceive clearly the ‘order’ which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized” (Freire 2000, p 62). The fact that cultural representations engender and in turn feed from popular cultural myths means that disabled people are subject to defamation and malicious gossip which perpetuate the stereotypes of being abnormal, unproductive, diseased ‘freaks of nature’ (Kitchin 1998, p 351). Opposition to dominant ideology of able-bodiedness takes the form of defiance – refusing to accept normalising treatment, challenging stereotypes by taking control of their own lives, entering employment, having children and refusing to conceal their impairments (ibid, p 353). As Fanon declared in his infamous call-to-arms, those seeking to challenge oppression need “either to reject or to explode the so-called truths sown into their consciousness” by the dominant ideology (2004, p 220); in order to put an end to domination, the oppressed subject fights “[b]ut he must also ensure that all the untruths planted within him by the oppressor are eliminated” (ibid, p 233).


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