Disability, charity images and stereotypes

Walter Lippmann’s idea about stereotypes and why we have recourse to them:

THERE is another reason, besides economy of effort, why we so often hold to our stereotypes when we might pursue a more disinterested vision. The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society. They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.” (Lippmann 1922, p 95)

Though we understand that stereotypes are not a realistic view of the world around us, somehow they help us to classify and categorise and make the world a more comfortable place in which to reside. We know our place!

Charity appeals are organised around often stereotypical images of victims. These appeals raise millions of pounds, thereby demonstrating the continuing power of the pictures. But are these short term benefits offset by the long-term effects of reproducing images with cultural and racial stereotypes?”
Imaging Famine catalogue, 2005 David Campbell et al.

Although this was written with famine victims specifically in mind, the same can pretty much be said of disability charity appeals. Since they are positioning disabled people as victims or suffering, in a way the images can be said to be disseminating bad press about disability and disabled people – as being unable to cope by themselves, and as somehow being a burden on society as a whole. The catalogue text continues to discuss the short term benefits of using emotive imagery to evoke public response to emergency situations, and the longer term effects of using positive imagery to reflect sustainable projects or the results of fundraising campaigns. Do the ends justify the means? “Is an image necessarily negative if it produces a positive outcome?” can compassion fatigue be applied to images of disability? If we understand that compassion fatigue occurs when repeated viewing of upsetting images of the weak and vulnerable induces passivity and feelings of helplessness and confusion among viewers, then there may be a case for disability compassion fatigue. How does this fit in with the social constructionist theory? The work of charities would seem to undermine the activist groups who are reclaiming their bodies in much the same way as the civil rights and feminist movements have done.

Michael Oliver accuses charity organisations of shamelessly reinforcing stereotypes of disabled people as pitiable in their fundraising campaigns, whose “prime objective is to maximise income, regardless of the image presented” noting that in supposedly less civilised societies, disabled people are treated with more dignity since they are permitted to beg for themselves (1990, p 93).

Disability writer Paul Hunt had the following to say:

We are tired of being statistics, cases, wonderfully courageous examples to the world, pitiable objects to stimulate fund-raising.” (Hunt, 1966)

As Jessica Evans points out in her essay, Feeble Monsters: Making up Disabled People, the basic problem with mainstream (particularly charity) representations of disabled persons in the media is a fundamental lack of agency:

in material terms, the entire relationship between charities, ad agencies and target audiences is an enclosed ‘circuit’ which does not depend at all upon the participation of disabled people themselves. They are not clients (the charity is), nor the audience/customer (non-disabled people are targeted as the donors of funds or as potential volunteers), nor the product (which is the charity).(Evans 1999, p 280)

Since the disabled are infantilised, underdeveloped and bereft of dependency, they are considered unable to contribute in any meaningful way to society, and as such excluded from areas where cultural value is transacted. By stressing the vulnerability that disability entails, such images play on an inherent fear of dependency (to be a burden to others and to society as a whole) that is a source of stigma in advanced capitalist systems. She also notes that this is divided along gender lines, where the disabled man is to all intents and purposes emasculated, “condemned to endlessly re-enact the ‘horror’ of [his] earliest dependency on a woman – as mother.” While the disabled woman “simply becomes more vulnerable, and, in contrast to the ‘horror’ of dependency, the feminine storyline culminates in physical attack” (ibid, p 276). Just what this ‘physical attack‘ consists of is unclear, but we might assume it is again medical intervention at the hands of (predominantly male, as Spence remarked) doctors and medical professionals. By adopting the medical approach to disability, the charities are in a sense accepting social Darwinism as a means to ‘cure the afflicted’, rather than using the social model to accommodate disabled people within the environments they already inhabit. Ultimately all this succeeds in doing is reinforcing stereotypes:

“Charitable giving is both a monetary and psychological transaction, one of social insurance against the prospect of damage to the viewer’s own body. Presented, as so often is the case, with an aggressive image of pain or debility, the viewer feels relief (that they are not like that), guilt (for feeling relieved), and hatred (for being made to feel guilt). What I want to argue is that pity and altruism, which is the conscious aspect of reacting to disabled posters, are closely linked to hatred and aggression. Giving to charity is at the same time an act of kindness and an act of rejection, making the giver feel whole and separate; the contradictory values are what makes the treatment of disabled people an arena of conflicting values.” (Evans 1999, p 284)

The idea that if I am able to give, then I reinforce the fact that I am not part of that group; emphasizing the binary positions of domination/subordination. To my mind this is intrinsically linked to Compassion Fatigue, where one can delve into the horrors of another’s cruel fate (poverty tourism), only to turn the page and once more be comforted by the ‘realities’ of capitalist consumer culture. The power of images to evoke (benign, charitable) reactions was remarked by the early pioneers who employed photography (ostensibly) in the interests of social change (Riis, Hine et al). Evans suggests that the pity and altruism engendered when viewing such images are more closely linked to negative feelings of hatred and aggression than to genuine compassion and concern. The act of giving is an act of separation, marking the divide, and is therefore one of condescension or contempt.

On the other hand, David Hevey (1992) argues that statistically, people do not typically respond (only 1%) to general advertising campaigns by donating money. He argues that such broad charity advertising is more about building up the ‘brand image’ of the charity and hopefully recruiting volunteers along the way. He also notes that people tend to give to charities with which they feel an affiliation, through personal experience or knowledge:

“The hope is that the image may prove cathartic both for the donors and for the disabled people they want to support … The charity consumers have a living memory of the impairment. They see the charity image as an externalized memory of pain. Perhaps they feel giving will purge this memory forever”

Hevey also notes that such charity imagery works by appropriating the impairment and visualizing it, in effect lending it a “symbolic yet social identity“; the impaired body becomes the “essence and symbol of disablement“, fragmented in the process “the major fragment – the impairment – becomes the centre of attention.” The disabled person is objectified and depersonalised, reduced to a trope – a tool for fundraising in fact. The charity labels the impairment, thus establishing ownership and brand identity.

He remarks on the fact that commercial advertising is in colour, since its purpose is to sell desire; whereas charity advertising is monochrome, selling fear: “Charities promote a brand not to buy, but to buy your distance from.” As Hevey sees it, this sets up the donor-dependency paradigm, where disabled people are stereotyped as ‘needy’ with the viewer part of a general public that is active, employed and in a position to give. Although the picture tends to allude to futility, accompanying text generally serves to relate scientific data implying that the charity is targeted towards treatment, care and ultimate eradication of the condition (a hope in hell). This can be achieved by giving the charity money. However, there is no information about how the disabled people in question are dealing with their oppression; the charities advocate apolitical change, a miracle cure rather than societal shift in attitude. Since disabled people are very often isolated and oppressed within their own family units, they are consequently denied the opportunity to form cohesive communities, and such advertising would appear to exacerbate their predicament: “Charity advertising does not in any way solve the problem of disabled people’s isolation because it publicly validates it, feeds off it even.”

As such, according to Hevey disability charity advertising fails: firstly by confusing disability with impairment, and subsequently acting as “visual flagship for the myth of the tragedy of impairment.” Non-disabled society utilises impairment charity as moral high ground for the unburdening of its guilt and thus avoids giving disabled people the civil rights they deserve, he claims.

The scientific-medical interpretation of disability would have us believe that the best way to deal with impairments would be to try and eradicate them rather than improving current systems of care. Charity ads maintain this myth by implying that our donation can somehow help in this cause and hopefully avoid such a calamity befalling ourselves or our loved ones in the process. The fact that suffering and dependency form an integral part of our lives and cannot be eradicated or avoided appears to be grossly overlooked in such media portrayals.

[Sander] Gilman has been interested in representations of the sick and diseased, those ‘Othered’ by the medical gaze, because they reveal something about the ways human beings seek to control fears of ‘collapse’.
(Coleborne 2007, p 685)

Gilman is a primary figure in discourse around illness and its representation throughout history. He suggests that images of disease are contaminated by “fear of collapse, the sense of dissolution” and we as viewers are able to project our fears onto the imaged Other, and thus avoid succumbing to them: “it is not we who totter on the brink of collapse but rather the Other” (Gilman 1988, p 1), could the same be said of images of disability and charity? King (1993) echoes this view when she states that prejudicial attitudes towards disabled people are not only a civil rights issue, but also reveal deeper bodily fears: “an unease in the human skin, an inability to cope with contingency, ambiguity, flux, finitude, and death” (p 73) and “this reminder of mortal finitude and contingency and embeddedness of nature and the body is at the root of the hatred of the disabled” (p 75). This goes a long way to explain the institutionalisation of disabled people, as well as the elderly in similar homes – out of sight out of mind; while we remove the offending sight (that reminds us of our own ineluctable mortality) from before our eyes, we pretend that it is done for their sake, out of humanity. Wendell (1989) also shares this view, and explains that the construction of an ideal body with no imperfections or experience of pain alienates us from our own real bodies and casts the disabled body as a symbol of failure (of both the individual and medical science). In a culture that exalts physical health and conformity, Barbara Hillyer Davis advocates ‘bodily integrity’: acknowledging the human being has limitations, accepting that our bodies cannot always be repaired and are susceptible to degenerative conditions as we age, which can help us to recognise the body’s ‘real’ condition and explore the ‘lack of safety’ this understanding entails, while doing away with the denial of vulnerability and false heroism that our culture of idealised physicality and optimistic outlook demands (Davis, 1984).

Butler also points out our attempts to deny our own mortality and vulnerability:

No amount of will or wealth can eliminate the possibilities of illness or accident for a living body, although both can be mobilized in the service of such an illusion” (2009, p 30).

The disabled body is constructed as a stereotyped Other in binary opposition to that ideal (able, healthy, young) body we aspire to; disability is thus an immutable position, enabling construction of the self as ‘normal’:

Essential difference allows those who rely on it to rest reassuringly on its gamut of fixed notions. Any mutation in identity, in essence, in regularity, and even in physical place poses a problem, if not a threat, in terms of classification and control. If you can’t locate the other, how are you to locate yourself?” (Trinh 1991, p 73).

Gilman has an interesting theory about how stereotypes come about:

“The basic structure … of all stereotyping [is] the inherent and universal fantasy made between the ‘good’ ‘mother’ (whom we can control) and the ‘bad’ ‘mother’ (who lies outside of our potential for control)” (ibid, p 4)

This builds on a Kleinian notion, in its turn an extension of Freudian thought, where the breast is seen as the seat of envy: the good mother is the one who offers the breast and thus milk and love, whereas the bad mother takes it away; the mother is seen as embodying both good and bad since she offered security in the womb, but also the anxieties caused by birth (Klein 1957/1975). Elsewhere in his writing, Gilman claims that we cannot function without our stereotypes, that we use them as a kind of protection from the outside world:

“They buffer us against our most urgent fears by extending them, making it possible for us to act as though their source were beyond our control.” (Gilman 1985a, p 16)

Gilman describes stereotypes as “images of things we fear and glorify“, and proposes that everyone uses a range of stereotypes to deal with what we understand as good and bad objects in the external world. Accordingly, he asserts that we need to distinguish between stereotyping that he sees as pathological, and that which “all of us need to do to preserve our illusion of control over the self and the world” (1985a, p 18); the pathological personality does not possess the ability to transcend this crude differentiation with more sophisticated categories, and is thus unable to distinguish the individual from the stereotyped class, “whereas for the non-pathological individual the stereotype is a momentary coping mechanism, one that can be used and then discarded once anxiety is overcome” (1985a, p 18). In this way, Gilman makes the excuse for people being prejudiced in general but accepting of individuals; perhaps this apologia is more of a self-searching revelation than anything else.

Gilman claims this necessity for division and stereotyping is prompted by our requirement for coping “with anxieties engendered by our inability to control the world” (1985a p 12). It is all apparently rooted in our childhood, in our need to create an illusory division between self and Other, which manifests itself as a Manichean understanding of the world as made up of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to whether our demands are met or not. As such, our stereotypes are neither random nor archetypical, but rather shift and change over time, “are protean rather than rigid“, and form part of the cultural tradition of a given social order.

He also claims that ‘texts’ (a term used to define everything from “advertising copy to medical illustration, from popular novels to classical drama, from the academic portrait to graffiti scratched on the walls of prisons“) can be employed to trace and observe “the fluidity of stereotypical concepts” (1985a p 26) through history. In a sense this is very true, since discourse affects not only what is in vogue linguistically, but also what is socially and academically acceptable for publication, broadcast and dissemination. If we compare the tables of terminology used to refer to disability, it becomes quite evident that some of the terms that had roots in the medical sciences have since lost academic currency and gained derogatory connotations.

Using the instrument of stereotyping, we are able to construct the diseased or deviant Other, external to ourselves and as such create the illusion of preventing our own collapse with the demise of the Other. This would seem to add a new dimension to the disability discourse, which claims that society creates normalcy: Gilman would have us believe that we as individuals create stereotypes even before the mirror stage, as we begin to perceive the self as separate identity, and ‘difference’ is manifested in denial of the demands we had assumed would be met. As such, difference (assuming this ‘good-bad’ dichotomy) is something created individually before it is societally conditioned; what an individual considers to be bad or deviant is that which does not conform to his demands – the Other is that which denies me, that causes my anxieties or fears, what I can’t control, or I don’t want to be. Is this an oversimplification of the phenomenon, or does it accurately describe our tendency from an early age to resort to oversimplification as a means of dealing with the complexities we encounter before we have developed the rational capacity to do so? Either way, his theory of the “fear of collapse” may go some way to explaining the morbid fascination people have with images of disability, deviance, disease and deformity.

Wendell (1989) explains that the creation of the Other is a result of a dominant group in society projecting its fears onto those it sees as symbolizing them; the process is not symmetrical since the dominant group has the power to construct the paradigm and validate its own position. Halberstam and Livingston (1995) posit that the creation of ‘norms’ depends on marginalizing ‘Others’ in order to define the idealized nature and humanity of the self: “the Other is also the matrix against which the self is made to appear and from which it can never be extricated; the “conservation of Otherness” dictates that any “assimilation” or “incorporation” will also be a transfiguration” (1995, p 5), which means that the disabled body can never be truly assimilated since it resists transfiguration.

Deni Elliott (1994) observes that disability doesn’t fit into the idealistic lifestyle sold by the media, and as a result remains largely unrepresented. When images do appear, they are generally employed to invoke fear or to reinforce the ‘normal’ viewer’s sense of worth with “aren’t-you-glad-you’re-not-him” stories. In presenting disability as a fate worse than death on one hand or as inspirational supercrip on the other, Elliott claims the media is guilty of unethical exploitation (and some of the guiltiest are the charities that purport to be acting in the interests of the disabled people):

“People with disabilities are presented in ways that are just as offensive and destructive as the ways that women and minority groups were presented by media more than a quarter of a century ago.”

Stories about individual struggles or acts of bravery decontextualise disability, viewing it as personal tragedy and failing to see the bigger picture of societal ill. Telethons reinforce the stereotype of dependency, although it is society itself and decisions regarding equal access that make them necessary. ‘Supercrip’ stories tend to focus more on the disability than the achievements, reinforcing the stereotype that to be disabled is to be subhuman and simple acts like walking, earning a living or attending college are exalted as feats against the odds. ‘Fate worse than death’ public service campaigns present disability as a punishment, and effective though they may be in dissuading people from abusing drugs or alcohol, they effectively stigmatise disabled people, visually implying that they deserve their fate. A further dimension is added by the use of words and expressions that carry negative connotations to refer to disability (confined to a wheelchair or imprisoned in one’s body) as well as broader metaphors (buying blind, crippling cutbacks) that are discriminatory in nature and offensive to disabled people.

Elliott’s point is that the media bears a responsibility to represent disabled people as normal part of society, to be sensitive and aware of potentially oppressive imagery, and to reveal the bigger picture of disability as societal ill rather than focusing on personal tragedy – in this way treating them as people and assisting their entry into mainstream society. Disabled people experience barriers to participating in mainstream leisure and social activities, as well as simply making social contacts and forming meaningful relationships, and Barnes (1991, Ch 8) points out that part of the reason for this (apart from physical and financial factors) is the media’s distorted view of disabled people influencing perceptions of disability among the general public.

Thus we have stereotypes of disabled persons on the one hand as helpless or weak and in need of treatment, pity or charity – in this sense they are of little value culturally and unable to make significant economic contribution, while on the other hand we have the heroic supercrips who are battling against the odds and proving that assimilation is possible through sheer willpower and determination. What we don’t have is acceptance and access (inclusion in education, employment, and physical access) as well as changes in societal attitude (stares, comments, asexualisation, infantilisation).


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