Attitudes to disability in the media

“Disabled people rarely appear in popular culture. When they do, their disability must be a continuous preoccupation overshadowing all other areas of their character. Disabled people are disabled. That is what they “do.” That is what they “are.”” (King 1993, p 72)

I think that a good way to start researching for my project is to look at how disabled people are portrayed in the media; this will give me some ideas of how to approach and how not to approach my subject matter. It is important that I do not evoke feelings of horror or pity; I wish to challenge stereotypes, not to reinforce them. The prevalent stereotypes are pathetic/pitiable, victim/sufferer, evil/immoral, exotic/freak, heroic/noble, burden/outcast, asexual, unproductive, comic (the butt of jokes).

The history of the portrayal of disabled people is the history of oppressive and negative representation. This has meant that disabled people have been presented as socially flawed able bodied people, not as disabled people with their own identities.” David Hevey, 25 March 1992

To challenge stereotypes, I need first of all to have researched and understood them. A simple Google search for images of disability + children turned up the following results:

Brightly coloured, positive images of children who are obviously mentally or physically impaired. This is exactly the kind of image that I had been taking at the day centre. Do they go the whole way of challenging stereotypes, though? Of course, the smiling faces show ‘optimism’ or ‘bravery’, rather than gloomy pictures of suffering, isolation and depression – inclusion rather than exclusion or discrimination. But is this not also a case of simple denial of the issue, or at least visual discourse within the socially accepted parameters of disability? To me, the most challenging (to the stereotypes) pictures that came up here are the ones which show the subjects in control, actively doing something. Stuart Hall (1997) warns that the representation of difference is not straightforward, since the audience’s emotions and opinions are invoked, while feelings of fear and anxiety may also be triggered: “Difference signifies. It ‘speaks'” (p 230). As such, I need to be extremely careful of how I represent not only my subjects, but also disability in general.

What is my angle? Simply showing handicapped kids with smiles on their faces is too banal for me. I want to go deeper. To show the daily struggles, to show what these kids have overcome against incredible odds – what inspires me about them I want to let others be inspired by, but I also want to include the political aspect, that society has still to acknowledge them, that medicine can sometimes be misguided in its diagnoses, that the main thing that is needed is support, and the only way that can be given is by changing attitudes. Is disability something that needs to be overcome, or something that needs to be accepted?

…histories [of people at the margins of good health] are important in political terms and allow political engagement with the themes of medicine and the state; and the very documenting of their experiences is perhaps quintessential ‘social history’.” (Coleborne 2007)

Here I need to be very careful with how the images are received by the audience (or perhaps audiences), what Barthes (1977, pp 17-25) refers to as the connoted message that the viewer projects onto the image as a result of cultural, political and historical perceptions. In its most basic sense, disability is represented in the media as stories about bodies (Garland-Thomson, 2005).


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