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People With Disability And The Media Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2681 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The mass media serves many purposes. It is informative, descriptive, and persuasive but it also helps create stereotypes and reinforce cultural values. Although there is no clear correlation of the effects media has on the attitudes of society towards people with disabilities it is seen to have an influence.

“People with disabilities and their concerns are either invisible, marginalised, or depicted by negative stereotypes in the media”

The media seem to distinguish people with disabilities in a number of limited categories. They are portrayed as either heroes for doing something inspirational or achieving something great, as people who should be pitied for their impairment or as people who are sinister or evil and evoke fear. Rarely do they appear and remain in the media in habitual roles. In our society people with disabilities are excluded, oppressed, treated unequally, seen as helpless and are victims of prejudice.

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Many news articles concerning disability contain stories regarding cures, or overcoming the disability. The Irish Examiner recently featured a story entitled ‘Device lets blind soldier ‘see’ again’ (Creedon 2010 p5). The focus in this story is a soldier, a hero, who lost his sight in the Iraqi war trying to regain a normal life and the device he uses enables him to get around without the use of a guide dog. This seems to portraying the need to hide the disability and to somehow fix it, or find a cure for it. Some famous people are also known for trying to overcome their disability and never accepting it. Christopher Reeve, famously known for his role as superman, became a wheelchair user and required breathing equipment following an accident where he thrown from his horse. He never fully accepted his disability and became an advocate for stem cell research to find a cure. President F.D Roosevelt was a wheelchair user but there are claims that only two photos of 35,000 showed him in his wheelchair (Hevey 1992, Delamothe 1992).

In another recent story, ‘Autistic boy seeks return of facilities’ (Kilfeather 2010 p2) a boy is portrayed as being denied his constitutional rights because he is not provided with equipment he requires. On the same page as this article is a story about a young autistic girl who is a hero and is overcoming her obstacles. This story, ‘Grace iPhone app ‘makes a difference” (Ó Cionnaith 2010 p2) does hold positive information for people with autism however in the development of a new device to assist communication but they are treating her as astonishingly impressive.

Oliver (1990) noted that people with disabilities were described as extraordinary or sub-ordinate humans. People with disabilities were used as a source of melodramatic entertainment in circuses across Europe and America throughout the 20th century as depicted in Mel Brook’s The Elephant man in 1980 and Tod Browning Freaks film in 1932. Disability was not understood at the time and was seen as evil, works of the devil and something to be feared. Cultural views has changed drastically since institutionalization and become more accepting of people with disabilities, although it still needs huge improvements.

Soap operas are very popular nowadays. They are entertaining but directly relate to ordinary life experiences and are an excellent way of portraying social issues. They do not include people with disabilities very often, and when they do the person with the disability finds a cure or leaves again. EastEnders, a UK based soap, has included a character with bi polar disorder and a character with paralysis recently. These characters are depicted excellently and will hopefully set a precedent for other soaps.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 film Forrest Gump is a widely known film starring a character with autism. This film involves positive and negative imagery. Firstly, he is a hero for his achievements in war but then he is also portrayed as having normal intimate feelings for a member of the opposite sex. He is not just shown as a supernatural human but as a sufferer of unrequited love which is a usual feature of many characters in fiction. This film is an exception to most for its representation of disability.

The images the media render can be seen as very conflicting. The current television advertisements to promote safe driving evoke a sense of pity and horror in the viewer to the results of a car accident, such as facial disfigurement, paralysis, undesirability and total dependence on others of the victim. Parents and family are then seen as burdened with the victim of the car accident who now has a disability. There is an emphasis on who is going to provide for victim when the care givers die. There is also a stress on rehabilitation following an accident. If one is a victim of an accident and becomes a wheelchair user one must try to correct that by participating in rehabilitation. Even plastic surgery can be seen as a pressure by society to conform to what is seen to be conventional. This ideology is a product of cultural values and norms, reinforced by the media portrayal of flawlessness.

On the other hand, The National Disability Authority’s campaign called “Challenging Attitudes”, first launch in December 2007, was designed to change people’s views on mental health issues by using television, radio advertisements and posters (see appendix 1). They use a number of words to describe a person and include a mental health phrase such as depression, schizophrenic, bi-polar etc. They are trying to persuade people to look at the person as a whole, not in terms of the disability. This is contradictory to the message given by the car accident advertisements where a person with a disability is seen in terms of their disability and it is something to be feared.

The Public Attitudes to Disability in Ireland (2008) report found that many people thought that children with disabilities should not attend mainstream schooling. This shows huge discrimination and problems changing cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities when it cannot be accepted in schools. In this study it was found that 60% of the respondents thought that disability was created by barriers in society which is an idea founded in the social model of disability (Oliver, 1983). This is a big increase since the 2002 report which found that only 25% of people saw society as creating barriers for people with disabilities. Public attitudes are shifting in a positive direction.

From practice placement it is evident in a local town in North Kerry that some businesses in the town do not allow young children with a range of physical and mental disabilities into their premises. If they do allow them in it is only at a certain times of the day for a given period. Many of the staff working with these young children are harassed by local people saying that “those people” should be locked away as they were frightening their children and they should not be behaving like that in public. Environments and attitudes like this exclude people with disabilities and prevent positive socialisation. Huge investment needs to be placed into re-educating the people in our society.

People with disabilities are not usually seen in primary roles in television programmes. A study by Cumberbatch and Negrine (1992) in the United Kingdom reveal that the most prevailing stories regarding disability in the media included people with a disability achieving something major or finding a cure. They examined an eight week period of television programming over a number of channels. They also found that people with disabilities only appeared .5% of fictional programmes. Contrasting to the UK study, The Representation and Portrayal of People with Disabilities in Irish Broadcasting (2009) showed that people with disabilities featured more in fictional programmes then nonfiction. Perhaps this means a shift in images over the period of time. In the report, they concluded that:

“People with disabilities are more likely to be obviously present in drama, comedy and lifestyle programming and are less evident in news, sports and music programming”

(The Representation and Portrayal of People with Disabilities in Irish Broadcasting, 2009)

People with disabilities have only begun to appear in advertisements since the 1980s, most frequently they are seen on charity advertisements appealing for financial support. These advertisements and depictions are mostly controlled by able-bodied people. Mason (1982) argues in her poem that people with disabilities are silenced when it comes to their portrayal in the media so as not to disrupt the image of dependency and need. The Special Olympics advertisement appeals for financial support utilises children in evoking pity in the audience. Many people with disabilities feel that they have no say in these decisions about how they are publicized in the media. They are represented by others who may not understand their needs. More people with disabilities need to be included in the decision making processes. The Irish population seem to be enraptured by the current story of the conjoined twins, Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf, they have almost become celebrities because of their disability. They have been featured in national and local newspapers, on radio shows and on the television. The media have played a very important role in portraying their image and appealing for financial assistance.

A recently conducted workshop in Dublin by Dr. Philip Nitschke, commonly known as Dr. Death in the media, could potentially be very dangerous. His workshops consist of information as to how a person can commit suicide safety and efficiently. Dr. Nitschke is the first doctor in the world to conduct a physician assisted suicide, first done in Australia in 1996. He claims his workshops are aimed at elderly people and those who are terminally ill, but he cannot guarantee that the information he has given will not be used by others such as people affected with mental health issues or people with disabilities. He gives clear information about methods of suicide and he also tells people where to get items to assist their suicide. Although suicide is not illegal in Ireland, euthanasia is and having access to this information could encourage more suicide especially in the more vulnerable in society and in a culture where disability is looked upon as requiring a cure.

There have been some positive changes in Irish legislation and policies in recent years. A Strategy for Equality (1996) has influenced some of these changes. This report was made in conjunction with people with disabilities and it made many recommendations.

One of the recurring recommendations in the report is to provide training to professionals and individuals such as presenters, journalists, teachers, students, people with disabilities etc. regarding the use of terminology and imagery. It seems that the principle problem lies in the lack of education regarding people with disabilities. Disability is ignored more often than it is acknowledged.

This report also recommends that news regarding people with disabilities should feature in mainstream news and not in special correspondence. As they are underrepresented in the media the topic of disability should be made more visible. There is a clear lack of participation in game shows and talent shows by people with disabilities. The report also found that people in the deaf community felt that more programmes need to be subtitled to create equal access; however this issue has been addressed greatly since this report which is a positive action towards inclusivity.

The Representation and Portrayal of People with Disabilities in Irish Broadcasting (2009) illustrate that people are more willing to accept and listen to people with disabilities in the media where people with disabilities take part. Overall, however people with disabilities only accounted for 1% of the proportion of people on television even though they account for 10% of the population (Public Attitudes to Disability in Ireland, 2008). They are highly under represented. The programmes involving people with disabilities featured unemployment problems, unusual medical syndromes, being victims of violence and abuse, unequal opportunities, unable to commit to and sustain sexual relationships, etc. This seems to reinforce stereotyping of people with disabilities and portrays a very negative image to the population.

There is legislation in Ireland to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. The Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2004 and the Equal Status Acts 2000 -2004 provides that it is illegal to discriminate in workplaces and in service provision on a number of grounds. This is recent legislation that could potentially have a positive effect on people’s values and norms. Also the Disability Act 2005 provides that 3% of positions in public sector organisations must held for people with disabilities. Although this is discrimination against able bodied people, it is for a positive reason and should hopefully encourage more acceptances of people with disabilities. If communities are more exposed to people with disabilities, attitudes and cultural norms would change.

In conclusion, it is a slow process but the media is beginning to change its images and the culture is becoming more accepting of people with disabilities. Perhaps it would be worth considering initiatives regarding how prejudice against black people or homosexual people were addressed and how effective they were in planning action and reducing prejudice for the disabled community.


Creedon, L., (2010) Device lets blind soldier ‘see’ again. The Irish Examiner, March 16th, 5

Cumberbatch, G & Negrine, R., (1992) Images of disability on television, Routledge Darke, London

Delamothe, T., (1992) Thank You. Medicine and the Media, May 2nd, 1186

EastEnder, 2010 (Soap) Directed by Julia Smith. UK: Elstree Studios

Forrest Gump, 1994 (Film) Directed by Robert Zemeckis. USA: Paramount Pictures

Freaks, 1932 (Film) Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Hevey, D., (1992) The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. Routledge, London.

Kilfeather, V., (2010) Autistic boy seeks return of facilities. Irish Examiner, March 16th, 2

Leavy, S. (2010) Does the freedom to die enhance lives? Irish Medical Times, March 28th

Mason, M., (1982) ‘From the inside’, In from the cold. Summer 12-13

National Disability Authority & Broadcasting commission of Ireland., (2009) The Representation and Portrayal of People with Disabilities in Irish Broadcasting, Executive Summary. Dublin.

National Disability Authority., (1996) Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, A Strategy for Equality 1996. Statistical Consulting, Dublin.

National Disability Authority., (2008) Public Attitudes to Disability in Ireland. Insight Statistical Consulting, Dublin.

Ó Cionnaith, F., (2010) Grace iPhone app ‘makes a difference’. Irish Examiner, March 16th, 2

Oliver, M., (1983) Social work with disabled people. Macmillan, UK.

Oliver, M., (1990) The politics of disablement. Macmillan, UK.

The Elephant man, 1980 (Film) Directed by Mel Brooks. USA: Paramount Pictures


Barnes, C. & Mercer, G. (2003) Disability. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Barnes, C., Mercer, G. & Shakespeare, T. (1999) Exploring Disability, A Sociological Introduction. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Whalley Hammell, K., (2006) Perspectives on Disability & Rehabilitation; contesting assumptions; challenging practice. Elsevier Limited, UK.


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