Ableism In The Media

Poor representation leads to misinformation, stigma, stereotypes, and societal exclusion

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Everton Vila@evertonvila on

Unfortunately, a person with a disability is likely to face a life that includes experiences of exclusion, mocking, or feeling less than in some way or the other. Unjustly, the world is fit for really one type of person: an able one.

Exclusion easily becomes a part of the daily lives of persons with a disability, and the importance of accommodating persons with a disability is often overlooked; buildings without ramps or elevators deny access for those with a physical disability, television shows without sign language make it extremely difficult for many to be informed, and so on.

Another form of exclusion is that of the media.

Media representation for all groups, including minority groups, is crucial. Our worldview is greatly shaped by what is represented in the media. Poor representation leads to misinformation, stigma, stereotypes, and societal exclusion. In the case of disabilities, an example of this would be the misunderstanding that persons with a disability are individuals who have fewer capabilities or potential than those who are able.

What we see can strongly influence societal norms and public opinion. Excluding the stories, triumphs, anecdotes, problems of persons with disabilities in mainstream media feeds the idea that a disability is an obstacle between a person and his or her success or value.

It is rare to see stories about persons with a disability in mainstream media, and when they are covered, they are often pity stories; stories where individuals are identified mainly through their disabilities, not their unique characteristics or personality. Many argue that the representation of persons with disability is almost always through pity or heroism and that negative representation depicts a person with a disability as a burden or drain on society instead of as a natural part of our rich and diverse society.

There have been several studies that aim to understand and investigate the relationship between disability and media coverage. One study found that only 2.7 percent of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies of 2016 were depicted with a disability. Another study found that perceived positive media representation of people with disabilities led to affirmation of their disability identity, whereas negative media representation led to denial of their disability identity.

Fair inclusion and representation of persons with a disability in the media have seen some improvement in recent years. There are some radio reading services that broadcast readings from newspapers, magazines, and books for blind or partially sighted audiences. The Creative Diversity Networks advocates increased cultural and disability-related programming, and BBC has included Ouch!, a disability news and discussion talk show program. But there is so much space for improvement to make the world an inclusive place for everyone.

Having people who share common characteristics as role models is important. One should ask oneself: how would it feel if nothing I represent or identify with was never covered in the news, for example, or if I never saw people like me being talked about in any context?

“People need to see themselves. People with disabilities, like any other group ― when you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible,” — Judith Heumann

I was reminded of an article I read some time ago, about Mika Leminen, a musician who was born with cerebral palsy, and his experiences living in a society that he feels isn’t built for people like him. The quote that stuck with me was:

“Internalized ableism means that individuals with disabilities learn to hate themselves when ableness is the norm. When society screams it, your brain starts to believe it. You’re not as good as them, you can’t do this or that, you don’t exist, you don’t have rights. It’s damn hard to learn how to accept yourself in a society like that.”

It is rare to see persons with disabilities in positions of power. When someone like Joe Biden is mocked for his speech, it reinforces just that belief: that the only thing people see is his disability. It is an extremely discouraging and unfortunate example to set for anyone with a disability or difficulty.

Joe Biden is a great example of how important it is to have role models who we can identify with. He has been very open about his stutter. Back in August, he met with 13-year old Brayden Harrington who stutters as well. With the help of Biden, Brayden worked up the courage to deliver a speech via Guardian News, something he would never have thought of being able to do.

If you scroll down to the comment section of any YouTube video where Biden opens up about his stutter, the positive impact is evident. Here are some comments taken from this video:

“This is really encouraging. Honestly I’m not a severe stuttered. My case is just situational. I have trouble thinking on the spot so I have trouble with my normal speaking rhythm. Job interviews are the worst.”
“I never knew he stutters. Gives me hope in life.”
“I am 19 years old, have been stammering/stuttering since I was born. My dad thinks negatively of me. Life is hell for me. But Biden gives me hope.”
“Whoa! Did not know this! I’m encouraged!”

A diverse, fair media representation promotes inclusiveness and acceptance. The media is such a powerful tool, and there is no reason why persons of disability couldn’t be seen on TV shows, movies, news, modeling, and so forth. Ability has no boundaries or set rules. An interesting quote from one of my university textbooks makes one wonder what we will think of looking back at media representation in 50 years:

“We can often be unaware of the ideological position of contemporary media because it reflects our own taken-for granted views of the world. Old movies and television programs can seem unusual to us because they present an understanding of society that is at odds with our contemporary society. Most U.S television programs made in the 1950’s and 1960’s featured almost entirely white casts; African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities were virtually non-existent.”

That girl next door.

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