MEDIA AND PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES – SIDE EVENT, SOCIAL FORUM 2016

3 October 2016, United Nations, Geneva

* A shortened version of the following speech was delivered by Catia Malaquias at the Social Forum 2016 – Side Event, held by the United Nations Council for Human Rights on 3 October at the Palais Des Nations in Geneva.

I am a director of Starting with Julius and the Attitude Foundation – two Australian organisations seeking to change attitudes to disability through media initiatives.  I am also a director of Down Syndrome Australia.

However, today I speak as a co-founder of Gadim – an international platform for promoting the greater and better portrayal of disability in the media. When I first met Patricia Almeida here in Geneva in April 2015, at the Day of General Discussion on inclusive education, we discussed the need for an international alliance for inclusive media – driven by Patricia’s boundless enthusiasm and the expertise of Beth Haller, Professor of Journalism and New Media of Towson University, Maryland USA, we are now back here launching Gadim as a reality.

I, like many, believe that the highest and hardest obstacle faced by people with disability is the invisible, insidious and often subconscious barrier of exclusionary societal attitudes – a resistant, entrenched and lingering legacy.

I, again like many, recognise the potential of modern day mass-reach media to help shape and change attitudes towards people with disability –– to effectively and efficiently promote the social inclusion, and consequently the greater economic inclusion, of people with disability.

It is obvious that seeing and listening to people with disability in the media:

  • validates and reinforces their membership of society;
  • fosters an appreciation of their perspectives; and
  • promotes understanding and acceptance of people with disability,

each key to social inclusion.

I established the Starting with Julius project in 2013, to promote the inclusion of people with disability in all forms of media in Australia.  The birth of my son Julius with Down syndrome had opened my eyes to the fact that people with disability were very rarely portrayed in the Australian media. The initial focus of the project has been inclusion in the Australian retail advertising industry.

So why start with ‘ad inclusion’? Because retail advertising, at its simplest, provides the subject of disability with two vital components to engaging the broader community – first, “mass reach” (as advertising is all pervasive), and secondly“positive endorsement” (as advertising imagery is inherently promotive).

Inclusive retail advertising is commercially sensible as people with disability are a major part of the market.  From the perspective of promoting inclusion and representing disability as part of human diversity, retail advertising is also the most efficient and accessible segment of the media industry – further retail advertising interacts with and leads into other media segments, such as social media, print and television.  In that sense, I see inclusive retail advertising as the most reachable fruit of the media tree –  providing the scaffolding from which inclusion in “higher” media platforms like print, video, television and film, will become more “mainstream” and accessible.

But why should the media industry be receptive to promoting social change to disability?

It is sometimes said, particularly in relation to entertainment media, that social change is not its purpose – its purpose is to derive a return on investment, in light of what audiences wish to see and experience.  It therefore should pitch to the social status quo – or at least within the margins of current social attitudes.  In that sense, the media industry can be said to be an “agent” of society, not a “principal” seeking to accelerate social change.

However, I think that the media industry, like government, does not come to disability as a neutral actor or contemporary on-looker. The media industry, actively or by omission, has itself been a key instrument of implementing and reinforcing the policies of segregation, institutionalisation, dehumanisation and eugenics – the same policies whose implications on the psyche of world society continue today to engender the social exclusion and stigmatisation of, and low expectations for, people with disability.

The substantive reality is that disability in the media is still all too invisible – and when it is portrayed it is largely done “comfortably” for ableist consumption – rather than authentically.  People with disability are grossly under-represented and misrepresented in the media, as well as overlooked and under-valued as consumers of the media.

The relative brevity of Article 8 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the “raising awareness” heading to that Article might suggest that the media merely has an incidental “raising awareness” role to play within the context of the Convention.  I think that the media has a much more significant and central role.

In my view, the positive engagement of the media in the realisation of human rights for people with disability is as critical and could be as powerful as the social implications of the right to inclusive education – as recently amplified by the Committee of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Only with the concerted, sustained and positive engagement of the media can social inclusion of people with disability and the realisation of their human rights occur in a proximate timeframe. It takes much longer to change habits than to form them – people with disabilities have been habitually excluded for centuries.

The continuing social implications of the historic exclusionary policies and practices are so entrenched, pervasive, persistent and insidious that “raising awareness” of rights of people with disability is not enough – to have a meaningful and timely impact on society’s perceptions of disability, governments and the media industry must deliberately counter the effects of “under-representation” and “misrepresentation” of people with disability with positive (rather than passive), dedicated (rather than ad hoc) and continuous (rather than sporadic) strategies and efforts.

In fact, a case may be made for a dedicated strategy of positive discrimination or “over-representation” of people with disability by Governments and the media industry.  When a plant is ripped from the ground, it is not necessarily enough to place it back in the ground, cover the damaged roots and to hope it will rain.  The plant needs a period of additional care and nurturing – similarly the damaged standing of people with disability in society must be first repaired before their rights can be left to grow and be realised.

In my view, Governments and the media industry have a social obligation to “reverse” the entrenched and persistent legacy effects of their sustained exclusionary treatment and under-representation of people with disabilities.

In this regard, it is appropriate to recognise the efforts and policies of the BBC in the United Kingdom – including their recent positive employment strategy.

In relation to advertising, I also wish to mention the remarkable efforts this year of Target and Kmart in Australia  – which have worked with Starting with Julius – and each of which have featured, on a sustained commitment basis, multiple people with disability, children and adults, in all their various advertising media.

The media industry, with or without the influence of Governments as key consumers of media services, has the creative capacity and licence to develop products and practices consistent with the Convention and by doing so it will lubricate the wheels of social inclusion – or it can continue as a passive but damaging agent of friction to that social change – to the detriment of many more generations of people with disability.

I am hopeful that we can help the media industry to appreciate and realise the opportunity – for the benefit of the 1 in 5 people living with disability and in the interest of an inclusive society that welcomes all.

You can follow GADIM – Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment on Facebook and Twitter @GADIMORG


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