A real question is whether television is an effective medium for changing mainstream attitudes?
What kind of portrayal is effective?
Having people with disabilities appearing on television can help normalise disability, but a key part of this process is the context in which people appear on a program:
1. Matching – you are like me. Showing characterisations beyond disability to show that disabled people are just like everyone else.
2. Likeability – creating emotional connections through engaging personality, achievement, sense of humour etc.
3. Celebrity – getting a famous person to play a disabled role to offer “assurance” that the program is likely to be watchable. However, this is a topic of debate among disability advocates around the issue of non-disabled actors playing disabled people, which is very common.
4. Incidental inclusion – involving disabled people in all levels of programming and production. Including storylines that feature a disabled character, but do not highlight or focus on the disability.
5. Educational shorts – the use of short, educational programming to tackle a particular issue and to convey it from a disabled person’s perspective in short bursts. This includes special disability seasons.
The view of people with disabilities
The other side of this story is the reflection of how people with disabilities see their portrayal.
Image: Liam Bairstow first actor with Down syndrome cast in Coronation Street
From the same BBC study, some key messages included, “(The) lack of realism especially irritated children… miraculous cures… never seeing disabled people working.”
Similarly, “emphasising a disabled person’s bravery, however well intentioned, can serve to exacerbate difference, which in turn reinforces a perceived sense of distance.”
From a 2007 study by Alison Wilde on UK Soap Operas and disabled people’s reactions to inclusion of people with disability in popular UK programs, such as Brookside, Emmerdale and Coronation Street, one disabled participant said:
"Images of disabled people in soaps invariably make me feel worse about myself because they accentuate a negative sense of difference: the disabled person/character exists by virtue of their disability or impairment- and seems to exist for that reason alone.”
More recent work by Australian academic Dr Katie Ellis, including her 2013 survey of Australian television audiences with a disability, found mixed results and opinions about disability portrayal.
With the exceptions of sport, documentaries and children’s television, the other genres were found to be generally “stigmatising” rather than “empowering”, although reality TV (which the main article is about) was not viewed as a “bad offender”. In fact, it was thought that reality TV may have a role to “educate people that have little experience with disability.”
An inherent problem though is that the often incidental inclusion of people with disability in reality TV can fuel stereotypes about the triumph of disability over adversity.
Image: Wheechair user Tim McCallum on The Voice
Does people with disabilities appearing on TV change attitudes?
There has been some academic and general interest in improving the portrayal of people with disabilities. These have been looking at both the frequency of inclusion and how people are portrayed.
There have been fewer studies specifically looking at television and disability, but there are more looking at other minority groups that show that inclusion on television can have an impact.
The much-quoted study in this area concerns the so-called “Will and Grace effect” after the American television show that promotes positive views about gay people. The study found that prolonged exposure via the popular television series improved mainstream attitudes towards gay people.
More specifically about disability there is a Dutch academic study Disability, Prejudice and Reality TV that illustrates the complexity of the issues when dealing with mainstream audiences viewing a Dutch reality TV show which had some physically disabled participants. On one side they found that having people with disability appearing incidentally with no obvious attention paid to them is good for normalising disability as part of everyday life, but it can also reduce the impact as the disability portrayal implies that disability is a non-issue that has no impact on people’s lives.
The same study also found that a person with a disability as a focus of the program can be much more effective in challenging stereotypes and showing that the disability isn’t the only thing that defines their life. This is assuming that the focus doesn’t fall back on the stereotypes outlined above. Repeated viewing of focussed programs also helps to reinforce positive attitudes towards disability.
A Nepalese study reviewed the inclusion of positive portrayal of disability in the popular children’s program Khushi Ko Sansar (translated as “Happy World”) which showed at least short-term positive changes in mainstream attitudes towards children with disabilities. The authors noted that this might be an effective strategy in developing countries where there are minimal supports and resources for people with disabilities.
So what is the solution?
It is fair to say that the inclusion and portrayal of people with disabilities on television is a complex issue and there is no single strategy to address the issues.
Clearly there needs to be more people with disability appearing on television, across all genres, as part of mainstream programming. However, there is a danger that this inclusion as currently presented can just reinforce mainstream stereotypes about people with disabilities.
There is also evidence that having extended viewing of programs where people with disabilities are shown as well-rounded, functioning members of society with needs and wants that are the same as others this helps to break-down stereotypes and improve attitudes.
What is being done?
Disability inclusion is being discussed in the industry world-wide and starting to appear at conferences and with events such as the UK Royal Television Society’s Where have all the disabled people gone?
Image: Where have all the disabled people gone? panel hosted by the Royal Television Society. Deborah Williams, Adam Hills, Rosie Jones, Shannon Murray and Ade Adepitan (left-to-right). Photo credit: Paul Hampartsoumian.
Image: TV reporter interviewing police officer at crime scene
The Ruderman Family Foundation is also a major contributor to research around disability portrayal. Murder coverage of people with disabilities by their caregivers is an analysis of the media reporting of over 200 murder cases involving people with disabilities in North America between 2011-2015. 66 different deaths were analysed in more detail through 101 media reports.
A model of inclusion from the UK
The most advanced in terms of trying to deal with disability inclusion in a structured way is from the United Kingdom.
In the UK, the Creative Diversity Network (CDN) has been championing the stories of people with disabilities on TV and other media since it was founded five years ago. Interestingly the normally competitive television networks are collaborating rather than competing with each other. Its members include major UK TV broadcasters and media organisations, such as the BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4 and BAFTA.
The CDN has two main aims:
- To bring together UK media organisations to promote and share diversity good practice
- To build the business case for wider representation and inclusion.
In 2017, CDN launched Diamond (Diversity Analysis Monitoring Data), a world first industry-wide diversity monitoring system which will collect data about diversity in UK media.
Individual channels have also been focussing on disability. A recently published report from Channel 4 highlights some of the individual success stories of the last few years. For example, in 2016 it doubled the number of people with disabilities appearing in over 20 of its biggest programs.
What is Australia doing?
Australia has had guidelines for television content producers on how disability should be portrayed and included for many years, although the evidence of the ongoing stereotyped portrayal on many TV programs show that this has a way to go.
Media diversity as a topic is gaining traction in the national conversation with the recent launch of Media Diversity Australia (MDA) which also seeks to promote more balanced representation in Australian media, reflecting the make-up of the general community. Although MDA is generally focussed on cultural backgrounds, disability is included as part of that diversity.
Clearly what we need to have is both an increase in people with disability just appearing on television, in lead roles, as presenters and as participants in news stories commenting on issues other than disability.
The Attitude Foundation is very interested in doing this, but also recognises that such change is complex, is likely to take time and requires the involvement of many people, including: people with disability, program makers, television executives, news editors, politicians, and program funders. There are new initiatives and networks now appearing.The Attitude Foundation is very interested in doing this, but also recognises that such change is complex, is likely to take time and requires the involvement of many people, including: people with disability, program makers, television executives, news editors, politicians, and program funders. There are new initiatives and networks now appearing.
Launched in August 2017, the Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network (SDIN) brings together many of the biggest players in the Australian media scene, including the nationally-funded broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, free-to-air commercial broadcaster Ten, Foxtel and Australia’s major government film bodies.
Members must sign up to a Charter, which commits them to “providing equal opportunities for all people at all levels, irrespective of their gender, age, race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, disability or geographic location.”
The network is based on the successful UK Creative Diversity Network (CDN), and like its British counterpart SDIN has also committed to establishing industry-wide targets, and measuring their performance against them.
Image: Disabled performer and filmmaker Tim Ferguson with Screenability interns.
A recent initiative from Screen NSW is Screenability, a structured program designed to include people with disabilities in the production process. It is a partnership between Screen NSW, Ai-Media, AFTRS, Carriageworks and Bus Stop Films. A major program within Screenability is the paid internships offered to people with disability. The interns will be involved in a wide range of programs and production companies, including: Eurovision (Blink TV/SBS TV); The NRL Footy Show (Nine Network); Playschool (ABC TV); Animal Logic; See-Saw Films; Goalpost Pictures Australia; Matchbox Pictures; Screentime; CJZ and Jungle. Platforms Foxtel and Stan have also committed to the intern program.
What the Foundation is recognising is that a major gap is the telling of the stories of the lives of people with disability, especially by those people themselves. By making a television series focussing on just that, we will be able to show how disability is commonplace, doesn’t necessarily define a person’s life and without resorting to stereotypes.
Making a series of up to 13 episodes allows us to illustrate the range of disabilities, including “invisible” disabilities, better reflecting how society really is. The other advantage of a series is that people will watch multiple episodes and that prolonged exposure to a different viewpoint should reinforce more positive attitudes, as well as show situations and experiences that people can directly relate to.
Finally, an Attitude Foundation series will also be a model for others, including television producers, on how to better portray disability on our screens and in the media.