Disabled people are featured in the media, especially on television, but what is that portrayal like? Is it realistic and help to normalise disability or does it reinforce the community stereotypes?
Portrayal of disability
For the most part, the mainstream media reflects what non-disabled people imagine it is like to have a disability.
Disabled objects of pity
Image: Jerry Lewis and his disability telethons
One form of this stereotype is that disabled people are incapable of supporting themselves and are always reliant on others. The ultimate version of this are disabled telethons that were very popular. Jerry Lewis was an infamous host of a long-run of telethons and was reported to be scathing of ungrateful disabled people who didn’t like the idea of being portrayed as needing to rely on charity.
Another form of this is that disabled people spend their lives “suffering”. This is frequently used in news and current affairs programs, often coupled with the miracle cure stereotype. The stereotype supports the non-disabled view that being disabled must be a terrible existence, so it is only natural to feel pity towards them.
This stereotype is often used with people with cognitive disability portraying them as having a childlike, innocent view of the world. This is then used to illustrate the wrongdoings or insensitivity of the non-disabled “adults”. Often the stereotype has the person interacting with children, illustrating that they on their level and see the world the same way. Classic examples include I am Sam, Forrest Gump, or Rain Man.
This stereotype simplifies people with disability to be childlike and needing the help of adults. It also means that people with disability don’t need to have jobs (unless it is a classic after-school job such as working in a fast-food outlet or a supermarket), don’t have relationships (and therefore no children of their own) or complex views or opinions.
Objects of total inspiration
This is where the disabled person is shown to “overcome” their disability by doing something amazing. This is often the viewpoint taken when people with disability are included in talent shows and their talent (or lack of) is underplayed, including one MasterChef contestant with cerebral palsy who (understandably) struggled to cook under the same conditions as other contestants and served up an empty plate.
Image: Wheelchair skydiver
The “inspiration” stereotype is a problem for many reasons. On one level it reflects “low expectations” especially when disabled people are praised for simply going about their lives – like getting out of the house, having a job or having a family. On another level, the stereotype carries an implication that every person with disability should be able to do the same – failure to do so is cast as an issue of personal character and attitude rather than barriers. News stories about disability will also focus on mountain climbing, endurance testing, marathon running individuals who have become “superhumans”.
Disability needs to be cured
The other approach of news stories is to focus on “miracle cures”, usually helping “suffering” disabled children (to invoke pity) and sometimes representing very rare disabilities, but implying that this is the common experience of for everyone who has a disability.
Disability is so funny
Using a person’s disability as the butt of the joke is a long-standing device. Mr Magoo’s vision impairment means he just walks into things all of the time or drinks from bottles that he shouldn’t.
Image: Mr Magoo mistakenly drinking hot sauce
Another example is laughing at speech impairments, such as the character Ken who stutters in A Fish Called Wanda or Jim Trott in the Vicar of Dibley. In both cases the disability is the key element of the joke.
With this stereotype it implies that people with a disability are clumsy, helpless and not aware of the potential problems arising from their disability. Of course the reality is that most people with disability have strategies or systems to avoid the situations that they find themselves in. It also says that people with disabilities are not fully-human, so it is ok to laugh at them and the things that they do.
This stereotype is not about disabled comedians making jokes about their disability, which is often reflecting on how the problems in society adapting to them can create humorous situations.
Image: Ultimate disabled villain Davros
Davros, creator of the Daleks, from the popular BBC program Dr Who, has multiple disabilities and created his master race in his own image as the ultimate wheelchair users, hell-bent on conquering the rest of the universe.
This problem with this stereotype is that it usually portrays the person’s disability as the basis of resentment against the world and therefore a need to destroy, hurt and punish. With visible disabilities it becomes a symbol for this must be the villain. For invisible disabilities (like cognitive disabilities) it pushes an idea that these people are always violent and evil.
A promotional clip for the Paralympics from the UK’s Channel 4 parodies the disabled villain stereotype with some classic examples (but also pushes the inspiration stereotype).
This funny take on the obsession with disabled villains in the James Bond movies shows just how many one-dimensional, revenge-seeking enemies the script writers have managed to discover over the years. Of course, the other advantage of having all of those disabled people around is that it just acts as a contrast to the conventionally handsome James Bond.
What we rarely see is the other side, which is authentic portrayal of people with disability and how they interact with the world. The Disability on TV section shows some examples of TV shows with disabled characters and presenters, good and bad.
Inclusion of people with disability
Are the numbers of people with disability included in television programs reflective of the number and types of disability experienced in the general population?
A number of studies have attempted to track this. A longer-term annual US study looking at diversity on television found that people with disabilities were about 1.7% of the number of significant characters in US television shows. An Australian study shows that 4% of drama characters have a disability, compared to about 18% of the population.
The other main finding is that inclusion of disability is usually around “obvious” disabilities (to the viewer) through a preponderance of wheelchair users, blind people (especially with white canes and dark glasses) and signing Deaf people. Cognitive disabilities are rarely included, apart from people with Down syndrome, yet these “invisible” disabilities are far more prevalent in real life. The section on Invisible Disability examines this in more detail.
The second dimension to this issue is whether the people with disability are incidental or in the background, or the focus and major subject of the program?
Having people with disability appearing incidentally with no obvious attention paid to them is good for normalising disability as part of everyday life, but studies have shown that it can actually reduce the impact on attitudes as the disability portrayal implies that disability is a non-issue that has no impact on people’s lives.