5 positive signs of changing disability media portrayal

August 15, 2017

Positive and appropriate portrayal of people with disability in the media is improving (yet there is still a lot to be done). 2017 has seen major developments to back this up, both overseas and, more importantly, in Australia. We outline our top 5 signs of hope.

  1. More shows are appearing with disabled characters, played by people with disability. This ranges from reality TV to children’s shows with Sesame Street expanding its inclusive approach with new character Julia who is on the autism spectrum. We are also discovering more rounded, in-depth programs where people with disability are given a platform that allows them to go beyond stereotypes and myths. The most comprehensive this year has been the ABC’s excellent You Can’t Ask That, which has featured a number of specific types of impairment, further helping dispel that myth that all people with disability are the same.
  2. For lasting and meaningful change, the most important place to reach is the production industry itself. This year has seen three major developments in Australia targeting that issue. NSW started the ball rolling with Screenability, an industry initiative targeting production, giving people with disability valuable internships. Then Media Diversity Australia formed to tackle diversity of all kinds across our screens, including disability. Just recently the biggest of them all with the most potential impact, the announcement of the formation of the Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network (SDIN) with a wealth of television producers, networks and trainers coming together to create an Australian version of the UK’s very successful Creative Diversity Network.
  3. There has been excellent academic research work covering people with disability in the media. Australian Dr Katie Ellis covers a wide range, including a massive study looking at disability and reality TV. American research has looked at issues such as news portrayal of disability in murder cases. This work needs to continue, but a new program that emerged this year from Queensland’s Griffith University targets training of journalism students and gets them to question their prejudices and approaches to reporting about people with disability. Project Open Doors should help a new generation of news and current affairs reporters get the right perspective.
  4. Another inclusive factor is seeing yourself as a target for advertising. More advertisers are including people with disability as a matter of course in their campaigns, recognising that they are customers too. This ranges from the Federal Government’s Girls Make Your Move healthy lifestyle commercials to more quirky approaches, such as the UK’s Maltesers’ series. Attitude Foundation board member, Catia Malaquias provides insights on this issue on our blog, including at a number of high-profile conferences this year.
  5. Finally, mainstream film festivals are embracing disability themes and portrayal to the point where the main prize winner at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, On Body and Soul, was a film with two lead characters with disability. Specialist disability film festivals, such as Access All Areas, are growing with wider distribution and bigger audiences.

These are all good developments, but the next signs of progress and jumping up a level or two, would include, more presenters with disability, especially on mainstream programs like the BBC Weather presenter Lucy Martin and finding some people with disability on the news being asked for their opinion about topics other than disability issues.

Alex Varley, CEO

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