Making a TV series to change disability attitudes makes good sense

March 21, 2017

The Attitude Foundation is seeking to change mainstream attitudes towards people with disability, particularly the way that people with disability are portrayed in the media.  One of our key strategies is to make a television series featuring people with disabilities telling their own stories. Attitude Foundation CEO Alex Varley explains the thinking behind the strategy and why it is a good approach.

There are two main issues in the way that people with disability are portrayed in the media, particularly television programs:

1.       The portrayal of disability

2.       The inclusion of people with disability

Both of these can influence public attitudes towards people with disability.

Portrayal of disability

For the most part, the mainstream media reflects the perspectives of non-disabled people about what it is like to have a disability.

First, there are the stereotypes:

Disabled villains – their disability is often framed as the basis of resentment against the world and therefore a need to destroy, hurt and punish. A promotional clip for the Paralympics from Channel 4 parodies the disabled villain stereotype with some classic examples (but also pushes the inspiration stereotype).

Objects of pity – people with disability are shown to be social outcasts who spend their lives trying to “overcome” their disability.

Objects of total inspiration – 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.  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.

What we rarely see is the other side, which is authentic portrayal of people with disability and how they interact with the world.

In drama, it is rare to see lead characters where their disability doesn’t define them exclusively and motivates every action. A personal favourite is the UK drama The Silence where a deaf teenager, who is the lead character, witnesses a murder. Her deafness is a key part of the plot but her character is more focussed on dealing with normal teenage issues (partying, drug-taking, drinking, relationships, work and studying) and the program realistically shows how her hearing impairment has some impacts on these.

TV presenters with a disability (for mainstream shows) are also rare, and too often public response is drawn to seeing disability as a negative. A famous case is C-Beebies UK presenter Cerrie Burnell, who was born without part of her lower right arm, attracting concerns from parents having to explain it to their children!

Interestingly the BBC has a weather presenter with a similar impairment, Lucy Martin, whose presence on the channel has been well received.

A more recent dating program Undressed on SBS television has featured participants with disabilities and explored the complexity and other dimensions to their lives beyond their impairments.

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.

So the short answer is no and by a long way.

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.

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. The same studies also show that repeated viewing of focussed programs helps to reinforce positive attitudes towards disability.

Why is the Attitude Foundation focussing on making a TV series?

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 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.

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 that focuses 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.  A similar phenomenon – dubbed “the Will and Grace effect” - was observed in the United States in relation to a change in attitudes towards LGBT rights as a result of watching that mainstream television series.

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.

Attitude Foundation relies on the support of its sponsors. If you would like to help the Foundation produce a pilot episode in the TV series, donate now.

Alex Varley, CEO

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