Disability and Intersectionality in the Media

Is ableism the last acceptable form of discrimination?

By: Eline Jeanné

Even though there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, disabled people rarely see themselves in the media.

“I think that probably ableism is the last acceptable form of discrimination in the UK, and probably in other parts of the world, because people just don’t normalise, or shall we say usualise, those experiences,” Adam Lowe, writer, publisher and founder of the LGBT emerging writers programme Young Enigma said, pointing out that the media is a crucial part of dispelling these kinds of stereotypes.

“Because they are not getting to see the perspective of disabled people or people with chronic illnesses on a regular basis, they are not aware of how those people live their lives and what the impact is on those people and their families. They have little understanding or empathy of that.”

The disability community is made up of individuals who have a diverse range of experiences, yet this is rarely reflected in the media.

“Not many people with a learning disability are represented in the media,” explained Harry Roche, Communications Assistant and Ambassador at Mencap, a charity in the United Kingdom that raises awareness about those living with learning disabilities.

“There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the United Kingdom, but unfortunately there are very few representatives with a learning disability in the media,” he continues. Roche shared some of his own experiences of living with a learning disability, and interacting with the media in the recent Diversity and Journalism White Paper, that Media Diversity Institute contributed to along with several other journalism organizations.

“Seeing people with a learning disability in the media means so much because they can share their success stories and their experiences of having a learning disability,” he continues, pointing out how important this visibility is for disabled audiences to see themselves, and work to combat prejudices.

“It is about raising that awareness to the public about learning disability and trying to change the publics attitudes.”

While disabled communities, and the range of experiences of disabled communities is sorely underrepresented, the way in which disability intersects with other identities, such as race and gender is even more seldom represented in the media.

“I was visible, but invisible,” writer, producer, digital composer and equality/diversity advocate Deborah Williams shared recently on the Disability and Arts Online podcast, exploring race in the context of dis/ability.

“I think a lot of Black disabled artists feel that way globally.”

How do you get these stories in the media? Newsroom diversity—particularly at the top, among decision-makers and board members—is essential.

“It’s really easy,” says Lowe. “Put Black people and brown people on your board, put disabled people on your board, put LGBT people on your board. Because if you don’t have it at the top, it’s not going to filter down.”

But why is it important? While “diversity” is currently a buzzword, partly due to a long overdue conversation that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has started, it is not just about hiring journalists from many different backgrounds or making sure the decision makers are a diverse group of people—though this is important. It is also about the journalism that they produce, and the impact this has on the conversations that shape society, particularly those combatting these kinds of prejudice and discrimination.

Lowe explains that for the disabled community, more inclusive journalism would mark the difference between language that “normalizes” and language that “usualizes.”

“Usualising shows you that something is usual, is everyday, is something that you encounter a lot whereas normalising implies that there is a normal that people deviate from,” Lowe explains, pointing out that sensationalist media often points out the “difference” of disability, further stigmatizing this population even if it is not their intention.

It is a point that Media Diversity Institute’s “Disability: A Matter of Perception” project has made, training journalists in North Macedonia to counter stereotypes by telling stories about how people live with disabilities, rather than focusing on the hardship of the disability itself.

“I think quite often we make spectacles of things, which means it’s easy to switch off when that spectacle ends,” Lowe continues. It is equally important that journalists are as careful about imagery that is used alongside print stories about disability as they are about language, says Roches’s Mencap colleague, Casey Purkiss. It is one of many points that Mencap’s journalists’ guide to learning disability makes.

When we talk about newsrooms diversity, we also have to keep in mind how we create safe and productive work spaces for all staff.

“I think we also need to look at people with a learning disability being employed in the media, production roles and areas like that,” explains Purkiss, pointing out that, for disabled journalists, an inclusive newsroom might mean a change to the way it is accustomed to operating. For some this means flexible working hours, as many pointed out was a request long before the Coronavirus struck. For others, it could be equipment with special grips, or a ramp for wheelchairs.

In all cases, it requires direct communication with employees to ensure that their needs are being met to ensure that they can thrive.

While it is encouraging to see an attention on diversity, there is still a long way to go before the media adequately reflects society. As Lowe puts it,

“When you go up to the shops, there are going to be people all around you of every age, disability, class; and that’s what real life is like. But yet if you were just to rely on media and literature and things like that you might see a very distorted thing.”