Disability and the Media: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Published: 24 September 2013

Country: UK

By Giulia Dessi

the undateablesDisability may be more visible on television than ever before, however, disabled people remain overwhelmingly neglected and misrepresented by the media. The recent interview with the broadcaster Andrew Marr, hit by a stroke in January, is the latest proof of it.

Interviewed by Radio Times, the BBC journalist talked about his experience: “You definitely see the world differently […]. You move more slowly. You suck up experiences more intensely and you live the day more.” Away from cameras for nine months, Andrew Marr has now returned to his Sunday morning BBC1 current affairs show, but it will take another two years before he can say he has recovered.What he experienced, he said, has made him more aware of other people’s disabilities and more empathetic about their difficulties. “You’re much more aware of all the people all around us who have got really, really difficult disabilities who are looking after their parents, perhaps, and who frankly most of the time, like most people, I simply didn’t see. I wasn’t thinking about them. That has changed. I do see them now, I do think about it.”

According to the British charity Scope, nearly one in five Britons are disabled, if we consider adults who have serious difficulties getting around, experience long-lasting pain, or who struggle to communicate unaided. If these 11 million happen to be forgotten by non-disabled people, the media certainly have a role in it. People with physical or mental health impairment are alarmingly underrepresented.

ComRes, a poll commissioned by Charities Aid Foundation in 2012, revealed that nearly three quarters of Britons believe that people with disabilities are not generally visible in the media. Even more think that the media should do more to promote them as role models in society.

In this grim situation, a positive note came last year with a rise in disability television programmes. The Undateables, on Channel 4, followed nine disabled people as they went on first dates. On the same network, the series Bodyshock investigated extraordinary real-life stories about the extremes of the human body. Two’s Extreme Love, on BBC, explored parents’ relationships with their autistic children.

Disabled TV maker Kate Monaghan, who described these programmes as “freak shows with a heart”, told the BBC that it’s only been in the last year or so that people have been trying to improve the situation, and have begun to realise disability stories are interesting.

2012 was also the year of Paralympics, celebrated by organisers as a turning point in public attitudes towards disabled people, but seen by many as a one-off exhibit. In the words of Baroness Grey-Thompson, former wheelchair racer, “it is great while it lasts, but probably not going to change the world, and certainly not on its own.”

One year after the Games, Scope revealed that 81 per cent of disabled people believe that attitudes towards them haven’t improved in the last 12 months – with 22 per cent saying that things have actually got worse. Who is responsible for this? The government – with cuts to disability benefits – and media – which often associate “disabled” with “benefit scrounger”, as Disability Rights UK denounces.

Media create and perpetuate negative representations of disabled people, whether it be through pitiful stories of victims or sensationalistic stories of super-powered humans. The Paralympics and their media coverage, for example, contributed in reinforcing the latter. As the comedian Liz Carr said before the 2012 Games, “the way in which the athletes are going to be seen [is] not as whole people, but as supermen and women, only reflected through the prism of this one aspect of their lives.”

Now that media are starting to put people with disabilities in their agenda, quality of reporting should not be overlooked in favour of quantity of stories. Numerous are the associations that provide support and guidance for journalists. From interviewing tips to style guides, the US National Center on Disability and Journalism is a must-go website for reporters covering people with disabilities.

Society’s misconceptions about disabled people can be easily reinforced by disparaging terms and generalising labels. It is therefore important for journalists to know and to follow a set of principles that help uproot such ingrained perceptions.