On Representing Disability

Right now, there are many things wrong--but the solutions are simple.

By: Milagros Costabel

Would you ever write a story about someone without mentioning their name?

It is something all too common with stories about people with disabilities, as seen in this story in the Indian Express that profiles a blind man, emphasizing how—in spite of his blindness—he has been able to live a good life.

Another common trope is to spend so much time discussing someone’s disability, that there is no discussion of the accessibility issues that make their lives difficult in the first place—such as this story, which obsesses over a police officer rescuing a disabled person from an oncoming train, framing the police officer as a hero and the disabled person as a victim rather than asking why this dangerous situation happened in the first place.

What is disturbing about these kinds of stories is that they reinforce stereotypes and simplistic narratives about people with disabilities, using them only as objects of inspiration rather than representing their actual lived experiences. It continues to be perpetuated in all kinds of media—television shows that show disabled characters as inspiring, but only cast able-bodied actors to play them, pushing stereotypes and further discriminating against disabled individuals.

However, when disability is portrayed correctly, it is remarkable.

“ABC’s Speechless is a great example of a show that focuses on the person rather than the disability, while also on the impact it has on the family,”, says D. Michael Whelan, a writer and disability activist.

“The actor himself is disabled,” he continues, pointing out that leading actor Micah Fowler lives with cerebral palsy. “It’s funny and typical and not meant to be inspirational and it shouldn’t be. I think more representations such as this are extremely important.”

What is it like in journalism? Many of the same problems exist—that is, non-disabled people telling stories of disabled people, not taking advantage of the expertise that comes from lived experience.

“I think that portrayal & representation ebbs and flows,” says Mik Scarlet, a journalist and inclusion expert.

“I started in the media in1989 and I was one of a group of disabled people fronting TV and radio,” he continues, sharing that she worked with an entire department of disabled talent, advising media portrayals and developing individual projects with a disability angle. By 2000, the department was making 36 hours of television per year, with a viewership of over two million—however, it unfortunately closed.

“Within a year of it closing the numbers of disabled people in the BBC dropped to almost none,” Scarlett continues, adding that something similar happened in the rest of the large British media and that although at present the new push for diversity is causing representation to increase, in reality it is struggling to reach a situation that already existed twenty years ago.

“Imagine where we’d be if we’d built on where we were back then.”

Without people with disabilities in the media, stories like those mentioned at the beginning of this article are common—pushing stories that frame disability as a tragedy to overcome or “inspiration porn.”

Inspiration porn rests on the idea that a person with disabilities is solely defined by their disability—as opposed to their other intersectional identities. Most are lazily-reported, feel-good stories that present someone as an inspiration, merely for living with a disability, feeding a narrative that the world—for all of its inaccessibility—can be conquered if someone works hard enough. It is another version of the story where an able-bodied person is presented as a hero simply for giving a disabled person a hand.

This kind of journalism does not raise awareness about actual barriers facing people with disabilities—and only serves to dehumanize us. It reduces our issues and unique qualities as people to a characteristic which, though it is a part of us, does not define us. Many of these stories would be irrelevant without the disability storyline, and fail to hold an inaccessible world to account, instead perpetuating a narrative that we should be dependent on our able-bodied peers.

“People with disabilities are not always subordinate to or beneficiaries of their non-disabled peers. Sometimes it is in fact the other way around”, says Alex Hubbard, a visually impaired columnist for The Tennessean. “It’s just normal human interaction, but too often our culture and our media supports an idea that one part of our culture simply must always rely on another part of the culture and it can never be otherwise. ”

While these problems are complex, they are not difficult to solve. Inspiration porn can become a thing of a past if journalists represent people with disabilities as human beings, and tell our stories the way the stories of non-disabled people are told.

“I think a great way to do this is to pretend the disability does not exist as much as one can while writing the story,” says Whelan.

“Many times, a story may be relevant because of a connection to that person’s disability, but if this is attempted, many writers may be surprised at how easy it is to avoid these pitfalls,” he continues. “Focus on what we do, think, feel, speak out about as humans and then fill in the disability elements after to make whatever connections are necessary.”

Most importantly, disabled journalists should be in the room when disability is being covered, particularly as their input is invaluable for avoiding common mistakes. As a visually impaired journalist myself, I have come across a large number of stories full of stereotypes that perpetuate unconscious bias that could easily have been broken, had a disabled journalist been part of the conversation.

 “Look at Nikki Fox and Frances Ryan. They tell the same story but in a way that empowers and gets to the core of what is happening”, says Scarlet. “I have taken part in items that I have developed but they were fronted by a nondisabled reporter and the story was missed as the focus was wrong.”

Yet, it is also important that disabled journalists have the space and opportunity to do reporting beyond simply talking about disability—and that disabled sources are called to comment on policy, world affairs, or any other topic relevant to journalism.

“I would like to see a move away from what I think is a tendency to employ disabled journalists to report only on disability,” says Fern Lulham, a blind BBC Broadcaster and public speaker. “Inclusion should be about involving disabled people in reporting on all aspects of life.”

Only with this kind of representation and inclusion will we start being heard—not just as sources for stories, but as journalists owning our narratives. When this happens, more people with disabilities will shape the process that allows our stories to become part of public discourse and the societies we live in, perhaps guiding the way towards breaking down the barriers we face once and for all.

To read more about disability in the media, check out our Disability: A Matter of Perception project in Macedonia.