Disability in the media
An inclusive range of Barbie dolls, that have disabilities, has been announced by toy makers Mattel. This isn’t like the previous incarnation of “Share a Smile Becky”, which showed a gaudy pink wheelchair that didn’t fit into ‘Barbie’s dream house’. Now Barbie looks more authentic. One of the dolls uses a wheelchair and another has a prosthetic leg. This range will be available in Autumn later this year.
There’s now more representations of disabilities in the mainstream media, which means we’re getting closer to representing society as it truly is but there’s still more to do.
11 million people in the UK are living with a disability, statistics from Disability Sport show. Diversity is a wonderful thing that we must celebrate, rather than shy away from, and the media has an important role to play in holding a mirror up to society and reflecting it.
This is by no means an simple task, but who said positive change was easy? There’s different models used to depict disability and it’s vital that the media takes a stance that will have a positive impact.
The medical model.
As the name suggests, the name derives from health care. When a person is born with an impairment or acquires one, in the medical model, this is often seen as something to be cured through surgery or otherwise. Here we can see negative connotations used with descriptive language, such as someone “suffers” from a condition rather than lives with it or even worse – is “handicapped”. This places the disability as a fault with the person concerned, which breeds prejudice and negative stereotypes to the public subliminally.
The social model.
This is a more liberating view which focuses on the environment we live in. What differs in the viewpoints is that, in the social model, it’s our surroundings that are disabling not the person. Think of a building, the room you need to get to is on the first floor. An able-bodied person may choose to use the stairs and a wheelchair user would use the lift. They’ve both able to access where they need to go, so nothing has become disabling in that situation. However, if lift wasn’t available that’s when a person would be disabled because they can’t get to where they need to go. Up until that point, both people were treated exactly the same.
I personally think if more people and organisations adopted the social model the world would be a more accessible, inclusive and accepting place.
We’re getting there, albeit slowly. Some of the most encouraging representations I see are like the the new range of Barbie dolls or inclusivity in children’s TV programmes because that’s giving young people a true representation before society has a chance to condition kids’ views as they grow up. Young people are often very accepting and non-judgemental, we can learn a lot from them. No one is born with prejudice, leading to the school of thought it’s something learnt through life.
The London Paralympics in 2012 gave hope that coverage could change some negative perceptions. Channel 4 was the broadcaster for this and, while I’m sure there were the very best of intentions, I felt the marketing missed the mark: Athletes were billed as ‘Super Human’. This was almost a hypercorrection for all the ills of the past. A Guardian article by Penny Pepper in 2016 commented how disabled people don’t want to be treated like superheroes, just as equal humans.
The media is a powerful tool. Look at the sea-change and conversations that are happening about views towards plastic waste since David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II. It can happen again for perceptions about disability and here’s my thoughts about how…
Actions for change.
- If we’re rightfully celebrating diversity then let’s do it properly. Don’t show one group or the other – show integration.
- Greater representation of disabled people on-air. Young disabled people deserve to see people who are like them on TV, in print or hear on radio. Only 8% of people with disabilities in this country are wheelchair users, even some people who have mobility impairments don’t use one. Representation needs to encompass this range.
- If a disabled person is cast in a drama, have them take part in storylines that don’t constantly revolve around their impairment.
- Cut out ‘inspiration porn’. It’s not inspirational for someone with a disability to have an education, a job or be in a relationship… that’s normal. By all means, celebrate achievements but not the ordinary.
- Have sporting events such as the Olympics and Paralympics run together concurrently. This happened at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games last year.
- There’s a lot more to disabled people than just sport, representations should focus on all walks of life.
- Use positive language.
- Talk, talk and talk more; this is the only way to tackle the taboo. Most misconceptions come from a lack of understanding or fear of the unknown.
You may not agree with some or all of what I say here but at least a discussion is being had, rather than the elephant in the room. A video was produced by journalist Ellis Palmer for BBC Ideas recently “How to talk about disability”. If you’ve found the themes I’ve written about interesting I urge you to take a look at the short film and continue the conversation:
As Ellis says in that film: “treat others as you wish to be treated”. An impairment doesn’t define a person, it shapes experiences through life. Let’s make a difference and use the social model of disability everywhere, particularly in the media.