Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
As a freelance writer and disability advocate, I scan international news headlines for the latest trends and info in the disability world. You would think that in this day and age, the media would be enlightened in their portrayals of people with disabilities, but many are still not.
The media seems to genuinely believe that they are doing a good thing by praising and singling out people with disabilities; however, they are often reinforcing negative and demeaning attitudes towards disability. This practice contributes to current stereotypes and stigma. While the media may be well-intended in most cases, sometimes the language that is used in the headlines and the articles depict people with disabilities as objects of pity, lesser beings, out of the norm, limited, or extraordinary heroes.
Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability, a report by the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research in the UK, identified that the media is covering people with disabilities more than ever. Some stories detail the day to day lives of disabilities, educating the public and decreasing myths and stigma. Many stories, however, are intended to be “feel good” articles about overcoming adversity, being exceptional, or being an “inspiration” to others. Some stories to be saying: “Look how bad this poor disabled person’s life is and feel better about yourself.”
While reading or covering stories about disabilities, here of some things that the media should know when writing these articles, and the public should know before sharing these types of stories on social media.
Facts Disabled People Want the Media to Know
Disabled People Do Not Want To Be Objects Of Pity
Here are some examples of problematic headlines:
- "Holidays made brighter for the deaf and hard of hearing children"
- "Child suffering from muscular dystrophy gets a heartwarming surprise"
- "Local boy with cerebral palsy gets wish granted"
- "Stolen adapted van replaced by local charity in touching act of kindness"
The media loves to feature “poor” disabled people who were robbed and then reimbursed. In one way, letting the public know alerts people who can help replace whatever has been stolen, on the other, it can set people with disabilities up as objects of pity. The poor little cripple lost his van or special bike so a community or organization must swoop in to rescue them.
Disabled people do not want people to feel sorry for them, and find pity to be condescending. Instead, they want to be seen as competent individuals who are equal to others.
Disabled People Are Not “Held Back” By Their Condition
- "Intellectual disabilities don’t hold back these athletes"
- "Student with Asperger's syndrome thrives beyond circumstances"
These headlines suggest that people are normally held back by their disabilities. Stories like this imply that anything that disabled people achieve is miraculous and an exception to the rule. What does that say about disabled people who do not seem to be in a state of overcoming perceived barriers? Disabled people want to be seen as being able to accomplish anything they strive to do, whether it be in education, success in the workplace, or other areas.
Disabled People Are not “Limited” By Their Condition
- "Woman overcomes Down Syndrome to become a model"
- "Woman swims 1 million yards despite suffering from multiple sclerosis"
- "I can’t move or speak but I am happy"
Another assumption is that their condition limits them and that any accomplishment they have is extraordinary enough to be newsworthy. People with disabilities may have to do some things differently, but are not necessarily limited because of their condition.
Disabled people are not poor and deprived
- "People with mental illness must choose between food and medication"
- "Funding cuts hitting people with disabilities"
It is good that the media is highlighting government inequities, funding cuts, and abuses of government assistance, however, the media must be careful not to stereotype all people with disabilities as helpless disability benefits recipients. Many disabled people are out in the workforce or self-employed, and are not affected by government decisions.
Disabled People Do Not Want to be Inspirational
- "Selfless youngster battling cerebral palsy completes charity walk"
- "Amputee overcomes incredible odds"
Many disabled people do not want to be put on a pedestal, told they are heroes, and lauded just because they live with a disability.
The late advocate Stella Young has said this attitude creates the assumption that disability is a bad thing and living with it makes people exceptional. She pointed out that people with disabilities are living normal lives just like the rest of us.
Disabled people are not suffering or battling their condition
- "Woman suffering from spina bifida receives community award"
The media seems to assume that disability equals suffering and constant struggle. Many disabled people, however, are often not in pain or a state of suffering and do not struggle against their condition. They may face certain challenges or need help in some daily living tasks, but that does not mean that they are battling difficulties.
Disabled people are not evil
- "Florida mass killer was mentally ill, court told"
Sometimes people with disabilities are vilified, especially those with mental illness. This kind of story perpetuates the misconception that the mentally ill are all violent. Numerous research studies have found that this myth is not true and that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent themselves.
Overall the main message in these statements is that people with disabilities want to be treated as equals. They do not want people to feel sorry for them and regard them as helpless. The disabled also do not want to be put on a pedestal or seen as heroes. The media should keep the views of people with disabilities in mind when writing stories about them. The public should also consider these views when sharing stories about disabled people on social media.
- Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability, Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research
- Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities, Media Smarts
- Media Representation of Disabled People, Disability Planet
- Media and Disability, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on January 24, 2017:
Any time we put a negative label or stereotype on a group of people we are doing them a disservice, whether we are talking about people with disabilities, those of a particular race, or specific religious affiliations. I think that the media tends to publish stories that are emotionally sensational in order to increases reader interaction with the content, not because they are concerned about people in general.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 21, 2017:
Thanks for this message. As you point out, sometimes the speakers and writers mean well. It is helpful to gain insight written on behalf of the disabled.