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 sit down at my computer every day and scan international news headlines for the latest trends and info in the disability world. You would think that the media would be enlightened when portraying people with disabilities in this day and age, but many are not.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop for journalism students and members of the media discussing how disability-related stories should be presented. Several journalists said they were under a lot of pressure to produce “feel good,” “inspirational,” and hero-worship stories.
Many reporters genuinely believe that they are doing a good thing when they praise and single out people with disabilities. Instead, they often reinforce negative and demeaning attitudes and stereotypes about disability. While the media may be well-intended in most cases, the language 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.
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 their day-to-day lives, educating the public and decreasing myths and stigma.
However, many stories are intended to be “feel good” articles about overcoming adversity, being exceptional, or being an “inspiration” to others. Some stories seem to be saying: “Look how bad this poor disabled person’s life is. You should feel better about yourself.”
While reading or covering stories about disabilities, here are some things that the media should know when writing these stories. The public should know these things before sharing these stories on social media.
What Disabled People Want the Media and Public to Know
Disabled People Do Not Want To Be Objects Of Pity
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
I can’t move or speak, but I am happy
Stolen adapted van replaced by a local charity in a 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 about these stories alerts people who can help replace whatever has been stolen. On the other hand, 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 him.
Disabled people do not want people to feel sorry for them and find pity condescending. Instead, they want to be seen as competent individuals.
Disabled People Are Not “Held Back” By Their Condition
Intellectual disabilities don’t hold back these employees
Student with Asperger's syndrome thrives beyond circumstances
These headlines suggest that disabled people are held back by their conditions. They imply that anything 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?
Disabled people want to be recognized as competent enough to accomplish anything they strive to do, whether it be education, success in the workplace, or another achievement.
Disabled People Are not “Limited” By Their Condition
Boy overcomes intellectual disability to excel in sports
Woman swims 1 million yards despite suffering from multiple sclerosis
Another assumption is that disabled people are limited by their condition 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 disability cuts
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 people with disabilities as helpless disability benefits recipients. Many disabled people are out in the workforce or are 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
Many disabled people do not want to be put on a pedestal, told they are heroes and lauded as inspirational just because they live with a disability. The late advocate Stella Young has said this attitude creates the assumption that disability is bad and that living with a condition makes people exceptional." She points 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 wins writing contest
Wheelchair-bound man succeeds despite the odds
The media seems to assume that disability equals suffering and a constant struggle. Many disabled people 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 they are battling difficulties.
Disabled People Are Not Evil
Florida mass killer was mentally ill, court told
Thief diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Sometimes people with disabilities are vilified in the media, especially those with mental illness. These damaging headlines perpetuate the misconception that mentally ill are 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.
Fortunately, these attitudes are starting to change. People with disabilities are now sharing their lives and challenging stereotypes on popular platforms such as TikTok. Others are speaking out on YouTube.
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.
Disability and the Media, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
The case for authentic disability representation in media and why our society desperately needs it, scholarsandstorytellers.com, Sheena Brevig
Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities, Media Smarts
Media Representation of Disabled People, Disability Plane
Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disabilility, University of Glasgow
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Carola Finch
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.