Sociologists have argued that the media historically represents disabled people in a limited range of stereotypes, such as objects of pity, unable to participate fully in social life, and in need of our help.
Stereotypes of disability
Barnes (1992) identified a number of recurring stereotypes of disabled people including:
- Pitiable and pathetic – a staple of television documentaries, which often focus on disabled children and the possibilities of miracle cures
- Sinister and evil – for example Villains in James Bond movies often have physical impairments
- Atmospheric or Curio – where disabled people are included in drama to enhance atmosphere of menace, unease, mystery or deprivation.
- Super-cripples – the disabled are sometimes portrayed as having special powers, for example blind people might be viewed as visionnaires with sixth sense.
- Sexually abnormal – the media usually treat the disable as having no sense of sexuality, but when they do there are represented as sexually degenerate.
- Incapable of participating fully in community life – disable people are rarely show as integral and productive members of working society – Barns calls this the stereotype of omission.
Telethons and disability
Paul Longmore (2016) suggests that telethons historically present disabled children as people who are unable to participate fully in community life (sports/ sexuality) unless they are ‘fixed’.
Telethons put the audience in the position of givers and reinforce the idea that the disable receivers should be dependent on their able bodied donors.
Because telethons are primarily about raising money rather than raising awareness of the reality of being disabled, they may end up reinforcing stereotypes of disabled people.
Newspaper representations of the disabled
Williams-Findlay (2009) examined the content of The Times and The Guardian to see whether the coverage of the disabled had changed between 1989 and 2009.
Williams-Findlay found that the use of stereotypical words had declined in those 20 years, but that stereotypical representations were still present in 2009 because journalists still assumed that disability was ‘tragic’.
Watson et al (2011) compared tabloid media coverage of disability in five newspapers in 2004-5 with coverage in 2010-11 they found that:
- There had been a significant increase in the reporting of disability
- The proportion of articles reporting disability in sympathetic and deserving terms had fallen.
- In 2010-11 the reporting of groups with mental disabilities was particularly negative, often associated with them being welfare scroungers.
- Articles focusing on disability benefit fraud increased threefold between 2005 and 2011.
Changing representations of disability?
The recent Channel 4 show ‘The Undateables‘ has certainly made disabled people more visible in the media…. but whether or not these are positive representations or whether they reinforce stereotypes is a matter for further analysis and debate!
More to follow….
This is an initial ‘place holder post’ TBU shortly!
Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book