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Disability images and human reality

Disability Disability Rights

Disability images and human

Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination


Chris Sidoti

The electronic mass media are among the most powerful influences on people's
lives today. You who work in the media shape our view of the world and
of each other. Through media exposure we get access to a vast range of
life situations that go far beyond what any one of us could personally

It's both a blessing and a curse. We have more knowledge but a lot of
it is superficial.

This has important consequences for the way we view people. In a world
now crowded with information we are influenced by portrayal as much as
by personal contact. And the way people with disabilities are portrayed
has an enormous effect on their place in society.

I emphasise immediately that people with disabilities have the same human
rights and community responsibilities as all other citizens. This ought
not to require emphasis but it does. When it comes to enjoying their rights
and exercising their responsibilities people with disabilities are often
pushed to the margins of society. The way they are represented in the
media can promote or reduce this marginalisation.

This is where you can make a difference. Here are three questions to
ask yourself about portraying people with disabilities. They are all about

  • Does the portrayal patronise? No one is incapable of being a person,
    whatever aspect of his or her life is affected by disability. People
    with disability live full, active, normal lives. They are not objects
    deserving pity or sports stars heroically conquering adversity. At least
    most of them aren't. Yet almost all media portrayals fall into one or
    other of these two categories. Both are patronising.
  • Does the portrayal victimise? Throughout history people with disabilities
    have been presented as victims of fate. They are still presented that
    way. These representations reinforce their dependent status. They are
  • Does the portrayal demonise? Everyone is familiar with the villain
    who has a limp or a scar or is in some way not "normal". Describing
    people we identify as "other", as not just different from us but actually
    bad, is perhaps the most common way of putting people outside the community
    and keeping them there.

Here is a fourth question that can set the record straight.

  • Does the portrayal normalise? Community life is the accepted goal
    of and for people with disabilities, not isolation, dependence and rejection
    and not pity or hero status. The representation of people with disabilities
    as normal people in normal situations is all they ask for. The media
    have an important responsibility to portray the reality of people's
    lives, not some imagined reality. In this way they can reflect the changes
    that have occurred and continue to occur in our society. And they can
    encourage further change.

When you are preparing a news story or a program that involves people
with disabilities, think about that. Present them as individuals, not
as people characterised by their disabilities. Show all aspects of their
lives, not only those that concern their disability. After all, no one
is defined by ability or disability. The great majority of people have
aspirations and life activities in common but different ways of doing

Yes, people with disabilities have to overcome barriers to do many things
others take for granted. For that they rightly receive admiration. They
also have to grapple with barriers that need not exist, discriminatory
barriers and stereotypes that are legacies of history, that were constructed
by prejudice and that must now be removed.

The most important thing to do is to talk with people with disabilities.
It's very important not to rely simply on advice about people with disabilities
from government, academics and carers. Many people have expertise in this
area but the real experts are people with disabilities themselves. And
they don't have only one view. They are as diverse in their opinions as
the rest of the community.

This isn't a plea for good-news stories to become the dominant way people
with disabilities are represented to the world. It's a request for a better
reflection of the reality, diversity and dignity of human lives, for us
to see a person in a wheelchair at the cinema or a deaf person in a TV
game show or hear a person with intellectual disability on the radio.
People with disabilities can be portrayed as saints or sinners. From time
to time they will be one or the other. People are complicated, sometimes
they will be good and bad at the same time or perhaps just plain ordinary.
That's what people with disabilities are. People.