Communication > Research Studies

Disabling imagery and the media

By Colin Barnes

This fascinating study focusses on stereotype portrayals of disabled people in the media and provides a number of important recommendations which will contribute to their demise. Although the misrepresentation of disability in charity advertising is of particular concern this report deals with the media as a whole: notably books, films, television, radio and the press.

Part One: Introduction

1. Discrimination and the Media

Although the misrepresentation of disability in charity advertising is of particular concern this report deals with the media as a whole: notably books, films, television, radio and the press. This is because the images used by charity advertisers are derived mainly from representations of disabled people in other cultural forms, and because the negative impact of charity advertising can only be fully appreciated when viewed alongside these depictions.

The impetus for the project stems from a growing awareness among disabled people that the problems they encounter are due to institutional discrimination and that media distortions of the experience of disability contribute significantly to the discriminatory process.
The type of discrimination encountered by disabled people is not simply a question of individual prejudice, though this is a common view, it is institutionalised in the very fabric of our society. Research by the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) shows that institutional discrimination - attitudes and policies which deny basic human rights and equal opportunities to disabled people - is evident in education, employment, the benefit system, support services, the built environment, the leisure industry, and the media. Stereotype assumptions about disabled people are based on superstition, myths and beliefs from earlier less enlightened times. They are inherent to our culture and persist partly because they are constantly reproduced through the communications media.
While the media alone cannot be held responsible for this situation its impact should not be underestimated. Whilst there is some dispute about the level of influence the mass media has on our perceptions of the world there are few who believe that it does not have any.

Commonly Recurring Media Stereotypes

1. Introduction

The link between impairment and all that is socially unacceptable was first established in classical Greek Theatre. Today there are a number of cultural stereotypes which perpetuate this linkage. However, these depictions are not mutually exclusive, frequently one will be linked to another. This is particularly the case with fictional characterisations. The disabled person as evil, for example, is often combined with the disabled person as sexually degenerate. The point is that the overall view of disabled people is decidedly negative and a threat to the well-being of the non-disabled community.

2. The Disabled Person as Pitiable and Pathetic

This has recently been reinforced by the alarming growth of TV charity shows such as 'Children in Need' and 'Telethon' programmes which encourage pity so that the non-disabled public can feel bountiful. It is a regular feature of popular fiction; overtly dependent disabled people are included in storylines to depict another character's goodness and sensitivity. The disabled person is frequently portrayed as especially endearing to elicit even greater feelings of sentimentality as opposed to genuine compassion. Examples include Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens's 'Christmas Carol', and Porgy in George Gershwin's opera 'Porgy and Bess'.

This entirely negative view of disabled people appears regularly in the news media both on television and in the press. Pictures of disabled individuals, frequently children, in hospitals or nursing homes are repeatedly flashed across our TV screens perpetuating the myth that disability is synonymous with illness and suffering. Recent research shows that most reports about disabled people in TV news programmes and documentaries are about medical treatments and impairment related cures.

3. The Disabled Person as an Object of Violence

In reality disabled people are often subject to violent abuse by non-disabled people and this is frequently reflected in the media. Besides contributing to and underlining the mistaken belief that disabled people are totally helpless and dependent such imagery helps perpetuate this violence.

Throughout history disabled people have been the victims of violence. The ancient Greeks and the Romans were enthusiastic advocates of infanticide for disabled children. In medieval Europe disability was associated with evil and witchcraft. In some areas the persecution and murder of disabled people was approved by religious leaders. For example, Martin Luther, 1485-1546, the Protestant reformer, said he saw the Devil in disabled children and recommended killing them. Since the industrial revolution similar practices have been sanctioned by science and, to some extent, the media.

4. The Disabled Person as Sinister and Evil

This is one of the most persistent stereotypes and a major obstacle to disabled people's successful integration into the community. The classic example is Shakespeare's Richard III. Exploiting early beliefs about physical impairment in 'The Bible' there are over forty instances in which 'the cripple' is connected to sin and sinners -Shakespeare portrays Richard as twisted in both body and mind. This distortion of the experience of disability is present in a great deal of literature and art, both classical and popular, and continues to be produced today For example, in Herbert Melville's 'Moby Dick' Captain Ahab becomes so obsessed by the white whale's destruction of one of his legs he sacrifices himself and most of his crew in pursuit of revenge. Melville uses impairment to heighten the sinister atmosphere of the book as narrator Ishmael describes Ahab's false leg tapping back and forth across the deck in the middle of the night. Writers of children's literature have exploited this stereotype to the hilt. Take Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' for example. In evoking the terror and suspense that mark the book's opening pages the key elements are the disabled characters 'Black Dog' and 'Blind Pew'. The former is introduced as 'a sallow faced man wanting two fingers'. This relatively minor impairment sets a tone that intensifies when Pew is described as that 'hunched and eyeless creature' and it is Pew who hands Billy Bones the dread black spot.

5. The Disabled Person as Atmosphere or Curio

Disabled people are sometimes included in the storylines of films and TV dramas to enhance a certain atmosphere, usually one of menace, mystery or deprivation, or to add character to the visual impact of the production. This dilutes the humanity of disabled people by reducing them to objects of curiosity.

Take for instance the classic horror film 'Frankenstein' starring Boris Karloff. To amplify the overall sense of menace the filmakers included a 'hunchback', Fritz, as Baron Frankenstein's only servant. The character does not appear in Mary Shelley's original novel. Fritz's role in the film is also significant because he is presented as ultimately responsible for the monster's evil ways rather than its creator -- the non-disabled Baron.

6. The Disabled Person as Super Cripple

This is similar to the stereotype portrayal of black people as having 'super' qualities in order to elicit respect from white people. Black people are often depicted as having 'a wonderful sense of rhythm', or as exceptional athletes. With disability however, the disabled person is assigned super human almost magical abilities. Blind people are portrayed as visionaries with a sixth sense or extremely sensitive hearing. Alternatively, disabled individuals, especially children, are praised excessively for relatively ordinary achievements. Although there are many examples of the super cripple movie one of the most recent is the award winning 'My Left Foot'. Based on the disabled writer and artist Christy Brown's autobiography - he referred to it as 'my plucky little cripple story' it tells the tale of how Brown overcomes both impairment and the poverty of working class life in Dublin in the 1930s, to become nationally acclaimed as an artist, writer and poet. It is notable that although this film provided an excellent opportunity for a disabled actor to play Brown he was played by Daniel Day Lewis, 'an able-bodied actor.

7. The Disabled Person as an Object of Ridicule

Laughing at disability is not new, disabled people have been a source of amusement for non-disabled people for centuries. Along with other so-called timeless universals of 'popular' humour - foreigners, women and the clergy -Elizabethan joke books were full of jokes about people with every type of impairment imaginable. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries keeping 'idiots' as objects of humour was common among those who had the money to do so, and visits to Bedlam and other 'mental' institutions were a typical form of entertainment for the 'able but ignorant'.

While such thoughtless behaviour might be expected in earlier less enlightened times making fun of disabled people is as prevalent now as it was then. It is especially common among professional non-disabled comedians. Several of the comedy 'greats' who influenced today's 'funny' men and women built their careers around disablist humour. Harpo Marx, for example, pretended he couldn't speak to act the fool, and Radio stars of the 1950s and early 60s such as Al Read and Hilda Baker mocked their respective stooges by shouting at them as if they were deaf, and, by implication, stupid.

8. The Disabled Person as Their Own Worst and Only Enemy

The media sometimes portray disabled individuals as self pitiers who could overcome their difficulties if they would stop feeling sorry for themselves, think positively and rise to 'the challenge'. This is a recurrent theme in many of the so called' disability' films produced over the last few years. Well known examples are 'Coming Home' and 'Born on The Fourth of July' . Both movies document the 'psychological trauma' of coming to terms with disability in an able- bodied world. In both films the hero is saved by heterosexual relationships this -- was generally considered a step in the right direction because hitherto most' disability' movies depicted disabled people as sexually inactive.

Such views stem directly from the traditional medical view of disability. The individual assumptions at the heart of this approach lead to a psychology of impairment which interprets disabled people's behaviour as individual pathology. It allows able-bodied society to reinterpret disabled people's legitimate anger over disablism as self destructive bitterness arising out of their inability to accept the 'limitations' of impairment. It helps them to avoid addressing the true cause of that anger; i.e. the attitudes and policies of an overtly disablist society. Indeed, in the same way that lesbians, gay men, black people and women are blamed for homophobia, racism and sexism, so too disabled people are blamed for disablism.

9. The Disabled Person as Burden

This stereotype is connected to the view that disabled people are helpless and must be 'cared' for by non-disabled people. It fails to recognise that with appropriate support disabled people are able to achieve the same level of autonomy and independence as non-disabled people. It comes from the notion that disabled people's needs are profoundly different to those of the non-disabled community and that meeting those needs is an unacceptable drain-on society's resources. During the 1930s the German Third Reich exploited this image extensively in propaganda films justifying their 'Euthanasia' programme.

10. The Disabled Person as Sexually Abnormal

Misguided presumptions about disabled people's sexuality have been a common theme in literature and art since ancient times. Moreover, the vast majority of these images are about male experiences -- there has been little if any exploration of disabled women's sexuality. For example, in Homer's 'Odyssey', written at least 500 years BC, Odysseus is entertained in the Phaecian palace of Alcinous by Denodecus' tale of Aphrodite's adulterous affair with Ares because her husband Hephaestus is a 'cripple'. Hitherto disabled people have, with few exceptions, been portrayed as incapable of sexual activity.
The disabled writer Louis Battye referred to this stereotype as 'the Chatterley syndrome' following D. H. Lawrence's novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. The book is about an heterosexual affair between an able-bodied couple; Lady Chatterley and a gamekeeper, Meadows. The relationship takes place because Lady Chatterley's husband is a disabled person, and perceived by Lawrence as sexually inactive..

This assumption is so widespread examples can be found in pop music, films, TV dramas and the press. Not too long ago the Country and Western singer Kenny Rogers had a world wide hit with the song 'Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town'. The song's lyrics tell the story of a war veteran begging his lover, Ruby, not to let a war injury which effected the physical side of their relationship come between them.

11. The Disabled Person as Incapable of Participating Fully in Community Life

This stereotype is mainly one of omission. Disabled people are rarely shown as integral and productive members of the community; as students, as teachers, as part of the work-force or as parents. The absence of such portrayals feeds the notion that disabled people are inferior human beings who should be segregated.

Apart from the exploitations and misrepresentations mentioned above disabled people are conspicuous by their absence from mainstream popular culture. In TV films and dramas, for example, they represent less than one and a half per cent of all characters portrayed. This contrasts dramatically with Government evidence showing that at least 12 per cent of the British population are disabled people.

12. The Disabled Person as Normal

A recent development is the presentation of disabled characters in some areas of the media as 'ordinary' or 'normal' people who just happen to have impairments. This is particularly evident in TV dramas and soaps and the advertising industry. While this has obvious advantages for furthering integration and must be welcomed it has certain limitations for removing discrimination which need to be considered.

13. Conclusions

This section has demonstrated how the vast majority of information about disability in the mass media is extremely negative. Disabling stereotypes which medicalise, patronise, criminalise and dehumanise disabled people abound in books, films, on television, and in the press. They form the bed-rock on which the attitudes towards, assumptions and about and expectations of disabled people are based. They are fundamental to the discrimination and exploitation which disabled people encounter daily, and contribute significantly to their systematic exclusion from mainstream community life. It is also clear that recent attempts by some elements in the media to remedy the situation and 'normalise' disabled people will only partly resolve the problem.

The only solution with any hope of success is for all media organisations to provide the kind of information and imagery which; firstly, acknowledges and explores the complexity of the experience of disability and a disabled identity and; secondly, facilitates the meaningful integration of all disabled people into the mainstream economic and social life of the community.

Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People

The Language of Disability

Society's misconceptions about disabled people are constantly being reinforced by disabling terms like 'cripple', 'spastic', and 'idiot'. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with these terms it is simply that their meaning has been substantially devalued by societal perceptions of disabled people; in short, they have been turned into terms of abuse. Their continued use contributes significantly to the negative self image of disabled people and, at the same time, perpetuates discriminatory attitudes and practices among the general public.

Referring to disabled people as 'handicapped' stems from the notion that the whole of life is a competition as in horse racing or in golf and implies that they will not do well. Also 'Handicap' has allusions to 'cap in hand' and begging. Neither term is acceptable to the disabled community. Use of phrases such as 'the impaired', 'the disabled', 'the handicapped', 'the blind', 'the deaf', 'the deaf and dumb', 'the crippled' tend to dehumanise and objectify disabled people and should be avoided. It is also offensive to label someone by their impairment. For example; an 'epileptic' or an 'arthritic'. Where it is absolutely necessary to refer to an individual's impairment it is better to say 'has epilepsy' or 'has arthritis'.

Accurate Portrayals

i. Disabled people and discrimination: When portraying disabled people in the media it is important to remember that the general public have little insight into the environmental and social barriers that prevent them from living full and active lives. Living with disability means being confronted with environmental and social barriers daily; any portrayal of disabled people, in whatever context, which does not reflect this experience is both grossly inaccurate and a major cause of their continued existence.

ii. Disabled people and charity: Avoid depicting disabled individuals as receivers of charity. Show disabled people interacting with both disabled and non-disabled people as equals; giving as well as receiving. Too often disabled individuals are presented solely as recipients of pity.

iii. Disabled people and individuality: Shun one-dimensional characterisations of disabled people. Wherever appropriate portray disabled people as having individual and complex personalities with a full range of emotions and activities. In common with all human beings disabled individuals experience a variety of emotions such as happiness, depression, anger, etc, and play an assortment of roles including lover, parent, provider, etc. This variation should be accurately reflected in media portrayals of disabled people.

iv. Disabled people and evil: Avoid presenting physical or intellectual characteristics of any kind as the sole determinants of personality. Be particularly cautious about implying a correlation between impairment and evil.

v. Disabled people and disability voyeurism: Refrain from presenting disabled people as objects of curiosity. Disabled individuals should be presented as members of an average population or a cast of characters. Disabled people are generally able to participate in all aspects of community life, and should be portrayed in a wide variety of roles and situations.

vi. Disabled people and comedy: A disabled individual should not be ridiculed or made the butt of a joke (blind people or people with visual impairments do not drive cars, play darts or bump into everything in their path; despite the myth making of some script writers, rather limited comedians, and unscrupulous mainstream advertisers).

vii. Disabled people and sensationalism: Avoid the sensational in portrayals of disabled people. Be especially cautious of the stereotype of disabled people as either the victims or the perpetrators of violence.

viii. Disabled people and the super cripple: Resist presenting disabled characters with extra-ordinary abilities or attributes. To do so is to suggest that a disabled individual must over compensate and become super human to be accepted by society.

ix. Disabled people and will-power: Avoid the 'stiff upper lip' type storyline that implies a disabled character need only have the 'will' and the 'right attitude' to succeed.

x. Disabled people and sexuality: Avoid showing disabled people as sexually abnormal. Do not portray disabled individuals as sexually dead or as sexually degenerate. Show disabled people in loving relationships expressing the same sexual needs and desires as non-disabled people.

xi. Disabled people and the disabled population: When depicting disabled people in the media ensure that they are representative of the sexual, racial, ethnic, gender and age divisions in the disabled population as a whole.

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