DISABILITY & MEDIA HISTORY
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol was adopted by the UN in 2006. The Convention was the result of decades of work by the UN to “change attitudes and approaches to people with disabilities.” The UN says the Convention, in line with the widely adopted Social Model of Disability, “takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects’ of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects’ with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.”
The Convention has been signed by 158 countries, and there are 147 partners, and it has eight guiding principles.
- Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons
- Full and effective participation and inclusion in society
- Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity
- Equality of opportunity
- Equality between men and women
- Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities
Embedded within these guiding principles are elements that serve to inform journalists, editors and newsrooms on the representation of people with disabilities. Article 8 of the Convention is most relevant to the news media, as it deals specifically with awareness-raising and stereotypes.
As framers, agenda-setters and gatekeepers, reporters and editors are uniquely placed to deliver on the aspirations of Article 8. It says, in part, that signature States have a responsibility to “combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons with disabilities,” “to promote awareness of capabilities and contributions of persons,” and encourage “all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention.”
People with disabilities and those who research their representation in the news media are consistent in their observations about the way a disability is presented. Professor Beth Haller is a world leader in the field and helped develop the “media models of disability.” Haller and colleagues claim the news media is still, despite decades of disability activism, inclined to represent people with disabilities as tragedies or heroes, and to use language and imagery that serves to embed stereotypes and put at risk members of an already vulnerable community.
“I think media are important to all disability rights efforts because if the media are misrepresenting the disability community, then the general public has wrong information and may not support rights efforts,” she said.
Students learning reporting need lessons on covering people with disabilities. Instructors can get creative in exercises focused on broadening their perspectives. For instance, interacting with the Save ABC RampUp Facebook group, dedicated to fair and accurate depiction in the news media and self-representation, reveals important themes for students to understand.
- Represent (make sure every show, every ad, etc. has people with disabilities) and don’t use sadomasochistic language (“suffers,” “bound,” etc.).
- Use common sense — that’s subjective, but don’t default to “heroes” or pity.
- Include people with disabilities in the media without always focusing on the disabilities. “The ‘wheelchair-bound’ woman, is actually a mum, an officer worker, a volunteer, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, who happens to use a wheelchair. The “Blind Lawyer” is actually a man, a person, a father, etc., who happens to be blind.” People with disabilities should have voice on a range of topics, not just disability-related topics. One in three households has experience with a disability, so people are not “novel.”
- Often young journalists use appropriate, people-first language — “person who uses a wheelchair” — but an editor, generally someone who is at least 25 years older, changes “person who uses” to “wheelchair bound” because that was the language he learned.
- “I can do without the ‘inspirational porn’ of disability. We are not heroes or pity cases. We all get out of bed the same way, or near enough, as everyone else. We eat, we work, we participate in community and working life, just like anyone else, in our own way.”
- Cover people with a disability on on a wider range of topics, not just assisted suicide or the Paralympic Games.
- Stop saying “suffers from.” Say, “living with.”
- Do not represent a disability as if physical disabilities are the only ones.
- Understand that people with disability live constantly with the “hero” or “brave sufferer” or “charity case.” Resist the media stereotypes of putting people in the pit or on the pedestal.
- If we write for your publication, don’t dumb our language down. Look to good publishers like Daily Life, The Guardian and ABC Ramp Up (now defunct). Get someone with a disability to write it! We’re underemployed and are often spoken about, not listened to.
A section of this article first appeared on WAN-IFRA blog.