The case for a non-disabling media

To mark the International Day of Disabled Persons, Chris Ford challenges attitudes towards disabled people in New Zealand's media

Yesterday marked the International Day of Disabled Persons. The day celebrates the contribution that disabled people (like me and others) make to the world around us. The day also highlights the multiple challenges that disabled people face both in Aotearoa and around the world. One of those surrounds the attitudes we encounter and this includes within our media.

During this past week, I co-presented a paper with fellow disability researcher Pam MacNeill at the Disability Matters Conference at the University of Otago’s Dunedin campus on promoting positive attitudes towards disabled people in the media: can there be change? This paper served as follow up to the 2013 research we did and which was undertaken on behalf of the Convention Coalition (a disabled person’s led UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities monitoring group) on media attitudes towards disabled people.

The original 2013 Convention Coalition Report Disability Rights in Aotearoa New Zealand 2013: Media analysed disability-related media reporting from 2012 as carried in our four major mainstream daily newspapers, namely, the New Zealand Herald, Dominion Post, The Press and Otago Daily Times. Besides, analysis was undertaken of TV and radio coverage of that year’s Paralympic Games and on the fight of former Green Party MP Mojo Mathers for support funding to carry out her parliamentary duties. Furthermore, a series of interviews was conducted with journalists to ascertain their views on disability and the media.

The key findings of the Coalition’s original report were that, on the positive side, the media outlets surveyed published a significant number of disability related stories during 2012. However, the report also identified a number of areas of concern. Primarily, these included the media not quoting disabled people directly in stories about disability issues; the lack of disability awareness amongst journalists as evidenced by the number of stories which conveyed negative or unhelpful stereotypes about us; and a substantial lack of coverage of issues affecting Maori, Pacifica and ethnic disabled people. Above all, archaic language was sometimes used to describe disability in the form of ‘crippled’, ‘handicapped’ and ‘special needs’ – all terms now widely rejected by the disability community. 

More importantly, the 2013 report found negative or unhelpful stereotyping in media reporting on disabled people in that many stories covered disability from a medical perspective by, for example, carrying stories focusing exclusively on a person’s impairment or from a charitable perspective by, for example, emphasising the need for people to donate money to a certain disability charity. Also, sections of our media carried stories that year either emphasising the supposedly heroic deeds of disabled people overcoming their impairment or, at the other extreme, projecting us as objects to be pitied. Again, seeing disability through either a medical or charitable lens is really unhelpful due to the damage it does to the way we are viewed by society as a whole.

The 2017 follow up research covered a more limited sample of disability-related content from this website plus The Spinoff and Otago Daily Times and digital audio content in the form of Jonathan Mosen’s The Blindside podcast.  Essentially, we wanted to see whether anything changed in our media around disability since 2012-13?

Well, the short answer is mixed. The 2017 paper shows that there was comparatively more positive disability content on both Newsroom and The Spinoff and on The Blindside podcasts than in the Otago Daily Times. Nonetheless, the report found that there was still some way to go before all of our media could be said to portray disability in a balanced and inclusive way. One negative example came from the ODT which, for example, reported about the conviction of a mother who had performed a so-called ‘mercy killing’ on her disabled autistic daughter. While only a basic news report, the journalist should have asked, for example, for comment from autistic people themselves about their views on this. 

Many disabled people, like me, have had a gutsful of the way we have been portrayed by sections of our media.

So, how can our media improve its performance on disability issues? For one thing, they could run more content on disability rights issues, particularly where disabled people are quoted directly as a matter of practice. Our media could also run more content written by disabled people and, on this score, the latest research found that digital newbies (including Newsroom) excelled at doing this. Indeed, this year’s research found that if disabled commentators (and allies) wrote articles on disability, then that enabled more positive language and attitudes to come through. An excellent example was the Newsroom report on the Wellington Disabled Persons Assembly’s disability issues election forum in July which used both disability-positive language and traversed the issues raised while also conveying the varying views of both candidates and audience alike.

At this point, you’re probably thinking why is much media reporting on disability offensive to disabled people like me? No doubt some of you will be quietly admonishing me for being one of those supposedly ‘politically correct’ people who want to simply ban people from using certain words, language and imagery. 

All I can say is that many disabled people, like me, have had a gutsful of the way we have been portrayed by sections of our media. We want to be seen as people who have a real voice. Indeed, I and many others in the disability rights movement have had enough of being characterised as either being less human or superhuman. And neither do disabled people want to be referred to by some archaic label such as ‘crippled’ or ‘handicapped’. In fact, I would challenge people to think of the last time that adult women were referred to as ‘girls’ or gay men as ‘homosexuals’ in mainstream media reporting? Personally speaking, not recently. But, anecdotally, I have seen language such as ‘wheelchair bound’ used by the New Zealand Herald just this year. For all these reasons, I say it’s time for negative disability language to be dumped in the terminological dustbin where it belongs!

I say all this as a firm believer in the social model of disability which holds that it is society itself which disables people like me by creating attitudinal and physical barriers to our participation within it. And it is the mass media which largely moulds public opinion and this includes on disability.

Furthermore, I fully acknowledge the importance of media freedom in a democracy like ours. However, disabled people (alongside our allies) can and should influence the media on how they report on disabled people and our issues. This can be done through, for example, having media outlets employ more disabled journalists and commentators; the recognition and encouragement of more disabled-people’s owned and controlled media to ensure a greater balance; and above all, the need for all journalists and other media personnel to be fully trained in disability awareness and responsiveness by disabled people themselves.

All these measures, if implemented by media outlets, would improve the portrayal of disabled people in our media. If this happens on an increasing scale then public attitudes towards disabled people would shift even further into positive territory. While there has been some discernible improvement in media attitudes towards disability more work remains to be done. And that is the challenge I lay before all media this International Day of Disabled Persons – that of the need for a non-disabling media.

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