Has how disabled people are portrayed by our the media changed over the last seventeen years?
I was incredibly proud when I graduated from university in 2002 and was asked to feature in a piece for the local media. I knew instinctively what the right story was. I was simply a student who had accomplished a difficult challenge through his own hard work and with the proper support.
I had worked very hard. Oxford Brookes University provided me with taxis from my accommodation to the campus every morning, employed fellow students to push me back again, allowed me to record my lectures and gave me extra time and a computer to type on in my exams. The University also supported me to take part in a student exchange in America in my final year. This was the support I needed to stand with my fellow students as equals at my Graduation. My time at Brookes changed my life and shaped my future. Most importantly, I felt I valued as a person. This was distinctly opposite to the truly medieval attitudes to disability I had experienced down the hill at Oxford University.
So, I wrote a carefully worded account carefully explaining how the University had supported me. I met the photographer on graduation day to have my picture taken. When the finished article was published, guess what? It followed the personal tragedy model of disability, or as it is known as now, full-on inspo-porn. ‘Tragic Richard Bravely Overcomes Terrible Illness to Achieve Something A Lot of People Do’ stated the headline. I was disappointed, but didn’t complain, at least it was some recognition. I just shrugged my shoulders and carried on. I realise now that this article had strengthened the rhetoric that disabled people are broken and should feel guilty and be apologetic and deferential for being a burden and need pity and help of others to achieve.
In 2016, I was heavily involved in setting up a Community Transport operation in my community. OurBus Bartons is a great success and we occasionally release statements to local media to share our good news. To avoid my disability being used in that way again, I carefully write these articles providing background, quotes and pictures. My disability is not relevant, so I do not mention it. We are sometimes invited to appear on regional or local TV, but my wheelchair has never been an issue. I had assumed we had all moved on. Fast-forward to last week, we were asked to contribute to a piece on camera for a local news programme. I went along to make up the numbers and to give a comment if asked, but as soon as the cameraman saw me, his eyes lit up as he saw how he could use my disability to give the story a ‘good’ angle.
Here’s how I think he saw it. I would play the victim; the hapless disabled chap being ‘saved’ by the virtuous community bus. To my shame, I played along and was filmed waiting for and being loaded onto and off the bus. Feeling guilty for colluding in a tired narrative that I know is damaging to disabled people, I made a point of revealing my key role to the reporter. When broadcast a few days later, the piece didn’t even feature the footage of me being ‘saved’ by the bus. I wondered why. Was it because somebody had noticed this was pure ableism that has no place in a forward-thinking society? Or (less glamorously) was it left out for practical reasons? I asked the reporter and was very kindly assured that it was the latter. The bus was a secondary item in a 2-minute report and footage of a wheelchair user being rolled onto and off a bus would just create unnecessary questions for the viewer.
Not the dramatic revelation I was hoping for, but fair enough. It left me with the question: Are disabled people still let down so badly by the media? Sadly, it would appear so. A survey into the press’s portrayal of disability in 2012 found that three-quarters of disabled people believed the volume of negativity was “significantly increasing”, with nine out of 10 saying there was a link between negative press portrayal of disabled people and rising hostility and hate crime. Is disability presented this crude way simply to communicate to the largest number of people? or is there something more malevolent going on?
I think it is. Disabled people are not the only victims. Consider the appalling treatment meted out by the media that saw Amanda Knox be wrongly convicted for murder. As Frances Ryan concludes in her recent piece on Disability Hate Crime in the Guardian: “huge swathes of the media have normalised hatred and suspicion of minorities for years.” I agree. As human beings, we are responsible for recognising and rejecting these tired tropes. We must demand better. Equally, journalists who are in the privileged position of portraying any minority group have a much greater responsibility to reject such lazy and damaging clichés.