Disability and the Media

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Disability and the Media Powered By Docstoc
					                              City University

       Representation of Disability in the Mainstream News Media

                              Cristina Pittelli

                             September 2007

Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for degree of Masters in

                         International Journalism

I would like to firstly thank Stephen Brookes, Chair of the Disabled Members Council

of the National Union of Journalists for his assistance. Beyond allowing me to

interview him, he also maintained a correspondence with me during the last week of this

project and was kind enough to send me surveys and information which he thought we

be valuable to my research. I would also like to thank the team at Disability Now, who

were very kind in allowing me to visit their offices and interview two of their staff

members. They also allowed me to search through their archives, and provided me with

two issues of the monthly paper to take away with me. I would like to thank Peter Apps

of Reuters for allowing me to interview him. Professor Colin Barnes and I spoke

briefly for an interview, but I would like to acknowledge his extensive research into

disability, the media, and discrimination, which added to a much greater understanding

of the issues.

Finally I would like to thank Lee Prioriello, the members of the Youth Bocce Pilgrim

Group and their families for allowing me to follow their journey for the documentary

portion of this thesis.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Representation of Disability in the Mainstream News Media    4

A study of UK newspapers and disability                                    6

Stereotypical stories                                                      8
       The ‘hero’ story                                                    8
       The ‘victim’ story                                                  9
       The disabled person as the object of science or medicine           11

Suggestions for the improvement of coverage                               14
      Avoiding stereotypes                                                14
      Representation                                                      15
      Employing disabled journalists                                      15
      Language                                                            16
      Increasing accessibility                                            17
      The ‘social’ and ‘medical’ models                                   18
      Remembering diversity                                               18

Are the mainstream news media doing enough?                               20

Conclusion                                                                21

References                                                                22

End Notes                                                                 24

Appendices                                                                25


This topic was chosen in relation to the radio documentary “Journey to the Vatican”,
because the documentary follows a pilgrim group of disabled teenagers to the centre of
their faith. In making the documentary, certain questions arose as to what the focus
should be. It would have been easy to play upon certain stereotypes of the
developmentally disabled community to enhance the emotional value of the story. Their
disabilities were relevant because they belong to a disabled sports association, which
essentially paid for their trips from Canada to the Vatican. But to have portrayed them
as inspirational hero’s for doing something which millions do would have been
patronizing, and would have taken away from the religious significance that their
journey had. In realising this, it raised the question of how disabled people are
normally portrayed in the mainstream news media, and thus, this topic was chosen.

The Disability Rights Movement began in the late 1960’s and early 70’s in various
countries including the UK (Hirst, 2000). Tired of being marginalized by society,
activists began joining together to tackle the social barriers that had been oppressing
them for centuries, and to demand recognition of their struggles. Struggles to be
allowed equal access to education, employment, independent living and anything else
that was available to non-disabled people. Their main goal, like that of all minority
group movements, was to be treated equally, even when that meant making alterations
to accommodate their needs.

They have made many strides, but in 1988, journalist Anne Karpf noted that ‘the quiet
revolution by people with disabilities has gone largely unreported by the media’ (Karpf,
1988). Almost twenty years later, that statement is still relevant today. For whatever
reason, the disability rights movement has been slow to be noticed or cared about.

Consequently, the media is still dealing their stories in the stereotypes that the disabled
community have long since moved passed in exchange for their own preferred choices
of identity. And whether it is the media that shapes public opinions or the other way
around, (in fact it is probably an equal mix of both) the stereotypes keep circulating in a
never-ending circle.i Why the Disability Rights Movement has been one of the slowest
to gain clout and make a real impact is another subject in itself. Nevertheless, their

struggles will continue to be compounded by a media system that is largely run to sell
and please. And where stories about the Disability Movement fail to tug at heart-
strings, or evoke pity or shock, they will go largely unreported. Instead, they will be
reported on from the viewpoints of the non-disabled community, and how they want to
see them.

It is quite shocking to find that even things like various terms and language that have
been deemed unacceptable are still being used, and that entire stories about disabled
people go without any representation from them.

This study will look at the stereotypes, the language, and the stories that for the most
part, in the mainstream media, portray the disabled as they have been for decades: as
victims, super-hero’s, objects of medicine and science, or things to look at for shock
and entertainment. It will show that their issues go almost entirely unreported, and that
there is still an inherent discrimination toward the disabled community that comes
through in the media constantly. A newspaper study done for the purpose of this
examination will be used to illustrate many of these points, along with various other

Finally, it will look at the ways in which coverage can be greatly improved. There are
small issues of debate within the disabled community over to what extent non-disabled
journalists should be politically correct, but for the most part, the language and methods
of portrayal they would like are generally agreed upon. Essentially, disabled people
want to be seen for who there are as individuals and for their struggles as a community,
and not for the impairments they have.

A Study of UK Newspapers and Disability

In 1992, a study was conducted by the Broadcasting Research Unit regarding the
portrayal of people with disabilities in the UK television News. 376 news and
documentary programmes were sampled during a six-week period. Before discussing
the manner in which the disabled people in the stories were portrayed, there was an
examination of certain story types which were surfacing – they were the following:
Treatment (medical), special achievement, cures, victim, tragedy, struggle for equality,
normal achievement/fitting into normal life, rehabilitation, prejudice, mixed, and other
(Cumberbatch and Negrine, 1992).

The writers of the study said that most of the ‘other’ stories were ones in which the
featured disabled person was specifically chosen to enhance the story. For example,
there was a story that aired on a nightly news program about small pink frogs that fell
from the sky in an Oxfordshire village. A partially deaf farmer was interviewed about
his thoughts on the strange events, as ‘it seemed designed to emphasize the bizarre
nature of the story’. (Cumberbatch and Negrine, 1992)

Table 1.1 Types of stories which include people with disabilities in newspaper articles
                                               Number                Percentage of total
Victim/tragedy                                     46                         43
Overcoming adversity/normal accomplishments 24                                22
Integration                                         10                         9
Medical (treatments, cures, equipment)              8                          7
Accessibility                                       6                          6
Other                                               12                        11
Total                                               106                       99

15 years later in 2007, a similar study has been conducted regarding the portrayal of
people with disabilities across 5 major UK newspapers. A six-week sample period was
also used. Over the 6 weeks, 106 articles which in some way related to people with
disabilities were found in the following newspapers: The Guardian newspaper, The
Independent, the Daily Mirror, the Times, and The Observer.

Table 1.1 shows the types of stories including people with disabilities in the articles.
The ‘victim/tragedy’ story represents the disabled person(s) as the sufferer of
circumstances, due in some way to their disability. The ‘overcoming adversity’ story
sees the disabled person(s) accomplishing something ‘in spite’ of their disability, and is
therefore an extra special accomplishment. Similarly, the ‘normal accomplishment’
story gives the sense that a normal accomplishment for the subject is extraordinary
because they are disabled. The ‘integration’ story deals in some way with the disabled
person(s) successfully or unsuccessfully integrating into society. The ‘medical’ story
examines the medical aspects of the disabled persons life. Although some stories focus
solely on medical issues, in almost all of the stories, there is some aspect of the
subject’s medical information. The ‘accessibility’ story focuses on the lack of, or
opportunity for, some form of accessibility.    Other stories types included ‘the bizarre’
and those focusing on disability charities.

From these story types arose several recurring stereotypes which spanned across all of
them: the disabled person as a hero, as a victim, and stories in which the disabled
person(s) is the object of medicine or science (or some combination of the three). It is
these stereotypes which repeatedly surface across all forms of media, including film and
entertainment television programmes as well, and which seem to be ingrained in the
collective conscience of society.

Stereotypical Stories

The Hero Story:
This tells the story of a disabled person either overcoming adversity, or accomplishing
something, whether it be extraordinary or normal. This type of story gives the disabled
person heroic qualities, and their story is usually told from a sentimental point of view.
They are seen as triumphant, ultimately for overcoming their disability, more than for
their accomplishment. Therefore, it is the disability that is the main focus, and not
necessarily the accomplishment. Often these stories would not be considered
newsworthy if a non-disabled person was the subject. A famous recent example was a
blind man, Miles Hilton-Barber, who flew a plane from London to Sydney, and in doing
so, garnered international attention (, 2007). Although this story
received international attention for its appeal factor, many disabled people were not as
impressed “the world doesn’t seem to be designed with us in mind. AB’s [able-bodied
people] cooing over Mile’s Hilton Barber’s aeronautical adventure is all well and good,
but I’m still waiting for my local authority to introduce accessible busses” (‘Disability
Bitch’, 2007). It’s not the stories themselves that are problematic; it is the frequency
and patronizing tones with which they are presented.

Within the articles of this study was one titled “The boy who sprints free from the pain
of being still”. The journalist of the article starts off discussing Oscar Pistorius, the
Paralympic runner vying for a chance at the non-disabled Olympics. “It has been the
week of the miracle athlete … but perhaps we have concentrated on the wrong miracle
athlete” writes the journalist. The story goes on to Ryan Farrington, an 18 year old boy
with dystonia (similar to Parkison’s disease) who won a gold metal with the West
Midlands sprint relay team and who also hoped to run in the Olympics. The next four
paragraphs describe his condition and the effects of it in graphic detail: ‘He used to
scream constantly. The spasms down his back were so bad that it looked as if his skin
was rippling”. His mother and coach were both quoted, describing the teenager as
exceptional. His mother’s comments were particularly emotional: “You can’t describe
how you feel. You cry at any point. In my heart, just to see him get on the line and run
is fantastic.” As the story is one of hope, there is a somewhat tragic undertone to it, as
the journalist notes, “He knows it will be hard. There are days when the pain is so bad
he cannot get out of bed and has to cosh himself with codeine. At the end of races he
often holds his back with his hands and limps away like an old man.” Finally the article

ends on an upswing “What a story that would be - the boy who was told he might not
walk again, sprinting for Britain at the London Olympics. It is a dream scenario, of
course. But if anybody can make the impossible possible, it has to be Ryan Farrington.”
Rather then retain objectivity, the journalist has injected his own sentimentality into the
story, and set up the young boy to be a figure of inspiration. His tone is ultimately
patronising. Referring to him as the next ‘miracle’ athlete (after shoving aside last
weeks miracle athletes), and graphically explaining that he has to ‘cosh himself with
codine’. The last lines entirely conjure images of a big man patting a sheepish child on
the head, praising him for his ‘extra-special’ achievement, rather than respectfully
congratulating him for his success on the merits of his athletic abilities.

This story can be broken down into two parts: the tragedy and the triumph. The tragedy
is that Ryan Farrington has a disability, and that it may one day limit his ability to move
as he can now. The triumph is what could conquer the tragedy: the possibility of
competing in the Olympics. What it suggests therefore is that without this hope for
triumph, his life would simply be a tragedy. ‘Hacked-Off’ is a leaflet created for non-
disabled journalists to help portray disability as the disabled community would prefer.
One of the first suggestions is “Ditch the super-crip stories – they are patronizing and
set disabled people impossible standards. Report disability sports as you would any
other sport” (Hacked Off, 2007)

The point is for journalists to ask themselves ‘would I be reporting this if the person
was not disabled? Is it news-worthy?’ and ‘Is it focusing on the disability rather than
the story?’ Like the ‘Hacked-Off’ leaflet explains, this kind of story sends the message
that the disabled person’s story is news-worthy if they can accomplish things which
‘normal’ people can.

The Victim Story
The ‘victim’ story is one that “[perpetuates] the myth that disability is synonymous with
illness and suffering. ” (Barnes, 1992) It focuses entirely on the unfortunate
circumstances of a disabled person(s) and possibly the effects those circumstances have
on the people around them. Opposite to the ‘hero’ story, this story is devoid of hope and
paints a bleak picture of disability.

A story in The Observer discussed a ‘dramatic new study’ study from the university of
Cambridge which showed that possibly one in 58 children in the UK could have some
form of Autism – “a lifelong disability that leads to many sufferers becoming isolated
because they have trouble making friends and often display obsessional behaviour.”
The article went on to discuss a controversial argument that some doctors had raised
over whether the MMR vaccine might raise the risk of acquiring autism (Observer,
2007). Several points are worth noting about this article. Firstly, the journalist’s
description of autism, for example, highlights some of the most negative possible
aspects of the condition. It implies that it is autism alone which makes the individual
suffer, and not external factors, such as a lack of social awareness. It also describes the
majority of people with the disability as socially inept individuals, and implies that
autism is very possibly a life sentence for exclusion and loneliness.

Secondly, the title of the article, “New health fears over big surge in autism: Experts
‘concerned’ by dramatic rise. Questions over triple jab for children.” is lengthy and
weighty. The title implies that the disability is something to be ‘feared’ and ‘concerned’
about, and in some way is related to medicine. Thirdly, although the article quoted a
doctor and a professor to elaborate on the issues, there were no representations from
people with the disability.

Another article in the Observer was about a disabled elderly woman from Maldon,
Essex named Valerie Tugwell. “It is hard for an elderly woman who is infirm and
immobile to retain her dignity when she relies on strangers to wash her, or help her out
of bed and on to a toilet.” The story goes on to explain how she relies on home care
visits, but with budget cuts, those visits are being reduced, leaving her ‘neglected’ and
‘suffering’ (Observer, 2007).

Again, the stories themselves are not necessarily the problem as they deal with
legitimate issues it is the tone and frequency with which they are delivered. Table 1.1
shows that 43% of the articles having to do with disability are about the ‘tragic’ and
‘hopeless’ aspects of being disabled. The stories are loaded with emotion from both the
subjects and often the journalists as well. The intimate details of their daily experiences
are described graphically, and their lives are described so bleakly that it is hard not to
feel pity “Immobile unless she is in a wheelchair, with very limited eyesight, and ever-
more debilitated by the effects of the brain haemorrhage she suffered 12 years ago, the
65-year-old depends on a small army of carers to help her get through every day”.

The images these words and descriptions conjure a sorrowful image of constant struggle
and suffering. Combined with the frequency of similar articles, the stories reinforce the
notion that disabled people are above all, unfortunate. With an average daily circulation
figure of 324 290 for the five newspapers of the study, the potential to fortify those
tragic images is greatii.

The disabled person as the object of science or medicine

This story type is one that looks at the disabled person(s) through their medical
condition(s), the medical aids or equipment they use, and/or the effects of their
conditions. Disability rights activists call this the ‘medical model’ approach. They
prefer to be seen through the ‘social model’. These two models will be discussed more
in depth further on.

One Observer article was about a young American golfer named Mackinzie Kline who
was born with a rare congenital heart defect. In 2006, she was named the number one
golfer in the world. The story is similar to the Ryan Farrington story, in the sense that it
is a ‘triumph over disability’, and has a particular medical focus.    “When driving her
cart, Mac looks over her shoulder as someone lifts her oxygen machine into the back ...
The machine, called the Eclipse and designed by SeQual Technologies in San Diego,
has been on the market for only a year. It's the size of a small suitcase or large laptop
and magically performs the job of several hefty oxygen canisters by producing medical-
grade oxygen out of thin air. Still, neat as the Eclipse is, it's a reminder of her condition
that Mac evidently feels she could mostly do without.”

There were 38 paragraphs in the article. 23 of them, or 60 per cent, had to do with her
medical condition. In contrast, only 4 or 10 per cent dealt strictly with her golf abilities.
The lasting impression of the article is the medical aspect of Mackinzie’s life, not her
golfing abilities, her personality, or how she came to be such a great golfer. As Paul
Carter of Disability Now said “we want to be seen as people, and not as a walking

Another story line in the medical style of articles were stories to do with pre-natal
genetic screening to detect signs of disability. Already there is a large debate about
such screening procedures: “Genetic and viral testing is now widely used

to predict the probability of an individual subsequently acquiring a particular
impairment. Fear [from the disabled community] has been expressed that predisposition
to impairment will be used as a basis for discrimination, particularly in financial and
medical services” (Disability Awareness in Action, 1994).

Pre-natal genetic testing is a screening test to, among other things, detect disability,
thereby giving the parents the chance to terminate the foetus before it is born. In a
Guardian article about genetic screening, a foetal medicine doctor Charles Rodeck says
'The truth is that not all human life is totally sacrosanct. Nature has a mechanism called
"miscarriage" which eliminates many of its early errors but it is not always totally
efficient and so some of these errors survive. What we are trying to do is simply use
technology to assist nature.' Although language will be discussed more in depth further
on, it is important to note the doctor’s use of the word ‘error’ to describe a foetus with
impairment. There are over ten million people in the UK with disabilitiesiii – would
they then be considered the ‘errors’ that survived? It would seem natural that most
disabled people would find such a description offensive. And yet almost the entire
article is sympathetic to this point of view: out of the 43 paragraphs in the article, 30 (70
per cent) are supportive of screening for disabilities. Some are about the ‘torment’ of
the soon-to-be parents and how they have been ‘forced to play God’, or about Doctor
Rodeck, his views and his history as a pioneering foetal medicine doctor. After 15
paragraphs there is the first opposite point of view from a mother who almost aborted
her baby, but decided against it. In total, only 4 (9 per cent) paragraphs feebly counter
the genetic screening argument, and then are placed in stark contrast with the Doctor’s
strong viewpoints.

At no point are their quotes or arguments presented from a person with disabilities or
disability rights group, a pro-life spokesperson, or an anti-foetal-screening
spokesperson. The issue of screening is inherently about the avoidance of disability,
but there is no representation or acknowledgement that this might be a major issue
amongst the millions of disabled people worldwide. It also looks at disability through a
pure scientific and medical light, and the only comments made about people with
disability are comments such as these from one of the represented parents after they
aborted a child with ‘abnormalities’: “A Down's syndrome child would have been a
huge strain on our family and caused severe hardship. We thank God we had the

knowledge and opportunity to make the choice we did. We're already trying to get
pregnant again and if the same situation arises, we'll make exactly the same decision.”

Even within the headline itself, being disabled is presented negatively: “…here he
[Doctor Rodeck] speaks frankly about the painful dilemma - to agree to a termination or
take the risk of having a disabled child - which thousands of couples must confront
every year”. Here the option of abortion is presented as the lesser of two ‘terrible’
possibilities, where the other is having a child with disabilities. Disabled people are a
minority group, but it is hard to imagine such a title would be written about other
minority groups such as gay and lesbian people (if screening referred to them of

Society still sees being disabled as a negative thing, and inferior, at least in a biological
sense. But where there is a question of what is inferior, there is the question of what is
normal? Normality is largely subjective, and most disabled people see themselves as
‘normal’. “We’re just like, I hate to use the word, but ordinary people, non-disabled
people. Some of us get married, some of us don’t. Some of us work, some of us don’t.
I mean I certainly don’t see myself as someone who’s in need of any kind of special
attention or in need of being cured. I think a lot of disabled people are proud of being
who they are.”iv

Improving the coverage of disability

Stephen Brookes is the chair of the Disabled Members Council of the NUJ. He says
that news stories which focus on the negative, tragic, and medical aspects of disability
only serve to marginalise them further, and has a ‘depressive’ affect on many disabled
peoplev. Rather than looking at the social barriers that prevent the disabled community
from integrating and achieving equality, disability is seen solely as the problem of the
disabled person. As a result, many people with disabilities feel that they are not
accurately or frequently represented. A study done by Mencap, a leading UK charity
for people with learning disabilities, shows that 90 per cent of people with learning
disabilities say there is not sufficient representation of them in the media. 70 per cent
couldn’t name a positive role model with learning disabilities, 86 per cent said there
weren’t enough programs about learning disabilities to give the public a better
understanding. Many disability rights organisations have suggestions for improving
coverage in the mainstream media, and tips on how to implement the suggestions
successfully. Several suggestions have been complied from various sources, but they
are generally as follows:

Avoid Stereotypes

Such as the ones mentioned earlier. For example: disability is a tragedy, people with
disabilities doing ‘normal things’ like having children or completing a degree are
extraordinary, people with disabilities are the objects of pity and charity, people with
disabilities who accomplish exceptional things are heroic rather than simply successful.

It is also suggested is to avoid pictures which perpetuate stereotypical imagery.
Recently the BBC’s online site posted the story of 6 year old Maria Amin from Gaza
who was paralysed from the neck down after sustaining injuries from an Israeli rocket.
The picture of the young girl is a close up of her face and of her neck where a ventilator
has been inserted to assist to keep her breathing. There is also a physio-therapist
supporting her from behind, and a pool in the background where she has her physical
therapy. Her eyes are staring somewhere off camera, and her expression is solemn.
The top line of the article reads “Six year old Maria Amin is putting on a brave face in
the hydrotherapy pool”. This type of ‘poster child’ imagery evokes a sense of pity and
tragedy and if possible should be avoided so as not to perpetuate those stereotypes.

Sebastian Ford, a researcher for Al Jazeera English says that ‘it’s easy to revert to
stereotypes when you’re doing stories about the disabled, because we’re so used to the
kind that are sentimental and emotional story”vi. According to disability studies
professor, Colin Barnes, the reason goes even further than that. Most people are used to
those kinds of stories because they are the kind that editors believe will sell, and
therefore, the kind they use. “It’s all about selling, and therefore, media organisations
aren’t sympathetic to disabled people’s equality issues, their interested in the stories that
will boost their audiences.”

Proper representation is one of the most important aspects in covering people with
disabilities but which is often overlooked. 87 percent of disabled NUJ journalists feel
that disabled people are not fairly represented in the media (NUJ Disabled Members
Council, 2007). As was discussed earlier, there have been many articles where a
disabled person or group is not quoted or represented. Many times their carers, family
members, or doctors were heavily relied upon for information surrounding their
disabilities, but that strips them of power to express/speak for themselves (if they are
able to).

Also, it is important to represent issues that are relevant and important within the
disabled communities. Social equality and barriers, poverty, unemployment, and
discrimination are all issues that the disabled community deal with and give a much
more accurate understanding of their lives. “There are lots of issues, such as disabled
people being allowed to live independently, lots of people living in poverty, but the
biggest problem really for disabled people comes from society as a whole – its not our
impairments or conditions that make us disabled, its society in general and that can be
physical problems such as access to buildings, shops, services and so on, but also in
terms of peoples attitudes, and in terms of employment and that kind of thing.”viii

Employing disabled journalists

Peter Apps is a Reuters journalist. While on assignment in Sri Lanka, he was involved
in a motor accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. “I was very luck to be
able to return to work. Fortunately my carer is paid for, but people didn’t expect much
of me when I went back to work. Most disabled journalists are injured on the job and

can therefore return to work, but not the other way around. It’s all about saving money.
Disabled journalists are more expensive and less mobile.”ix A recent NUJ survey shows
that 31 per cent of disabled journalists are long-term unemployed. 8.4 percent have
experienced job difficulties with access to job opportunities, and 4.1 per cent have
experienced discrimination in the work place (NUJ Disabled Members Council, 2007).


Table 3.1 Words used in the articles about disability (to describe/or compare with a
disabled person(s), their disabilities, their circumstances or conditions, or medical
aspects relating to a disability/disabilities)
                                Number of instances            Percentage of Total
                                throughout all articles
Health                                    82                           77
Problem                                   69                           65
Charity/charities                         67                           63
Suffer(s)/suffered/suffering              33                            31
Special                                   25                           23
Risk                                     23                             21
Diagnose/diagnostic                       20                           19
Severe/severely                          17                            16
Injure(d)/injuries                       15                            14
Fear                                     14                            13
Illness                                   14                           13
Medical/medicine                          13                            12
The disabled                              12                           11
Normal                                   10                             9
Abnormal/abnormalities                   10                             9
Total                                    357                           N/A

Table 3.1 shows that within 106 newspapers examined in the study, there were 82 uses
of the word ‘health’, 69 of the word ‘problem’, 67 of the words ‘charity/charities’, 33 of
the words ‘suffer/suffering’. Others commonly used words included ‘risk’,
‘severe/severely’, ‘fear’ and ‘abnormal/abnormalities’.

For the Disability Rights Movement, like the feminist movement, and other minority
group movements, the language used to describe people with disabilities has been an
important aspect in their strive toward equality. Stephen Brookes of the disabled
members counsel says “The language used to describe disabled people has a huge affect
on the way people perceive them. It is possible to become too politically correct with
language, to the point where it offends non-disabled journalists. But there should be a
respect for the language that the disabled community would prefer”.x

Words that are not intrinsically offensive or inaccurate have become inappropriate, as
their social meanings have become derogatory. Words such as cripple, spastic, and
retarded were once considered perfectly legitimate, but it is fairly well-known that they
are no longer appropriate. But there are still other words, descriptors, and phrases,
which the disabled community say, are as equally inappropriate.

One of the first points in the ‘Hacked-Off’ leaflet, is to call people with disabilities as
such, or as “disabled people” and not “the disabled (disabled people are not a generic
group – would you say ‘the blacks’” (Disability Now, NUJ). There were twelve
instances of the phrase ‘the disabled’ in the study of the articles. When describing an
impairment, it is common to find such descriptors as ‘afflicted with’, ‘confined to’,
‘victim of’ and ‘suffers from’. These all have leave the impression that the individual
being described is a victim. Some of the most common examples of similar descriptors
are ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’, and ‘the blind’ or ‘the autistics’.
Rather, the disabled community prefer phrases such as ‘wheel-chair users’, ‘blind
people’ or ‘people with autism’ for example. Also, journalists should avoid words that
the disabled community find unacceptable, such as handicapped. There were 6
instances of handicap/handicapped within the articles, and one journalist even described
the performance of a disabled athlete as a ‘side-show’.

Increasing accessibility

Depending on one’s disability, accessing the news can be a difficult task. Not all
television news programs have signers for deaf people or the hard of hearing, not all
newspapers or websites have larger fonts for the visually impaired. A Disability Rights
Commission showed that 80 per cent of websites failed to meet the accessibility needs
of people with learning disabilities, visual impairments and dexterity difficulties. Out of

a top-ten list, three websites met the minimum accessibility criteria and were shown to
be 83 per cent better than on-line newspaper sites. The three websites included the,, and The seven remaining sites didn’t meet
the base level requirements of three stars; had received two stars, and received only one. No other online news sources made the list
(Disability Rights Commission, 2004).

The ‘social’ and ‘medical’ models

There are two ‘models’ that disability researchers have identified to explain the main
ways in which disabled people are described. The first, and more traditionally used by
society is the medical model. This looks at the person through their disability, at the
medical and scientific aspects of it, and sees that the person is disabled because of their
impairment. Disability rights activists say that using this model on its own de-
individualises and victimises the disabled person. Essentially this model makes it near-
impossible for a disabled person to be a contributing or integrated member of society if
there is nothing they can do about their disability. Alternatively, the disabled
community prefer the ‘social model’ or a mix of both, which sees disability as the result
of social conditions (The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and
Health, 2002). The person in a wheelchair for example, is not disabled because they
cannot climb the stairs to a building, but because there is no ramp for them to use. This
model says “there is nothing to distinguish people with impairment who are socially
disabled, from people with dependent children who are socially disabled. A whole range
of people may in fact be disabled by barriers or prejudices.” (Shakespeare, 1996).

Remembering Diversity

Disability covers a wide range of impairments, and not all disabled people have the
same ones. They are also individuals like everyone else and have different
personalities, experiences, and difficulties. Major issues faced by the disabled
community as a whole are particularly important to report on to make clear the struggles
of equality that they face. For example, the disabled population in the UK have a 30 per
cent poverty rate. (Disability Rights Commission, 2006). A study in 2003 showed that
“One in four disabled people - and nine in ten people with learning difficulties - have

had their self-esteem, dignity and personal safety robbed by verbal or physical abuse
and harassment.” (Disability Rights Commission, 2003)

Is the main stream media doing enough?

Last year, Disability Now’s (a disability news publication) Hacked Off campaign
conducted a survey amongst several major news organisations. The survey was to
check that they were doing enough to employ disabled staff, and to represent disability
fairly in their coverage. The results left much to be desired. Disability Now asked the
same organisations to sign a pledge: “We agree: to work, in our employment policies,
towards representing the 15 per cent of economically active people (those working or
available for work) who are disabled. And to cover reporting of disability issues in
training courses.”. Only the Telegraph/The Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian, and the
Western Mail in Wales signed on. A spokesperson for The Independent said about the
survey “We don’t want to take part this year. Could you come back to us next year?”.
The Sun and The Times said they don’t respond to those questionnaires. Other
responses were ‘too busy’ or ‘don’t have time’. Although the Guardian had signed onto
the pledge, their disabled editorial staff went from 2.2 when they first signed the pledge
in 1994 to 1.2 in 1996. A spokes person for the Trinity Mirror Group responded with
‘we can’t help you’. Only two national newspapers were able to confirm that they had
disabled staff. (Disability Now, 2006)

The figures of long-term unemployed disabled journalists discussed earlier is certainly a
reflection upon the lack of active policies within news outlets to ensure the employment
of disabled people. John Pring, Acting Editor for Disability Now says that ‘without
news organisations making a commitment to employ disabled journalists, their
disability coverage will probably remain under par”.xi


Although the disabled community have been fighting for equal rights for decades, their
struggle remains largely unreported in the mainstream media. It is quite possible that a
lack of social awareness is at the root of the problem, but in any case, the news media
have the capacity to affect change, and have a responsibility to report on any issue
fairly. When it comes to people with disabilities, it is therefore important to represent
issues that are important and relevant to them, and not those solely aimed to please non-
disabled audiences. A good way to make sure that the important issues are reported is
to read disability specific media, and to consult disabled people on their concerns
wherever possible. It is also important to remember that stereotypes can have an
extremely negative affect on any person(s), and so reporting a story for it’s emotional
appeal or shock factor without carefully considering the message it may be sending is
not only irresponsible, it is oppressive. There are a plethora of guides and suggestions
on reporting about disability that journalists can consult, and an equal amount of
sources to find out what the real issues are that face the disabled community today. One
of the most important steps for news outlets to make is to employ disabled journalists,
who will have a unique and sensitive understanding of the stories that are worth
covering. But possibly the best advice is, as Stephen Brookes (Chair of the Disabled
Members Council for the NUJ ) said “Disabled people are people. You can’t write
about them until you know them, and you cant know them until you let go of your
misperceptions. Only when you see them as people can you write about them fairly.”


Alder, Katya. (2007): Paralysed girl faces uncertain future.
       (, 24 August)

Barnes, Colin. (1992): Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the
       Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People.
       studies/archiveuk/Barnes/disabling%20imagery.pdf, no date specified)

Campbell, Denis. (2007): New health fears over big surge in Autism: Experts
     ‘concerned’ by dramatic rise: Questions over triple jab for children. The
     Guardian, 8 July, P. 1, viewed July 29, Thompson Gale Databases.

Campbell, Denis. Hill, Amelia. Revill, Jo. (2007): Dignity at Home: Dignity for Jean
     in her own home: is that too much to ask for all our elderly? The Observer, 17
     July, P. 8, viewed July 29, Thompson Gale Databases.

Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph. (1992): Disability in factual programmes in
     Images of Disability on Television. (Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph.)
     London and New York: Routledge: 28 and 30.

Disability Awareness in Action (1994) `Further Examples of Threats to Life', Disability
       Awareness in Action Newsletter, 13, viewed on 16 July 2007.
       Hill, Amelia. (2007): Fertility trap: The parents with the hardest choice of all:
       Charles Rodeck is a pioneer in foetal medicine, a field in which huge scientific
       advances can have a terrible emotional cost. Here he speaks frankly about the
       painful dilemma - to agree to a termination or take the risk of having a disabled
       child - which thousands of couples must confront every year. The Observer, 15
       July, P. 22, viewed July 29, Thompson Gale Databases.

Disability Bitch (Blogger pseudonym, no name specified). (2007): Disability Bitch vs
       motivational cripples. (,
       August 23)

Disabled Members Council, NUJ. (2007): Survey shows failure. NUJ Disability Word
       Press. (, 2

Disability Now, NUJ. Hacked Off: A Journalist’s Guide to Disability.
       (, no
       date specified)

Disability Rights Commission. (2004): The Web: Access and Inclusion for Disabled
       People: A formal investigation conducted by the disability rights commission.
       Disability Rights Commission. (, no date

Disability Rights Commission. (2006): Disabled people continue to bear the brunt of

       UK poverty. Disability Rights Commission. (http://www.drc-, 4

Disability Rights Commission. (2006): Government moves to outlaw disability hate
       crimes welcomed by DRC.
       tlaw_dis.aspx, 30 Ocotber)

Disability Services, Queensland. A way with words: Guidelines for the portrayal of
       people with a disability. Queensland Government.
       (, no
       date specified)

Hattenstone, Simon. (2007): The boy who sprints free from the pain of being still. The
       Guardian, 18 July, P. 12, viewed July 29, Thompson Gale Databases.

Hirst, Rachel. (2000): The International Disability Rights Movement (text of a
       public lecture, given as part of the ‘New Directions in Disability Studies’
        seminar     series, Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds).
        pdf, October 11, 2000)

International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, The. (2002):
        Towards a Common Language for Functioning, Disability and Health. World
        Health Organisation.
        (, no date specified)

Karpf, Anne. (1988): Crippling Images in Doctoring the Media: The Reporting of
       Health and Medicine. (Karpf, Anne). London: Routledge: p. 79.

Mencap. (2004): Reporting Without Prejudice: A journalist’s guide to writing about
      learning disability and Mencap. (Mencap is a leading UK learning disabled
      TF-8, 1 January) (2007): Blind pilot’s 600mph jet flight.
      (, August 21)

Shakespeare, Tom. (1996): Disability, Identity, and Difference in Exploring the Divide.
      (Barnes, Colin and Mercer, Geof). University of Leeds: Disability Press, 94-

Wood, Gaby. (2007): Teen Spirit: Doctors thought MacKinzie Kline would die of a
      heart defect before she was five. Now the 15-year- old, who breathes oxygen
      from a tube while on the course, is one of Americas outstanding young golfers
      and a crusading fundraiser for medical research. Gaby Wood in New Jersey
      meets the teenage phenomenon and her family. The Observer, 1 July, P. 8,
      viewed July 29, Thompson Gale Databases.

End Notes

   Telephone interview with Colin Barnes, Disability Studies professor at the University
of Leeds. September 13, 2007.
    Telephone interview with each of the newspapers’ advertising teams. September 1,
    Telephone Interview with Stephen Brookes, Chair of the Disabled Members Council
of the National Union of Journalists. September 10, 2007
    In-person interview with Paul Carter, journalist for Disability Now. September 4,
    Stephen Brookes, op.cit.
    Telephone interview with Sebastian Ford, researcher for Al JazeerA English.
September 12, 2007.
     Colin Barnes, op.cit.
     Paul Carter, op.cit
    Telephone interview with Peter Apps, journalist for Reuters. August 12, 2007.
    Stephen Brookes, op.cit
    Telephone interview with John Pring, August 10, 2007


Appendix 1

Table 1.1 was an examination of 106 article over a six week period to find the main

types of stories that were covered. The newspapers in the study were The Guardian,

The Daily Mail, The Times/The Times on Sunday, The Observer, and The

Independent/The Independent on Sunday. The types of stories were coded without a

pre-set list of types, and afterward separated into their own categories to find the

numbers and percentages each type had within the 106 articles.

Appendix 2

Table 3.1 was an examination of the commonly used words and language to describe

people with disabilities. Words that had reoccurred often were searched for within all

of the articles to find exactly how many instances were used, and what percentage they

made over the six-week period.


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