a critical analysis
media perspectives
super heroes & the tragic
the role of charities
public perception
parents perspective
hidden impairments
social & ethical issues
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Hidden Impairments: Social Barriers & Ethical Issues
Though disability issues are higher on the agenda than they have ever been, and the social model of disability is becoming widely accepted, disabled people are still affected by social barriers.
This article will examine the social barriers & ethical issues surrounding hidden impairments, concentrating on Hearing Impairment, Mental Health, and Learning Disability.


The language surrounding disability used within mainstream media is often still negative. This is especially true regarding hidden impairments, possibly due to a lack of understanding. When dealing with mental and learning disabilities, the media often uses very strong negative language. One example of this (amongst many) was a March 2006 article in The Sun, reporting on a dyslexic postman. The article used the following words "fool", "barmy" and "struggling", and included two separate quotes stating that the dyslexic postman "can't read" and "can't read properly", despite the postman himself saying earlier in the article that he can read, but has difficulties with certain combinations of numbers. Ethically, this is quite damaging and has strong implications for dyslexic people. The Sun has a very wide readership, and language such as this presents a false, negative image of dyslexics to a very large number of people.
Taking the previous example of The Sun's article, some of the implications for the wider community are quite damaging. For example, following the ridicule of the dyslexic person in employment, other dyslexics may not declare their dyslexia for fear of the same treatment. This can lead to a lack of support, can mean they struggle in a job they could otherwise excel in, and could potentially lead to issues of self esteem and mental health. Aside from the fact that some dyslexics will not declare their dyslexia, people who actually do declare their dyslexia face the problem of others believing the negative image and equating dyslexia with stupidity.
The creation and perpetuation of these stigmas creates a vicious cycle where people with hidden impairments isolate themselves through not declaring their impairment. Because they do not declare or discuss their impairment, other people in society don't have an understanding of the reality of the impairment. Therefore they lose their identity and find themselves segregated from the community. Recently Mind ran a campaign attempting to tackle exactly this issue: raising the awareness of mental health issues and helping people to feel comfortable talking about it.
Stephen Fry also recently tried to tackle this issue. He made a BBC documentary called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. He spoke very candidly about depression and interviewed several prominent celebrities about their experiences with depression. The program was widely reported in the media and, though some of these articles included negative language, the vast majority simply relayed Fry's own words, spreading the reality of depression to large numbers of people.

This is a good example of Greenberg's drench hypothesis, from his 1988 article Some uncommon television images and the drench hypothesis. The drench hypothesis is that one or two programs can cut through all of the built up negative stereotypes and stigmas and re-educate large numbers of people, changing their attitudes to disability and disabled people.

Access to the Media

In addition to issues around media coverage of disabled people, the ability of disabled people simply to access the media still remains an issue. For instance on television, most programs don't have sign language interpretation. Though some signed programs do exist, they are usually repeats and often shown at inaccessible times, such as the very early morning. Three implications of this are:
  1. Disabled people must stay up very late and access the media at times the general population does not
  2. The low general viewing figures at the times these programs are shown, and the fact that signed programs are often repeats, means that non-disabled people rarely watch signed programs
  3. Interaction with non-disabled people relating to popular programs is limited, as they often cannot share viewing of the same programs
Similar problems exist with subtitles. Though the BBC and terrestrial television are now careful to subtitle most programs, many digital and satellite channels do not. Even the BBC's own freeview channels (BBC3, etc) often repeat BBC1 programs with the subtitles removed. Additionally, subtitles are often not correct, missing information, or in language that is not easily accessible to the deaf community.
One very positive change in the media relating to deaf people has been the growth of the Internet and other technologies such as communication through mobile phones.
People with learning disabilities also face barriers relating to accessing the media. In some areas, particularly news coverage, the language used is often very complex and full of jargon. This could be improved very simply by including short summaries and iconography, meaning that the articles or programs would be accessible to all.

Specialist Programs

Though some impairment-specific programs still exist, such as See, Hear, with the social model of disability there has been a move away from impairment-specific programs. The wider idea is that disability & impairment issues would be integrated into general programming. Alex Holmes, a BBC Executive Producer, spoke about this on the BBC's You & Yours program (2003):
"I see this as a positive move away from the high degree of niche programming, that actually what we ought to be moving towards is the raising of disability issues and the use of disabled actors and performers across the broad spectrum of our output rather than just in the odd magazine show."
In practice this has not happened: several impairment-specific programs have being phased out, with little-to-no coverage elsewhere. Additionally, where coverage does exist, it often does not include the issues that people with hidden impairments face every day.
Another issue here is that, though the disability arts movement is quite strong, the output of this community is not widely broadcasted. An example of this is the film Nectar, the story of a Deaf swimmer. Though the article won several awards within the disabled community, including the ‘Audience Favourite' award at the London Disability Film Festival, the film has not been widely shown and is difficult to purchase.
Richard Rieser (2003), Director of Disability Equality in Education sums up the issue of a lack of representation in mainstream media when he says:
"So I think there is a real need to set some sort of target, if we're going to not have niche programming, which I agree is probably not a good idea, but at least it guaranteed some output whereas in some weeks now there is no output at all"


Though there have been some steps forward in removing social barriers to accessing the media, and fighting against unethical coverage of hidden impairments in the media over the last few years, there still remains a lot to be done. The Internet and new technologies have opened up many new opportunities. The things that must be done to make things better are quite widely recognised, for example using the ‘drench hypothesis' to change attitudes, and Richard Rieser's idea that we must set targets on including disabled people in mainstream programs if we are to remove niche programming. One very hopeful note for the future is that these ideas will become part of legislation, following the publication of the Council of Europe's Disability Action Plan (2006) which states:
"Disabled people need to be present in advertising, on screen, on radio and in print to bring about a paradigm shift in perception for disability and disabled people; a real change in attitudes by all members of society can then become a reality."
Copyright © 2012 Lucy Wood