a critical analysis
media perspectives
super heroes & the tragic
the role of charities
public perception
parents perspective
hidden impairments
social & ethical issues
further resources
Super Heroes & The Tragic
The under-representation of disabled people in the media or the misleading portrayal of disabled people has far reaching consequences on the disability community, not least when they are portrayed as a "Superhero" or "tragic Villain".
Throughout history these have become the two most widely used stereotypes of disabled people. Barnes (1992, pg11) states that these are,
"one of the most persistent stereotypes and a major obstacle to disabled people's successful integration into the community."
So why is this and how can we get the media to steer away from depicting disabled people in this light?
To answer these questions we will briefly look at the following four areas:
  1. The medias understanding of disability and disability issues.
  2. The use of disability to add atmosphere and dramatic effect to visual and written media.
  3. The use of impairment only viewing, one dimensional characters and the denial of disability as normal.
  4. The representation of disabled people in employment within the media.

Media understanding of disability and disability issues

The depictions of disability as a sin, evil and tragic have widely been disseminated throughout society by religious teachings and beliefs. This along with the historical focus on impairment and physical deformities, have contributed to the way media portray disabled people.
With little or no representation of disabled people in the media workforce, and with the tradition of the segregation of disabled people, attitudes and beliefs about disability have been left unchallenged.
For example, John Merrick the central character in David Lynch's 1980 film "Elephant Man" goes through a roller coaster of ridicule, exclusion, pity and medical intervention. Merrick is resucued by a surgeon and is described as,
"A heavily disfigured man who is ... scraping a living as a side-show freak ... behind his monstrous facade." The Internet movie Database (2006).
As Barnes (1992, pg. 12) states, representing disabled people in this way,
"Dilutes the humanity of disabled people by reducing them to objects of curiosity."

The use of disability to add atmosphere and dramatic effect

The media often use impairment to add atmosphere to a piece of writing, film scene or radio play for example. The use of disability as evil or superhuman leads to one dimensional basic disabled characters who as Harnet (2000, pg 21) states are,
"Used not for their complexity as people but for their easily identifiable impairment which is exploited by scriptwriters for dramatic effect, for emotional appeal or for blatant symbolism".
For example the recent televised programme "The Musical Genius" (Channel 5, 2006) about a 26 year old blind autistic man, with the IQ of a 4 year old. Here the viewer spends one hour watching Derek only through his "extraordinary" music talent and does not get a real sense of who he is. The audience is distanced from him through his incredible musical ability and Derek's impairment becomes an object of fascination.
As Barnes states (1992, pg12) that disabled characters have "'super' qualities in order to elicit respect from non-disabled people."
In newspapers and magazines impairments are used to, according to Harnett (2000, pg21) "embody, or personify evil". For example headlines such as The Sun headline in September 2003 "Bonkers Bruno Locked up".
Barnes (2003, pg9) states "Newspaper articles sensationalising the connection between intellectual impairments and criminality are common in both the tabloids and the 'quality' papers."

Impairment only viewing, one dimensional characters and the denial of disability as normal.

As previously mentioned the media focus on impairment creates one dimensional characters. The lack of disabled characters in "normal" roles is evident thus perpetuating their absence in the social structure. The lack of disabled people as family members, as employees and employers, as mothers, fathers and partners means that disabled people lack "normal" role models. As Harnett (2000 pg.22) states the majority of disabled characters are,
"more commonly portrayed in dramatic, dangerous or challenging situations."
When disabled characters have been portrayed as "normal", they have often been one dimensional and blend in the background. Often they are not given their own story lines and tend to act as a supporting role. The people surrounding the disabled person seem to grab the lime light and real everyday issues faced by a disabled person are not explored.
This may be a result of media professionals always assuming that the audience is non-disabled.

The representation of disabled people in employment within the media.

It is clear that disabled people are under-represented in employment within the media industry. There is a shortage of programme makers, actors and writers etc. However this may not be because disabled people don't want to work within the industry just that they are struggling to be employed
It is clear then that current media professionals need to change their attitudes and allow disabled people and disability to be apart of the agenda.
In the BBC 4 "You and Yours" programme (2003) Richard Rieser (director of Disability and Equality in Education) stated that,
"Broadcasters have the responsibility to represent the society that they're actually broadcasting to".
However Alex Holmes, BBC Executive Producer, highlighted that there is a high degree of "self-censorship ... amongst television producers" and there is a need to give "producers confidence to use disabled actors and presenters."
How ever things are beginning to change. For example in an interview in 2003 the executive produce of Eastenders when talking to Richard Rieser about the inclusion of disabled characters said, (Rieser 2003) "you've got a point but we don't want to make it into a freak show". Now three years on in September 2006 Eastenders is running a major storyline about a down syndrome baby. Only time will tell if they represent individuals with learning disabilities in a fair light.


The depiction of disabled people as superhuman or evil has far reaching consequences such as,
  • Lack of role models for disabled people
  • Continued reinforcement of negative/ misguided stereotypes of disabled people that are applied to the disabled community as a whole
  • The focus of over or under achievement means that disabled people can never be who they are, without striving to overcome their impairment/ disability
  • The distance placed between disabled people and the intended audience underpins the gap between disabled and non- disabled people
However there are many advantages for the media to abandon these stereotypes. Disabled characters offer new angles and story lines, where producers, actors and writers have the opportunity to create exciting new, complex characters. They have the opportunity to influence social policy and societies attitudes to disabled people.
Copyright © 2012 Lucy Wood