Last year, our Campaigns Panel contributed to a report about the legacy of the Paralympics and whether they felt that things had changed for disabled people. 

The overwhelming message was that although people felt that the Paralympics had raised awareness of the amazing achievements of some disabled people, it came a time when the media were often reporting disability in a negative way.  Panel members felt that disabled people were being stereotyped as either ‘superhumans or scroungers’ which led to very little space for the voices of ordinary disabled people to be heard.

Samantha told us that she’d “watched [the Paralympics] on TV.  There were loads of disabled people in it doing loads of sport… [they] were treated with respect.”  People were pleased to see disabled people being reported in such a positive way, but at the same time felt that the athletes’ lives were very far removed from their own and they wanted to see more ‘ordinary’ lives being reported.  At the other extreme, Darren said that “the recent stories on benefit cuts were unfair and unbalanced.  [We were] branded as scroungers and spongers.”  The focus on one stereotype or another means that the real issues faced by disabled people – such as discrimination, barriers to independence or a lack of job opportunities – are often ignored.

We need to make the ordinary lives of disabled people more visible

As some of our Panel members told us, without personal experience it can be difficult for non-disabled people to understand how someone’s disability affects them.  Lesley, whose sister is supported by United Response, said that “it is difficult for people who do not have direct experience to understand.”  This means that the ideas and impressions picked up from the media can be incredibly influential, whether positive or negative and can shape the way disabled people are treated by others.  Anil said that “disabled people deserve the same rights as everyone else.  We want the world to be more educated about disability.”  Visibility of ordinary disabled people’s lives will be the foundation for the change that Anil and the rest of the Panel want to see.

This week has seen the appointment of journalist Nikki Fox as the BBC’s first ever disability correspondent as part of a new team which focuses exclusively on disability issues.  It’s a huge step toward raising awareness of the issues that disabled people face and it’s even more important that it’s being led by someone who has first-hand experience of disability.  Talking in The Guardian about her new role, Nikki says “I am beyond excited to be joining BBC News and am thrilled to be able to work as part of a specialist team of journalists, dedicated to the reporting of disability issues for a national audience, in a new and fresh way.”

As Cecily, a mother on our Panel, says, it is important that disabled people are “included in TV, radio and press as ordinary people…not focusing on [their] disability, physical or mental health.”  Nikki’s appointment is a great opportunity for the Panel’s hopes to be realised, and for media reporting to shift from unhelpful stereotypes to focus on people with disabilities leading ordinary lives.  We hope that more news channels will soon follow suit.

Rachel Bowen, campaigns officer.