Last week, we blogged the first excerpt of our essay for disability charity umbrella group VODG on media representations of disability, focusing on the importance of telling stories about the lives and experiences of people with disabilities and making them more visible.

This instalment explores how disabled people are currently represented across all media, asking whether portraying a person’s disability as their defining characteristic leads to a balanced view of the everyday lives of disabled people... 

'A significant amount of disability coverage focuses on heroic stories of disabled people, leaving even less space for the majority of those who live ordinary lives. This is backed up by Demos’ polling for this collection: just 16 per cent of the public had recently seen a disabled person portrayed in the media where their disability was incidental or secondary to the story.

Kate Monaghan, a disabled TV producer, agreed that, even at the height of the Paralympic coverage, there remained a problem with media coverage of disability. In an interview with the BBC, she said, "I don’t think people are getting it quite right yet, it would be better if it was done in a more mainstream way. Rather than ‘here’s a programme about disabled people’ it should be ‘here’s a programme’ and disabled people are just involved."

As Scope’s Current Attitudes Towards Disabled People found, disabled people are ‘very keen to see more positive portrayals of disabled people on TV and in mainstream media’. However, many people feel these portrayals need to be balanced with others where disabled people are represented in ways where their disability is not the only focus. One respondent reflected on her media consumption:

"We need a more realistic view of disabled people. We’re not all heroes or villains, even though I love stories about disabled people becoming heroes, overcoming adversity. But we all have the right not to climb a mountain!"

When the media does get it right, the impact can be powerful. Paddy-Joe, a man with a learning disability who works for United Response as an easy read translator, spoke enthusiastically about a character with cerebral palsy who features in one of his favourite shows, Breaking Bad: ‘Even though the disabled person is not the main character, it is still good. Even though he is disabled this is not a big deal on the show.’

In an interview for this essay, Kaliya Franklin, disability activist and writer, said, "I think in some ways the media presence of disabled people has improved a great deal since the Paralympics – we are beginning to see more disability as part of routine programming, eg comedy show The Last Leg, but it is only a tiny beginning at this point.

"It also seems to reinforce the superhuman–scrounger dichotomy because the public are only really being exposed to certain types of disability at this point and none of the nuances of ordinary human life."

Kaliya praised Channel 4 for its positive efforts, as did many of the other people we spoke to. She said, "Channel 4 has led the way and are much better now at ensuring they get disabled people to comment on current affairs rather than defaulting to the big charities."

Indeed, getting disabled people to speak for themselves is probably the single most important way in which a more rounded and realistic portrayal of disabled people can be achieved. Many contributors to Superhumans or Scroungers praised The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida’s account of his autism, which had received a lot of media coverage. Lesley, the sister of a man United Response supports, said she felt it was realistic because "it was about the life experiences of the author. It provides helpful insights into understanding why people with autism behave differently."

In the final extract from our essay, next week we will be discussing how to improve representations of people with disabilities, highlighting how allowing disabled people the freedom to speak about their lives can challenge long-standing perceptions of disability and change attitudes.'

To find out more about Superhumans or Scroungers, download the report.


Gemma Taylor, media assistant.