Over the past fortnight, we have blogged extracts from our essay on representations of disability in the media. Written for disability charity umbrella group VODG, this final excerpt looks at the “superhuman or scrounger” dichotomy and tells how people with disabilities have opened up about their lives through a creative campaign to try and change perceptions of disability.

“Inspired by such examples of people telling their own stories, in 2013 United Response followed up Superhumans or Scroungers with a project called ‘Postcards from the Edges’. We created a website and exhibition space for disabled people to complete in whatever way they wanted, with the only condition being that they use a blank postcard.

Participants in the project could be as positive, negative, humorous, harrowing, angry, joyful or irreverent as they wished, using words or pictures in whatever way they chose. We did not want to act as gatekeepers, but merely to provide a platform. The subjects ranged from painful descriptions of hospital visits to more humorous, but still pointed, poems about the difficulty of wearing heels on public transport when you don’t have the full use of your arms.

Others addressed the ‘superhuman’ stereotype directly. While many postcards did indeed celebrate the everyday courage of disabled people – one card described a wheelchair user as ‘Born Brave Every Day’ – others expressed wry exasperation with being singled out in this way. One card showed the contributor in his wheelchair alongside the biting declaration, ‘Being Disabled Does Not Make Me Inspirational’.

Many postcards didn’t refer to disability at all, instead focusing on the sender’s hobbies, loved ones and views on life in general. The result is a fascinating glimpse into hundreds of different lives, a kaleidoscope of different experiences and voices, and so varied that anyone who clings to stereotypes about disabled people would have to give them up after looking through them all. The project also led to substantial media coverage, including by the Guardian and Daily Mirror, with many readers commenting on how refreshing it was to hear these diverse voices.

The project clearly demonstrated that if disabled people are given the freedom to speak out on their own behalf, the story they tell us is much more complex, nuanced and interesting than the superhuman or scrounger narrative that the media so often falls back on. Therefore, the best way the media can change and improve its portrait of disability is to ensure that disabled people are fairly represented, both behind the scenes and publicly.

More disabled actors, presenters and journalists are crucial, but more disabled editors, producers, writers and senior executives could play an even more powerful role in the long term. The BBC, at least, has recognised this with its recent pledge not only to increase the percentage of disabled people that it portrays or represents on TV from 1.2 per cent to 5 per cent by 2017, but also to increase over the same period the percentage of BBC staff who are disabled from 3.7 per cent to 5.3 per cent, and disabled leadership roles from 3.1 per cent to 5 per cent.

We all need to monitor carefully how the BBC tackles recruitment to ensure that this policy is delivered in a meaningful way over the next few years. But this is certainly a welcome move from the BBC, and one which shows a growing awareness within the media of the need for real change.

Clearly, change is needed to ensure that the media portrays disabled people in a more responsible way, and there is also a commercial imperative to do so. There are millions of disabled people in the UK who are eager to see their lives reflected realistically in print or on the screen, and who would no doubt be loyal to newspapers or TV programmes that led the way. In addition, a more diverse range of people working at the creative or production end of the media will create richer and more interesting content at a time when so many media outlets struggle to stand out among the brutal competition. We need to see more media outlets follow the example set by Channel 4 and (more recently) the BBC by taking action before the window of opportunity which the Paralympics opened is closed once more.”

Giving a creative outlet to those affected by disability hopes to give them a voice while shaping perceptions of how they live by sharing their own views and experiences.If you would like to share your thoughts on disability and the media or on any other issue that interests you, visit the Postcards from the Edges website

Gemma Taylor, media assistant