The leading disability charity umbrella group, VODG, is publishing a series of essays this week looking at the key issues facing people with disabilities, in the different areas of their lives.

Each essay includes new research from Demos conducted specifically for the essays. United Response has contributed to this collection an essay looking at how disabled people in the UK are portrayed in the media.

We are planning to blog our essay as three excerpts. The first discusses the importance of increasing the visibility of disabled people in the media. We hope this encourages fair representations and fosters greater inclusion and understanding of people with disabilities.

‘We need more TV programmes that treat disabled people as normal.’ That’s what one person with a learning disability told us last year when we were researching our report Superhumans or Scroungers, which investigated public understanding of disability. We wanted to explore the legacy of the Paralympic Games and whether the huge increase in public visibility for disabled athletes had been sustained and had benefited ordinary
disabled people.

This person was far from alone in being frustrated by the polarised way the media portrays disability. While writing the report, we found that many disabled people felt the media was only interested in their lives when they were celebrating them for sporting achievements, or demonising them as possible benefit cheats. Nor is this frustration with portraits of disability new. Thirty years ago, the famous disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt wrote: ‘We are tired of being statistics, cases, wonderfully courageous examples to the world, pitiable objects to stimulate funding.’

Now, almost two years after the Games, we asked Demos to investigate if the Paralympics have changed this skewed picture. Unfortunately, Demos’ research proves that disabled people are still poorly represented in the media: 53 per cent of the public agree that they see disabled people more in real life than in newspapers or on TV, while just 15 per cent think they see them more often in the media. Closing this gap between reality and representation could be one of the most important steps towards a more equal society, since the media plays such a major role in shaping public attitudes.

Not only are portrayals of disability relatively scarce, but many people also worry about how those few portrayals are skewed. When the media does feature disabled people, they tend to be cast in roles which emphasise their disability. According to Demos’ research, 29 per cent of the public report that the last time they saw a disabled person in the media, they were portrayed in the ‘superhuman’ or ‘hero’ role. Rather more troublingly, 7 per cent said the last portrait they saw of a disabled person was as a ‘scrounger’, while 12 per cent had seen the disabled person as tragic ‘victim’.

It is clear that the way the media portrays disabled people has an impact on how they are perceived and treated. In 2012, the campaigning group Disability Rights UK launched a report which found just how much distress the hostile ‘benefits cheats’ coverage had caused. One person said ‘daily hounding in the press’ had left her feeling suicidal, while another reported the impact it had on the people around her: ‘People around me have started treating me differently, like I’ve done something wrong.’

In 2011, Glasgow University confirmed the link
when it organised focus groups which showed that people assumed that up to 70 per cent of disability benefit claims are fraudulent, and cited newspaper articles on ‘scroungers’ as being part of the reason. The actual figure, incidentally, is 1 per cent. More recently, in May, Scope conducted its own research into public perceptions – Current Attitudes Towards Disabled People – and found that 36 per cent of the public think of disabled people as less productive than their non-disabled counterparts.

While being portrayed as ‘heroes’ is clearly a lot more positive than being portrayed as ‘villains’, it can still leave many disabled people feeling excluded. Although one year after the Paralympics 48.5 per cent of the population reported an improved perception of disabled people, while we were writing Superhumans or Scroungers, the mother of a man with a learning disability told us that the Paralympic coverage ‘comes across very positive for people with physical disabilities, but not so for those with a learning disability’. “

In the next instalment of the essay, we will be looking at the importance of the media portraying the ordinary lives of disabled people as opposed to a person’s disability being the only focus of media interest.

If you want to find out about how you can help change the way that disabled people are portrayed in the media, then why not join the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities latest campaign, to call on the media to do more to uphold the regulations outlining how people with learning disabilities should be portrayed in broadcasts.

Learn more about the campaign here or, to find out more about VODG’s collection of essays, visit their website.

If you would like to share your views on media representations of people with disabilities, why not get creative and create a postcard on why you think it is important?

Gemma Taylor, media assistant.