Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

The Disability Representation In The Media

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5605 words Published: 1st May 2017

Reference this

My personal reasons for choosing this dissertation topic stem from an interest in how media representations shape the attitudes of wider society. I feel it is important to note that I am writing as a non-disabled student with the view that disability studies and research should not just be the interests of disabled people. Issues of inequality and social injustice need to be considered by all members of society, while ensuring that the views, definitions and experiences of the particular group remain central to the discussion. It has been made apparent that the voices of disabled people have been absent from discussion because of the assumption that they need others to speak them and decide on their needs (Barton, 1993). Dominant views of disability dictate that it is a personal problem of the individual, based on biological impairment. However, I strongly advocate a social model of disability which emphasises that oppression and discrimination by society is the cause of experiences of disability. I plan to make this my main approach in writing my dissertation. Barton (1996, pg. 5) describes disability studies within the field of Sociology as an ’emancipatory project’ and argues that the fundamental question we must ask ourselves is whether ‘the sociological imagination contributes to the benefit of disabled people’ (original emphasis) I believe that any research which aims to illuminate the prejudices implicit in cultural representations of disability, are necessary pursuits and it is vital to seriously consider the reasoning behind research projects as well as the ultimate impact they are aimed to have on particular groups.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

There has been many publications regarding disability and media representation in recent times which highlights that disability, impairment and disabled people are being frequently misrepresented in the mass media. Research has also suggested that such media representations have an alarming affect on the attitudes of the public. This issue can be divided into three key areas, the use of disability stereotypes, the use of specific language and images of disability and the under-representation of people with impairments working within the mass media. Pressures from disabled activists and legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 2005 have brought this issue onto the agenda and worked to improve the rights of disabled people. An increasing awareness of the issues has resulted. However, the extent of this awareness is debatable as there is still much work to be done in tackling the negative and disempowering portrayals within the media and the current views of society. It is clear that the media has not made sufficient changes and therefore this issue remains extremely relevant. My aim is to explore the representations of disabled people to see whether any changes have been made.

1.3.3 Can Disability be represented positively?

It is safe to say that the majority of media depictions of Disability and impairment are incorrect and exclude people with impairments from participation within media production. During my search for literature on the issue of disability and the media, I found that a substantial amount of studies were very critical of the media and focus only on negative stereotypical portrayals with an inclusion of recommendations for their demise. An example which I plan to use in my literature review chapter is Barnes’ (1992) ‘disabling imagery and the media’ which ambitiously attempts to deal with all aspects of the media in misrepresenting disability. Despite such an extensive collection of studies in this area, there is very little literature which focuses on the representation of disability by disabled people themselves. It could be argued that there are not enough media sources which involve disabled people of which to analyse. However very recently I am pleasantly surprised to see that there are a few emerging. Notable examples include the Channel 4 ‘mockumentary’ ‘Cast Offs’ in which six characters with different impairments live together on an island. The show highlights many disability issues and challenges stereotypes of disability. Themes include sexuality, disabled identity and the exclusion of disabled actors and actresses from television (Wilde, 2009). Other media sources which feature disabled people include, ‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’ and ‘Dancing on Wheels’. Although this is a step in the right direction, the inclusion of individuals with impairments on TV has been restricted mainly to reality TV which offers little insight into the lives of disabled people; instead they are centred on strength and achievement despite the individual’s impairment rather than a celebration of disabled identities. The new American musical drama ‘Glee’ has considered disability issues within its plot lines, this included the use of wheel chairs during a performance in order to educate the able-bodied performers on the importance of considering the needs of wheel chair user ‘Artie’ and the difficulty in getting around the high school from his perspective because of the lack of ramps and accessible doors. Unfortunately however, the character of Artie is played by a non-wheel chair user and so any positive aspects of disability representation in the show are practically reversed by the exclusion of disabled actors and actresses from participating.

1.3.4 The Sun and Ouch!

I wanted to choose two online sources for my study which were imposing in terms of disability representation and portrayal. Tabloid newspapers are notorious for depicting various groups inaccurately and producing sensationalised media in order to sell newspapers. ‘The Sun’ is a daily tabloid newspaper which is among the highest in circulation in the world (The Newspaper Marketing Agency, 2010). The use of disablist language is common in tabloid newspapers and often in the broadsheets too. Reports regularly provide distorted representations of the experience of disability and focus on stereotypical assumptions (Barnes, 1991). This topic will be expanded further in chapter three. I chose The Sun because of its popularity in the UK and because tabloid news is a major source of information for the general public, I will be using articles from The Sun online website. After selecting a tabloid source for my study I began searching for an online source which involved the self-representation of disabled people, I dismissed many websites because they were charity based, political in nature, or simply provided information and advice for disabled people without necessarily being based on the views and experiences of this group. Examples of websites I considered include ‘Radar’ and ‘Disability Now’. I chose ‘Ouch!’ because it is not centred on disability politics and aims to ‘reflect the lives and experiences of disabled people’ (See Ouch! 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/about.shtml). The website consists of articles, blogs, podcasts as well as other features. The writers and contributors are not concerned with political correctness but seek to offer insights into the topics that are important to disabled people and those with a ‘stakehold’ in disability such as family and friends. To ensure that representations and portrayals of disability are suitable, the Ouch! team are disabled themselves. My first impressions of the website and its content were that it is very humour based and does not take itself too seriously. It is friendly, accessible and taps into the ordinary, everyday experiences of disability. This is why I decided it would be a suitable source for comparison with a more mainstream media source.

1.4 Structuring my Dissertation

My dissertation will consist of six key sections. The first is my introduction which will outline the topic of study, along with my reasons for choosing it and my aims. Chapter two will historicise disability using the work of Barnes (1991, 1996, and 1997). Chapter three will discuss the existing literature which relates to my topic, this will include studies of media representation and disability, a discussion of the political models of disability and the key terms involved in the debate. In chapter four I will discuss my methods of research, including how I selected my sources and an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of my chosen method of content analysis. I will also consider any ethical implications of the study in this chapter. Chapter five will be my most important section, in this I will present and discuss my findings. The final chapter (chapter six) will be focused on my concluding the study. It will relate my findings to the objectives presented in the introduction and the issues raised in my literature review. It will also include a reflection of my chosen methodology and a summary of the dissertation.

2.0 The History of Disability

In order to understand the representations and societal perceptions of disability today, it is necessary to study a history of Disability. The attitudes and practices of the past have a vital influence on present day beliefs. Barnes (1997) argues that the lives of Disabled people in history have been overlooked in favour of an emphasis on medical perspectives and it is clear that many disabled people experience exclusion from mainstream society. This is evident in such areas as employment, in which 45% of disabled people of working age are excluded from. It has been found also that disabled people tend to have lower earnings, with disabled men earning on average £1.50 less per hour than non-disabled men (Hyde, 2001). As a result, many disabled people live in poverty or are at risk of poverty. Discrimination can also be seen within the education system welfare, housing, leisure and environment and planning.

‘The evidence that disabled people experience sever economic deprivation and social disadvantage is overwhelming and no longer in dispute, whether it be from the governments own commissioned research, from research institutes and academics or from disabled people themselves.’ (Oliver, 2003, pg. 312).

Historically, people with impairments have long been oppressed and marginalised. Hostile treatment, pity and ignorance are common disabling experiences. Barnes (1997 and 1991) claims that perceptions of disability are rooted in ancient Greek and Roman history, he discusses how the cultures of the western world are based on the achievements of the ancient Greeks who built their existence on slavery. Greek society was extremely violent, male dominated and prone to war. They had a strong value for physical and mental strength and any weaknesses and flaws were not tolerated. Such a concern for perfection meant that the infanticide of sick and disabled children was very common. In Greek philosophy, the gods and goddesses were ‘idealised representations of perfect humanity’ (Dutton cited in Barnes, 1997, pg 13). The only god who was physically imperfect was Hephaestus, this Greek God was rejected by his parents because of his grotesque appearance and labelled a ‘cripple’ by his wife Aphrodite who committed adultery with a more aesthetically pleasing lover. This mythology is significant as it is a clear source of the links made between impairment and sexuality today as many of us assume that disabled people are unable or do not want to have a sex life. When the Romans conquered Greece and expanded their empire, the values of strength, individualism and able-bodiedness were inherited with it. The Romans also advocated the infanticide of ‘weak’ children and ridiculed people who acquired impairment during their life course. Many roman games involved using individuals with impairment as comedy acts for the amusement of others. Although both the Greeks and Romans attempted to develop treatments for impairments, they were reserved mainly for those with power and wealth (Garland, 1995).

Another foundation of our thoughts and beliefs of disability can be found in the western religions of Christianity and Judaism. Religion in ancient societies viewed disability as anti-religious and a reflection of sin or immoral behaviour. Barnes cites many references from religious texts which imply that impairment is a consequence of bad behaviour. For example, in Deuteronomy (27-27) it states that immorality will be punished by blindness. In contrast to Greek and roman society, the Jewish faith opposed infanticide and encouraged its members to care for the ‘less fortunate’ this is also a feature of subsequent religions stemming from the Judaism, such as Islam and Christianity. People with impairments were accepted by the community, but as objects of neediness and charity. This was a key feature of Christianity. Consequently, they were viewed only in terms of their impairment and treated as incomplete human beings in need of sympathy (Barnes, 1997).

During the Middle Ages disability was associated with evil and superstition and people with impairments were treated with extreme hostility. Children born with impairments were believed to of been sent by the devil as a result of parents involvement in witchcraft and other black arts. This association with evil was very strongly held in Britain during this time and was reflected in art and literature, Shakespeare’s Richard III is a good illustration of this, Richard is portrayed as physically and mentally deformed despite having no physical impairment. He is destined to only be successful as a villain which perpetuates the negative stereotype of impairment and evil. Just as in the ancient world, disabled people were ridiculed during the middle ages in many forms. Analyses of joke books from this time reveal that impairments such as insanity and idiocy were used as sources of humour. Many individuals with visible impairments were displayed as objects of entertainment (Barnes, 1997).

The 18th and 19th century saw the transition from agricultural subsistence to factory production during the industrial revolution and urbanisation process. This brought with it a decline in religious authority and the growth of science and rationality. The development of utilitarian philosophy which emphasised the importance of pleasing the majority at the expense of minority groups created a new found value for individuality and progress. These developments provided justification for the beliefs and practices of the past and can be cited as a starting point for the disability issues which are visible today. These include the development and prioritisation of a medical model of Disability, in which the body and impairment are viewed in individualistic terms rather than social, cultural and political. The institutional prejudice and discrimination of people with impairments in everyday social life is a second issue of Disability theorists. The popularity of eugenic ideas during the mid twentieth century and the murder of thousands of disabled people, as well as other oppressed minority groups during the second world war is another significant point in modern history and many scientists still advocate ‘Social Darwinist’ ideals and view human imperfections (both physical and mental) as a societal threat, a threat that needs to be eradicated (Barnes, 1996).

The rise of the disability movement in the 1960’s saw the development of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), the establishment of such organisations and the activism of disabled people resulted in a re-classification of disability as distinct from impairment and social in nature as opposed to medical (Barnes, 1997). Disability became defined as the disadvantages caused by social institutions and environments which effectively exclude people from participation (UPIAS, 1976). This was later adapted by other organisations such as the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) and the Disabled People’s International (DPI) (Barnes, 1997). Eventually, this new understanding of disability became known as the ‘Social Model’ of Disability (Oliver, 1996a). Disability theory will be discussed further in my literature review (Chapter 3) with an analysis of both the medical and social models of Disability.

3.0 Literature Review

3.1 Introduction

3.2 Disability and Impairment: Key terms in the debate

‘Disability’ is difficult to conceptualise because of its multi-dimensional and complex nature. The term can be used in many different contexts and from different perspectives which means there is little consensus on its definition (Altman, 2001). Classifications associated with a medical model of disability are based on a distinction between ‘impairment’ ‘disability’ and ‘handicap’ impairment is defined as functional limitations to do with the body, disability is when an individual cannot function normally because if this impairment, and handicap refers to an inability to participate in social life (Oliver, 1990). The main problem with such classifications is that the individual impairment is considered to be the most important factor and reinforces an ‘individual definition in which functional limitations predominate. Thus, disability is viewed in terms of an individual’s personal inability to function’ (Barton, 1993 pg. 237). This model has had a powerful influence in shaping not just social policy, but societal attitudes and behavior.

In reality, many disabled people have rejected this understanding of disability. Instead ‘disability’ refers to failures in the structural environment to meet the needs of all individuals. The Disabled People’s International (1981) put forward the following definition which better fits the views of disabled people.

Impairment is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment.

Disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers.

In relation to my content analysis research, I will be looking to identify how disability is conceptualised and the type of language used both in The Sun and Ouch!

3.3 The Language of Disability

‘The first and most important thing to remember about discussions of language and disability is that they arise because disabled people experience discrimination daily and are denied the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the population. Apart from the fact that words can be deeply hurtful to disabled individuals, they have power and are used extensively to justify oppression’ (Barnes, 1993, pg 8).

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

The power of language is a significant topic of discussion in the area of disability studies. While we assume that the primary purpose of language is to aid communication, Oliver (1994, pg. 4) argues that it is also about ‘politics, domination and control’ and I am inclined to agree. The development of language is not based on consensus of meaning but rather through the ability of some groups to force their meaning and understanding of others. This form of ‘cultural domination’ is visible in many forms, the imposition of the spoken word on deaf people and sexist language directed at women are both suitable examples (Oliver, 1989, pg.1). The misconceptions that society has of disability are caused as well reinforced by the use of disablist language. Many of the abusive terms directed at disabled people are well circulated and familiar to most of the population. ‘moron’ ‘cripple’ ‘spastic’ ‘idiot’ ‘mong’ ‘dwarf’ ‘midget’ ‘lunatic’ the list is endless (Clark and Marsh, 2002). This kind of terminology has the power to promote prejudice and discrimination against disabled people. As mentioned in the previous section (3.2) the DPI re-defined impairment and disability in line with the reality that disability is rooted in social injustice. This means that the language used by both the media and wider society ought to reflect a social model of disability in which society discriminates against those who do not conform to the ideals of an able-bodied society. Disablist language such as ‘the disabled’ or ‘people with disabilities’ are unacceptable yet commonly used by the press and the population generally. Individuals do not have disabilities, they have impairments. Phrases such as ‘the disabled’ objectify the individual and impose a particular label on their identity which is based solely on their impairment. ‘Disabled people’ as opposed to ‘people with disabilities’ is more appropriate as it implies that the disability belongs to society, whereas the latter makes it the property of the person (Barnes, 1991 and 1992). Within the British press, the aforementioned terms, particularly ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ are used regularly. This is usually within a sentimental and patronising context. For example stories in which disabled individuals display ‘bravery’ despite of their disability or ‘handicap’ or instances where individuals have made personal scarifies to help a disabled individual or group. These generally involve the use of emotive language, such as ‘wheelchair bound’ ‘afflicted’ ‘sufferer’ ‘victim’ and so on (Barnes, 1991).

To summarise, much of the language that is used in discussions of disability are based on an individualistic/medical understanding of the nature of disability. They are not developed from the experiences of disabled people, but rather from the perceptions of others. While conducting my study I will be interested to see which kinds of terminology and language are used in the newspaper articles from my sample.

3.4 Disability Theory: the Medical model and the Social model

The medical model of disability has formed the basis of commonsense assumptions and beliefs about the nature of disability. This perspective focuses on the individual and his or her impairment. It ‘imposes a presumption of biological or physiological inferiority upon disabled persons’ (Hahn, 1985). Medical views attribute physical and intellectual impairments as constituting disability, while denying its social and political nature. Oliver (1983 and 1996a) prefers the term ‘individual model’ and argues that medicalisation is one element of this, along with psychological aspects. Medical accounts amount to a personal tragedy theory of disability (Oliver, 1990 and Finkelstein, 1980) in which disability simply ‘happens’ to individuals and is personal to them, it implies that any difficulties are a direct result of impairments (Finkelstein, 1993) this forms the basis of everyday beliefs. In terms of rehabilitation, emphasis has been placed on functional limitations of an individual and ‘attempts to find ways of preventing, curing or (failing these) caring for disabled people’ (Marks cited in Williams, 2001 pg 125).

As mentioned throughout this dissertation, this way of understanding disability has been heavily criticised by disabled people and disability has been re-conceptualised as a social and political problem through the work of disabled groups in the 1960’s (Barnes, 1997). Disability theory has roughly been divided into American and British contributions. I will briefly outline the work of American sociologists, however I am more concerned with the work of British authors as it better relates to my dissertation and it’s theoretical standpoint. American writers during the 1960’s challenged the idea that individual medical conditions or impairments were the cause of disability. Goffman (1963) discuses the role of ‘stigma’ in ‘spoiling’ (pg. 15) a person’s social identity, one of the forms of stigma he identifies derives from physical abnormalities. He also identifies that disability is socially constructed and concludes that the attitudes of professional contributes to experiences of disability. Stone (cited in Barnes, 1997) argues that the social construction of disability is based on the power of the sate in restricting welfare to those who require it. The importance of work and production in industrialised society has meant that those who are unable to participate are in need of assistance from the state, who along with medical professionals, are able to define disability as an individual problem and determine the level of access to welfare and other state services. Other writers, notably Albrecht (cited in Barnes, 1997) point out that disability has been ‘controlled and transformed into commercial enterprise’ (pg. 6) he claims that societies produce different forms of illness, impairment and disability. The ways in which these are interpreted is dependent on economic factors he argues. American functionalist/interactionist accounts of disability are derivative of Parsonian ideas and focus on the role of being ‘sick’ which is expected of disabled people and considered to be a form of deviance (Oliver, 1996b). The liberal values that exist in an industrial (and post- industrial) society place importance on personal responsibility and a strong work ethic, deviancy is created when an individual is unable to conform to these ideals. Writers have also argued that people with impairments are dependent on medical professionals who ‘assist in the psychological accommodation of a ‘disabled’ identity’ (pg. 21) and provide rehabilitation. The main criticisms made of the American tradition are that they over look the significance of social and economic factors central to experiences of disability. They also fail to take into account the perspectives of disabled people themselves, both these points form the main focus of British writers which I will turn to next.

British theorists have been much more critical in their assessments of disability and have explicitly expressed their arguments about the oppression, prejudice and discrimination that many disabled people encounter on a routine basis. A number of writers have approached disability in society through a materialist or Marxist analysis, focusing on economic and political factors. Others have highlighted the importance of the subjective experiences of disability and the role of culture. References have been made to the importance of gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality and other social factors which shape individual understandings of disability (Barnes, 1997). Theorists who use a materialist framework claim that oppression is caused by economic structures. The lives of disabled people have little value in a capitalist society as they are deemed unable to contribute to economic and social life (Riddell, 1996). Finkelstein (1980) identifies three phases in history with regard to societal reaction to impairment . In the first, ‘pre-industrial’ phase people with impairments were not excluded from economic life and the notion of disability did not exist. This was because work was subsistence based and aimed at providing basic food and amenities for survival. Communities needed all the labour they could get from its members (Barnes and Mercer, 2003). The second phase was that of industrial capitalism during the 19th century, both Oliver (1990) and Finkelstein (1980) argue that during this time Disability developed along side capitalist production and free market enterprise. The rise of factory production and the intense levels of speed and control involved meant that disabled workers were not welcome in the work place. Processes of urbanisation created fragmented communities and weakened family networks. The growth of towns and cities to house the work force were geographically and structurally inadequate for disabled people and contributed to their segregation from wider society and the introduction of residential institutions (Barnes and Mercer, 2003). For Finkelstein, it was at this point that people with impairments became a distinctly oppressed group, he argues that in phase the use of technology and the activism of disabled people will end oppression and disability will cease to be viewed in individualistic or medical terms (Barnes, 1997). Perhaps the growth of the internet and websites like BBC Ouch! mark the beginning of this phase. Oliver (1990) also discusses capitalism and disability, he applies Marxist ideas about the power of ideology to argue that the values which form the basis of social practice and culture conceptualised disability as a ‘personal tragedy’ and aided the development of the individual model.

Critics of Finkelstein and Oliver’s materialist analyses of disability argue that they over look the individual experiences of disability, rather than treat disabled people as a homogenous group. The social model needs to be reconceptualised with this in mind and from a postmodernist perspective which recognises diversity (Shakespeare, 1994, Morris, 1991, Crow, 1992). These writers discuss the prejudiced attitudes towards disabled people through culture, as material explanations fall short in explaining why discrimination exists and how disablist culture produces it. *incomplete*

3.5 Media representation of Disability and effects on the audience

The stereotypical portrayal of disabled people within popular culture is one of the most significant factors contributing to the discrimination of disabled people. Hunt (1966) argues that disabled people represent an ‘other’ in society and pose a threat to the able-bodied values entrenched in its structure. He describes this threat as being divided into five forms, as ‘unfortunate, useless, different, oppressed and sick’ (pg. 146). Disabled people are considered ‘unfortunate’ because of the belief that they are unable to lead a full life. They are ‘useless’ because they cannot contribute economically, ‘different’ because they do not conform to ‘normal’ expectations of a human being and ‘marked out as members of a minority group’ (pg. 150). Finally, they are ‘oppressed and sick’ because they do not fit in, ‘for the able-bodied, normal world we are representations of many of the things they most fear- tragedy, loss, dark and the unknown… contact with us throws up in people’s faces the fact of sickness and death in the world’ (pg. 155-156). Hunt’s arguments about the way disability is understood in western culture are applicable today in studying the misconceptions which are reproduced by the media. As discussed in Chapter Two, such misconceptions stem from the beliefs and practices of the past and have become firmly ingrained within society. Disablist attitudes become normalised through a process of social learning (Barnes, 1991) however, the extent and nature of this process is open to debate and many argue that there is no real way of knowing how he media influences perception. There have been many studies which have investigated the cultural portrayals of disability, some examples follow.

3.5.1 ‘Disabling imagery and the media’ by Colin Barnes.

The focus of this study is the portrayal of disabled people in the media and its stereotypical nature. Using secondary data from the content analysis studies of various organizations, Barnes (1992) identifies several stereotypes of disabled people produced within the media. These are: the disabled person as ‘pitiable and pathetic’ as ‘an object of violence’ as ‘sinister and evil’ as ‘atmosphere or curio’ as ‘super cripple’ as ‘an object of ridicule’ as ‘their own worst enemy’ as ‘a burden’ as ‘sexually abnormal’ , as ‘incapable of participating in community life’ and as ‘normal’ (Barnes, 1992, pg 3). Rather than focus on particular aspects of the media, Barnes chose to study all aspects of the media, including the press, radio, television, books and so on. He argues that media depictions of disability contribute to experiences of discrimination in a significant way. He goes on to reiterate that the poverty experienced by disabled people cannot be explained by the traditional model which suggests individual physical or intellectual limitations to be the root cause. It is caused by ‘reactive environments and disabling barriers. Thus ‘disability’ refers to a complex system of social constraints imposed on disabled people by a highly discriminatory society’ (Barnes, 1992, pg. 5). As mentioned in Chapter T7wo, stereotypical assumptions about disability stem from the beliefs and practices of earlier times, they are embedded in the very structure of society and are expressed in all institutions- ed


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: