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The importance of the representation of people with disability in all aspects of the media is specifically recognised in Article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Its importance lies in more than merely “raising awareness” of disability – it is about helping to overcome barriers and discrimination presented by historic stereotypes and associated prejudice.
But how can the media help to achieve human rights for people with disability? The media is a vehicle for mass communication and in that sense it has the potential to shape attitudes to disability at both an individual and cultural level, particularly where it challenges able-bodied perspectives of disability, amplifies the voices of people with disability and portrays people with disability authentically and as equal citizens entitled to participate fully in every sphere of life. In essence, the media, like the education sector, has a critical role in the achievement of social and economic inclusion for people with disability.
The media is a vehicle for mass communication and in that sense it has the potential to shape attitudes to disability at both an individual and cultural level.
Viola Davis recently became the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for best lead actress in a television drama series. Her acceptance speech raised the larger subject of diversity in Hollywood:
“‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.‘
That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people … who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. …”
Without addressing the quality of roles, the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that in 2014-15 African-American women have approximately 13% of female television roles in the US market.
Without wishing to undermine Viola Davis’ important point, it’s worth reflecting on the same lack of opportunity afforded to people with disability in all forms of the media – by comparison to which the degree of opportunity for female African-American actresses seems almost impressive.
Actors with disability very rarely appear on television or film – the most recent GLAAD report “Where We Are on TV” in fact revealed that the percentage and number of series regulars with disability on American television has dropped for the first time in two years, to 0.9% or eight characters with a disability, compared to 1.4% of characters last year and 1% the year before.
Even when there are characters with disability, they are frequently played by non-disabled actors. Further, parts involving characters with disability are usually one-dimensional portrayals often focussing on how others feel about the disability – either from an “inspiration” angle – the character inspiring others for “overcoming” the disability – or from a “pity” angle – the character being “limited” by the disability and the subject of the pity of others. Rarely, is the role of a character with disability three-dimensional – about them as a character in their own right, reflecting an authentic story.
Similarly, although models with disability are increasingly being seen, particularly in social media, they remain a negligible percentage of the modelling world. There is resistance at many levels in the media to people with disability. The advertising world is still very much tied to young flawless able-bodied models – sales and revenue is said to be maximised by consumers seeing products associated with people that they would like to be. Does the industry or the consumer drive that desire to see a narrow and largely unrealistic aesthetic represented?
There is resistance at many levels in the media to people with disability.
The film industry is also finding it difficult to expand its concept of diversity – again, the financing of a venture is more secure and anticipated profits more certain if the film or show is based around known able-bodied actors and actresses. Again, does the industry or the consumer drive a narrow concept of diversity in film?
The advertising and film industries, in taking small steps in the right direction, are slowly beginning to realise that their target consumers and audience respectively include people with disability and those who are closely connected to people with disability – and that demographic is increasing in economic significance. It is estimated that approximately 20% of people have a disability – representing the largest minority group, cutting across all other major demographics such as age, gender and race.
The Starting With Julius project advocates for the equal and inclusive representation of people with disability in advertising and the media to stimulate cultural transformation for a world in which people with disability are recognised, respected and valued as equal citizens and as individuals who are part of a diverse society.
Starting With Julius’ mission includes working with the advertising and media industries to create opportunities for people with disability to be represented and participate in advertising and media, to improve the portrayal of disability and to guide the media’s use of language and its narrative about disability.
These goals are ambitious given the significant gulf between the dominant cultural perspective of disability reflected and reinforced by media, and the contemporary perspective underpinning the disability rights movement. This means that engaging with media doesn’t always produce the outcomes that are being sought and, more often than not, the messaging will still be “imperfect”. However, because media content is never “neutral”, not engaging is not an option.
Another important aspect is that the media will generally go for the “lowest hanging fruit” on the disability branch of the diversity tree, when they choose only to represent people with disability that approximate society’s norms of who is “worthy” both in terms of appearance, status or behaviour – i.e. the “cute” child, the conventionally attractive para-Olympian, the articulate professional.
Saying that, it is important to acknowledge that both the process for human learning and cultural change tend to move forward incrementally. That is, learning generally happens just ahead of where you are and if an idea is pitched too far ahead then it is less likely that it will be comprehended and learning is less effective or it simply doesn’t occur. What every civil rights movement in history has tended to show, despite its hope for or the recognised need for urgent change, is that in most cases cultural beliefs in particular won’t make a sudden leap - but having clarity about the end goals and the value propositions that underpin that movement is crucial to maintaining focus and encouraging and accelerating progress in the right direction. This means that even the media “picking” from the lowest branch has a role in cultural transformation because it sets the scaffolding for the media, and culture, to move higher and along the continuum of change.
Cultural beliefs won’t make a sudden leap – but having clarity about the end goals and the value propositions that underpin that movement is crucial to maintaining focus and encouraging and accelerating progress in the right direction.
However, this does not mean letting the media set the pace for change or compromising on values or urgency. It is vital to continue to encourage the media to reach higher and do better. This includes actively seeking to engage with and challenge advertisers, journalists, television producers and film studios about the portrayal of disability in mainstream advertising and media, forging alliances with advertising and media professionals who are willing to amplify the voices of people with disability and in particular seeking formal and ongoing commitments from media companies to the inclusion and authentic representation of people with disability in advertising and media.
As Viola Davis identified in her Emmy acceptance speech, the critical factor is “opportunity”. It is people with disability themselves who hold the greatest power to shift society’s thinking and the discriminatory burden of history but until they are given the opportunity to influence mainstream culture and help redefine society’s thinking about disability, deeply rooted cultural attitudes will remain entrenched and continue to undermine all efforts to achieve full inclusion and the other goals of the disability rights movement.
[Cover photo: Julius © eeni meeni miini moh]
Cátia Malaquias is a lawyer (LLB/BA), Director of Down Syndrome Australia, Deputy Chair of Down Syndrome WA and an active member of PLEDG, an organisation of parents of children with disability pursuing inclusive education for all children. She is also the founder of Starting With Julius, a project promoting the inclusion of people with disability in media and advertising.
As the mother of three children, one of whom has a disability, she aspires for all children to grow up in a world that respects their rights, embrace their diversity and includes them on an equal basis. Catia advocates for that change through her various roles and in her personal capacity, in the media, social media and public discussion spaces.