Images of disability
As a society we are not especially inclusive. Until recently, the compulsory sector of education was organised around a system that segregated learners according to the nature of their impairment and sent them to special schools. The impact of segregated schooling was that at an important, formative stage in life, the majority of people did not encounter anyone with a disability. Since personal experience is lacking, information about disabilities comes via the mass media, whose portrayal of people with disabilities varies between a focus on the medical aspects of the impairment to the 'super crip' and the 'triumph over tragedy'.
Most people will have had little experience on a day-to-day basis of meeting disabled people. As the quote above suggests, the images we form about disabled people can be limited and based on other experiences such as their portrayal through mass media, particularly TV and film.
Colin Barnes (1992) has also written on this subject and defined the portrayals in mass media of disabled people into ten categories:
- 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 and only enemy;
- As burden;
- As sexually abnormal;
- As incapable of participating fully in community life;
- As normal.
...this guy came up to me... We were having a perfectly normal conversation about my job as Disabilities Officer and the comment, 'So sex is out of the question?' came into the equation, which just completely threw me. People, for some reason think that when you are disabled you are desperate for sex...
Anna, 3rd year, Applied Community Studies
Obvious examples from traditional sources include Shakespeare's Richard III, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Long John Silver from Treasure Island. However, more recent portrayals in the media reinforce these stereotypical categories. People with mobility impairments have featured in at least three UK TV soap operas since the nineties- e.g. Jim in Coronation Street, Chris Tate in Emmerdale and Nick Cotton in Eastenders.
In two of these examples the characters have been portrayed at some stage as 'sinister and evil' (Nick Cotton and Chris Tate) and in the third as 'their own worst enemy' (Jim, Coronation Street).