The way to media that mirror disability-inclusive aspects of society

Mental health

Psychiatric Disability Organisation CEO Iregi Mwenja (holding a laptop) with participants at a mental health wellbeing awareness workshop in Nakuru County on April 18.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Disability groups have throughout history relentlessly pushed for better coverage of their issues in the media.
  • Visible or physical disabilities receive more than twice as much coverage as invisible ones, such as intellectual disabilities.

In his famous 1922 book Public Opinion, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann examined the role of the media in shaping public opinion. While pointing out that one gets facts in news more than truth, he noted that stereotypes play a huge role in how news is presented. This then skews public opinion as regards a given topic. 

A century later, this strongly resonates with how the media covers persons with disabilities (PWDs). Disability groups have throughout history relentlessly pushed for better coverage of their issues in the media. Colin Barnes, university professor, leading activist and renowned disability studies scholar, in his study, “Disabling imagery and the media”, identified various stereotypes media give to PWDs. They’re presented as pitiable, unable to take part wholly in life, sexually abnormal, super cripple, bitter cripple, and so on.

In Kenya, a 2018 study by Mauryne Abwao of Southern Illinois University showed that 18 per cent of media disability stories label PWDs as stigmatised and marginalised, social pathology (as seeking aid) at 13 per cent and medical (viewed as an illness) at 12 per cent. Visible or physical disabilities receive more than twice as much coverage as invisible ones, such as intellectual disabilities. This further marginalises those with disabilities not immediately apparent or observable.

The study also says PWDs largely feature only during commemoration of disability-related days, when seeking medical support or having made achievements. But this does not signal a lack of experts with disabilities who are worthy of getting covered. Predictably, a PWD presumes that any call for a media interview has to be about their disability.

However, the media isn’t entirely an absent player in the disability movement; it plays a crucial awareness and advocacy role as PWDs have for a long time been disenfranchised. Unfortunately, over time, such stories create an over-representation of the subjects’ disabilities and little about their other socioeconomic capabilities and potential.

But stereotypes are difficult to uproot. Research by the US Geena Davis Institute on top 100 US movies of 2019 that also usually hit the global audience showed eight per cent of them had lead characters who had disabilities — a historic peak, having stagnated at one per cent over the previous 10 years. But they were more likely to die (20 per cent) than those not disabled (12 per cent) and to be rescued, at 34 per cent, against 21 per cent.

Disability-inclusive society

How many times have you come across a movie scene where a character with disability has a villain role, or watched an African film where a person is ‘supernaturally’ punished with blindness for a wrong they did?

There is a lot of work to be done. The stereotypes hamper fair coverage of disability matters. This is where the media comes in — to help promote a disability-inclusive society through mirroring an all-round perspective of what the world of disability entails.

First, we should mainstream disability in our media houses by employing PWDs. That will diversify story ideas and shape editorial decisions on how PWDs are covered. Also, tapping into experts and opinion shapers who are PWDs goes a long way towards changing the public perception of them from people in need of help to crucial and productive members of our socioeconomic society.

Second, mainstreaming will change the language in disability stories. While phrases such as ‘persons living with disabilities’ and ‘the disabled’ sound disarming, they actually promote stigmatisation. To PWDs, they present the disability as a side-burden. The portrayal of PWDs as achieving ‘unexpected’ success feeds into the ‘super cripple’ stereotype, excessively praised over relatively usual feats. 

Finally, creating specialised desks in our newsrooms will spearhead the disability agenda greatly and ensure a steady flow of related stories to firmly place it in the national dialogue. In a bid to promote women empowerment, some media houses have established gender desks manned by gender editors to help mainstream gender equality.

Through changing the lens of disability coverage, we will avoid what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi called the “danger of a single story”. That stereotypes not only erode equality but also put heavy stress on what differentiates us and little on what we share.

Mr Hassan is the chief executive officer, National Council for Persons with Disabilities. [email protected]