Media Stereotypes of Persons with Disabilities

Posted: September 25, 2011 in disabilities, media portrayals, stereotypes
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Cover of "Elephant Man"

Cover of Elephant Man

“It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”

— Stephen Hawking

A 1991 Louis Harris poll showed that Americans surveyed were less likely to feel awkward around people with disabilities after having viewed fictional television and movie presentations about people with disabilities. Similarly, Dillon, Byrd and Byrd concluded that television might be an instrument that can change attitudes toward people with disabilities. Such findings compel advocacy groups to become extremely concerned with mass media depictions because of their potential to demean them in the eyes of others.

Unfortunately, as with many underrepresented groups, people with disabilities are often invisible or misrepresented in the media. According the 2003 U.S. Census, 27.4% of the population has a disability. That includes the 4.8% with an intellectual disability. Yet characters with disabilities are often depicted as demonic, helpless and long-suffering. Writers include such characterizations i to depict another character’s goodness and sensitivity. For example The Elephant Man, a hugely successful stage play and film, recounts the tale of how a man of ‘normal’ intelligence but with profoundly ‘abnormal’ physical features, is first kept captive in a fairground freak show and later rescued and ‘cared’ for by Sir Frederick Treves, an able-bodied member of the Victorian middle class. Media portray the disabled person as especially endearing to elicit even greater feelings of sentimentality as opposed to genuine compassion.

Other examples include Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol and Porgy in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (Barnes, 1992). According to Riley (2005), this cliché plays well with a general audience, but such narratives, driven by prejudice and pity, highlight the importance of “fixing” the disability and rendering the “sufferer” as normal as possible. These stories are deeply offensive to persons with disabilities (Riley, 2005).

Television shows are particularly guilty of perpetuating the “Supercrip” stereotype. Clogston (1990) defined a ‘Supercrip’ this way: media portray the disabled person as deviant because of “superhuman” feats or as “special” because they live regular lives “in spite of” disability. African-American males fitting this description were a popular feature in the early 2000s. For example, one of the main characters on Malcolm in the Middle, a seven-time Emmy-winning show, featured Stevie, an African-American character who is a wheelchair user and had severe asthma and only one lung, causing him to have difficulty speaking. Stevie was best friends with the lead character, Malcolm, and outsmarted him on numerous occasions, which demonstrated his unusual intelligence. The critically acclaimed American sitcom broadcast from 2000 to 2006.

In another example, Lizzie McGuire, a Disney Channel Original Series that aired on the Disney Channel from 2001 – 2004, featured Lanny Onasis who never spoke on-screen, choosing to express himself through facial gestures and body language. However, his best friend, Matt, had no problem communicating with him. He appeared very patient and caring toward his sidekick. The TV show became the channel’s flagship and definitive show of the early 2000s. Becker is another example. The American television sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2004 on CBS starred Ted Danson as the title character, Dr. John Becker, a doctor who operates a small practice and is constantly annoyed by his patients, co-workers and friends. Jake Malinak–portrayed a blind man who was Becker’s best friend. Jake is blind following a car accident several years before. His talent is the power of discernment. He is almost able to read people’s minds and serves as a counselor and pal to his peers.

While positive to a certain extent, such roles reinforce the idea that disabled people are deviant—that the person’s accomplishments are “amazing” for someone who is less than complete.

Similarly, news coverage of people with disabilities is often disappointing. People with disabilities whether physical or mental are frequently ignored by the media (Edmonds, 2005). When they are not ignored, they are usually written about as people to be either mocked or pitied. Reporters often discuss their problems and issues with doctors, government authorities and others without ever speaking to disabled people themselves, so they have little idea what those affected are feeling and thinking about their own situation. While many reporters use ‘neutral’ terminology such as ‘people with disabilities ‘ or ‘disabled people’, their reports still have an unmistakably sentimental tone because they insist on referring to disabled people as ‘plucky’, ‘brave’, ‘courageous’, ‘victims’ or ‘unfortunate.’

In response to these discrepancies, the Media Diversity Institute’s “Reporting Diversity Guide” offers a comprehensive manual for journalists and trainers. It includes a ‘Disabled People’ section that provides tips on reporting on people with disabilities and case studies of two articles on this theme from Serbia and the United States (MDI, 2002). Perhaps portrayals will become better in the future.

Suggested citation: Moody, M. (2011). Media Stereotypes of Persons with Disabilities. Media Studies Overview. Accessed via

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