Mythbuster 11: Disabling the Myths in the Media

Many people from all walks of life are bitter and angry at the world, some people like to sit behind a computer and type abuse, some like to hit other people’s children running around shops, others prefer to throw cats in wheelie bins. If movies are anything to go by however, you would think that disabled people were disproportionally bitter, angry, evil and bent on taking over the world. Films are littered with examples of evil masterminds. You can’t think of Bond villains without thinking of hooks and eyepatches. Darth Vader, who required a mechanical breathing device, cut off his own son’s right hand then invited him to rule over the galaxy. Captain Hook is questionably one of the most famous disabled characters – a widely feared villainous pirate captain of the Jolly Roger brig and lord of the pirate village/harbour in Neverland. He has become both a negative stereotype of disabled people and presumably an inspiration to many Somali pirates. As one disabled writer put it ‘Imperfect bodies have always been associated with imperfect morals‘.

In his 1991 study, Paul Hunt identified 10 stereotypes that the media use to portray disabled people:

1. The disabled person as pitiable or pathetic
2. An object of curiosity or violence
3. Sinister or evil
4. The super cripple
5. As atmosphere
6. Laughable
7. His/her own worst enemy
8. As a burden
9. As non-sexual
10. Being unable to participate in daily life

A photo of the handicapped sign
Handicapped Accessible sign

Disabled people have also been used as the butt of the joke in many films. This began in Thomas Edison’s fifty second ‘The Fake Beggar’ – a 1898 film considered to be the first addressing disabilities, in which a man pretends to be blind in order to collect some extra money. Movies have continued to milk puns and laughs from disabilities. The 1999 movie ‘Wild Wild West’ features a villain missing his bottom half. James West (played by Will Smith) in a conversation with him jokes: ‘when a fella comes back from the dead I find that an occasion to stand up’, ‘I can see where it would be difficult for a man of your stature to keep in touch with even half the people you know’ and ‘you know beautiful women; they encourage you one minute and cut the legs out from under you the next.’ Dr. Laurence Clark writes: ‘With such discriminatory comedic material as part of our culture, it is little wonder that… there are still so few disabled actors on television, and disabled characters are still predominantly played by non-disabled actors.’

When it comes to tabloids reporting on disabled people or issues there are two concerns. The first, is the patronising language used – ‘you’re so brave for not being like us’, or ‘this person has done something incredible… despite being in a wheelchair.’ A 2001 Scope article highlighted a continuing trend of newspapers portraying disabled people as sufferers of their own impairment. The article quotes examples from a regional newspaper which includes the words: sufferer, courageous, condition, deterioration, plight, brave and normal (as in ‘a normal school’). This kind of negative language can reinforce discrimination, devalue disabled people and create a negative self-image.

A man with an above the knee amputation doing excercises
A man with an above the knee amputation exercises while wearing a prosthetic leg


At the same time, newspapers have been known to associate disabled people with words such as welfare, benefits, scroungers and frauds – i.e. ‘Blind man with 12 children from 15 mothers claimed £200,000 a year whilst working as bus driver’ (I may have made that headline up). But in February, the Daily Mail quoting unnamed ‘government sources’, claimed:

The great disability benefit free-for-all: Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility

After appeals to the Press Complaints Commission, the newspaper republished the article together with a letter from the Disability Alliance and a number of disability charities contesting the Mail’s account. Publishing misleading headlines, questionable statistics and sprawling benefit fraudsters across front pages with assertions that they are representative of a much wider group has only served to increase prejudice against the disabled.

Programmes including ‘Little Britain’ may have helped reinforce stereotypes of people pretending to be disabled, and programmes such as ‘The Office’ featuring a disabled character also played by a disabled actor (Julie Fernandez) are rare.

A photo of wheelchair basketball
Wheelchair basketball at the 2008 Summer Paralympics


The Paralympics used to be like a parent having to watch their unloved less important child perform after their high-achieving brother. Last year, Lord Burns, the Channel 4 chairman designate was quoted as saying: ‘For Channel 4, the London Paralympic Games will be the main event, not a sideshow to the Olympics; the Games will define our year in 2012 and take over Channel 4 for their duration’.

But not everyone was so happy, disabled actor and stand-up comedian Liz Carr dubbed the paralympic games – ‘inspirational porn’. Explaining she said:

‘What we mean by this is the way in which the athletes are going to be seen not as whole people, but as supermen and women, only reflected through the prism of this one aspect of their lives.’

Some people are weary of the media portraying paralympians as superhuman. Paraplegic athletes can race at super-speeds but still face barriers getting down an escalator to board an inaccessible tube train. The stereotype of the ‘supercrip’ Liz argues is no more real than the victim or the scrounger image.

Media portrayals of disabled people has largely conformed to stereotypes. Some suggest decision makers may feel that they are taking a risk by portraying disabled people outside of the stereotypes which have traditionally ‘sold well’. It is still all too rare that the media employs real disabled people or features examples of people with disabilities as providers of expertise, services and support for their families /communities or as having the same experiences, talents and emotions as everyone else. Media often provides people with an insight into the lives of others and shapes their perceptions and attitude towards these groups, which is why shows such as ‘The Last Leg’ and ‘The Office’ have been so groundbreaking and need to continue.


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