Yesterday I saw a commercial created by an organization from the disability community. The commercial depicts individuals of various ages, ethnicities, and abilities. A byline runs at the bottom of the screen that reads the persons’ names and their profession. The audience is challenged to look at persons with disabilities in a different way; to look beyond the lifeless metal and plastic. Viewers are challenged to permeate the socially constructed ‘perfection’ of able-bodiedness; to swallow a morsel of ‘awkwardness’ as possibly wholesome and good. Representation of persons with disabilities in the media of this nature is unfortunately revolutionary. I say ‘unfortunate’, because, this commercial follows relentless media portrayals of persons with disabilities within stereotypical contexts; weak and powerless victims who are objects of pity, humour, or ridicule.
1980s to mid-1990s: Charitable Organizations
Between the 1980s to mid-1990s, charities arguably served as the predominant platform from which persons with disabilities were represented in the media. Charities habitually represent persons with disabilities as being inherently damaged and that donations are integral for the future prosperity of ‘damaged goods’. Charities motivate the public to donate generously by depicting a person in ‘misery’ and ‘suffering’ as a result of their disability. An old Mencap poster depicts a ‘lost’ looking teenage boy dressed in a mechanic’s suit as he changes the wheel on a vehicle. The caption above the boy reads: ‘Who said he’s beyond repair?’ The poster compares the teenager to machinery and thereby destroys any human element that the young man could have conveyed towards the audience.
These portrayals misrepresent the true capabilities and experiences of persons with disabilities. These representations frame persons with disabilities as survivors of their tragic circumstances. And consequently, charitable donors will ‘give’ as much as they hope to ‘receive’ to insure one against the prospect of damage to their own body.
Disability is Natural
Disability is Natural (disabilityisnatural.com) aims to “encourage new ways of thinking about disability and to help create a society in which all people are valued and included”. The organization’s logo depicts a bowl of five apples. Four apples are red and the fifth apple is green. Disability is Natural asserts that “the sun shines equally on all apples in the bowl, and it’s time for the light of inclusion, opportunity, freedom, and dignity to shine equally on all people – including people with disabilities”. Disability is Natural does not portray persons with disabilities within stereotypical contexts of tragedy, inability, nor dependency. However, the charge that “the sun shines equally on all apples” is rather naïve. The sun does not shine equally on all persons. And the comparison of persons with disabilities to fruits/vegetables runs a little too parallel to the decades of segregation of persons with disabilities through discriminatory attitudes that label persons with disabilities as ‘unable’ and ‘vegetative’.
Despite which perspective the audience subscribes to, the multiplicity of viewpoints illustrates the extent to which disability issues are finally being represented in a much more progressive and inclusive fashion. However, what is deemed to be accurate today will likely become inaccurate tomorrow. Representations of persons with disabilities in the media must continue to be challenged if full inclusion of these persons will ever be attained and preserved.