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The consensus: should we blame TV for the 'disability problem'?

by Ouch Team

25th August 2006

Q: To what extent is TV to blame for the inequality of disabled people in the UK today?

The 2006 Edinburgh Television Festival is held this week. One of its workshops entitled 'The boy with an arse for a face' asks whether the trendy 'Freak TV' extreme documentary approach helps promote the understanding of disabled people.
It's often felt that if TV got portrayal and representation of disabled people right more often, then public perceptions would change across the board hence helping disabled people move on in life. But is it as easy as that? Is TV really a big part of the 'disability problem'? After all, everyone knows a disabled person so - no matter how bad the portrayals are - how can this shake someone's personal experiences?

We asked 11 prominent peple with a stakehold in disability what their thoughts were and, as you'll see below, there is a general consensus that the television industry needs to buck up its act. We gave each of them the same question: "To what extent is TV to blame for the inequality of disabled people in the UK today?" Here are their responses.
Old fashioned TV set

Maggie Gibbons, Chief Executive of Mental Health Media

"The fundamental issue has got to be the unfairness and prejudice we come up against in our real lives, not on TV. But most people look to the media for their information, so broadcasters and programme-makers have a huge role to play in creating a climate which makes discrimination unacceptable and being open less risky. We’re not there yet.

"That said, TV's always competing for our attention, so programme-makers look for compelling and interesting stories. This is good news for us, as long as they’re responsibly and sensitively told."

Miro Griffiths, chair person of the Whizz Kidsz 'kidz board' user group.

"TV is the biggest factor in the inequality we have to face. I'm 17. I have a very independent lifestyle. I go to the pub, I aspire to go to university, I work; this is a typical lifestyle. You could pick any able-bodied person off the street and they'd be like me.

"But looking at the typical portrayal of a disabled person , you'd think what the hell have they done? Viewers may think this is the norm. People on the street are astonished at what I do because of the lack of good representation on TV ... if TV changed, misunderstandings would disappear."

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, whose office is responsible for Liberty, Europe's biggest disability festival

"Media representation has a fundamental impact on our lives. The absence and misrepresentation of disabled and Deaf people on our television screens, in our cinemas, on the pages of our newspapers reflects the reality of our society, which continues to exclude disabled people from the mainstream.

"Only when disabled people are seen as equal contributors to our diverse society will we begin to start changing a culture, which continues to stereotype and demonise the difference of impairment"

Laurence Clark, disabled comedian.

"Everyone from politicians to your local newsagent watches telly - don't try telling me their decision-making isn't influenced by regularly watching programmes where, to all extent and purposes, we don't exist!

"The day we get a regular disabled adult character on Eastenders, played by a disabled actor, who gets all the same stuff to do as any other character (working on a market stall, drinking in the Vic, having sex with Pat Butcher etc) will be the day that attitudes really start to change!"

Paul Darke, academic and curator of

"Blame: No! Perpetuate: Yes! Television reinforces ignorance and, in relation to disability, there is a lot of ignorance to reinforce.

"Television, like 'New Labour', glows in the reflection from its shiny and superficial surfaces unable to see or address complexity or difference.

"Television tries to make everything as it is: pretty and, if possible, popular. Disability is the opposite: real, gritty and complex. And, like most real things, a little ugly. Only the freak, or the parody of the normal, is allowed."

"Television is made by people - the new empire builders of the elite - who fail to address the complexity of all cultures and whom are seemingly only capable of exploiting it. Why should disability be any different?

"Television could be at the vanguard of challenging the status quo of oppression of all peoples but that is unlikely: advertisers tend not to like their ads undermined (even it is just an ad for the dream life of sit-com domesticity)."

Donna Franceschild - scriptwriter, activist and regular jury member for the annual Mental Health Media Awards.

"I am fond of quoting a study done by the Glasgow Media Group in the early 90s. Those surveyed who had personal experience, still felt peple with mental illness were dangerous. Their favourite auntie who couldn't stop washing her hands was harmless but everyone else was scary or 'out to lunch'. They believed what they'd seen in TV and media even though it was contrary to their own experience.

"Those of us who work in TV have a responsibility to respond to that. We have in our hands the power to heal and the power to destroy. "

Bert Massie, Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

"Television cannot compensate for the ills of society but it can certainly do more to ensure that the window on the world it transmits is real and representative. In this respect disabled people are largely invisible not just in programming and casting matters, but even in having their lives and issues covered in the main news bulletins.

"There is a real potential though with the digital switch over to exploit the expansion in programming that will accompany it by making new programmes, and even new channels that could engage with impairment groups and correct these failings in visibility and recognition."

Anne McGuire, Minister for Disabled People

"Although nearly 1 in 5 of the population in Great Britain is disabled or has a limiting, longstanding illness, they are hugely under-represented in mainstream media with Ofcom reporting that only 1% of the people appearing on TV were disabled in the last year.

"The government recently launched a new website ( which aims to tackle this under-representation in government communications and advertising.

"Television is powerful in influencing people's understanding and opinions about disabled people - as can be seen by the increase in coverage of Tourette's Syndrome as a result of Pete being in Big Brother. Disabled people have been marginalised for far too long. By involving them more in programme-making and by seeing them more commonly and accurately portrayed in the media on an everyday basis, we see a more realistic reflection of society." "

David Greenhalgh, editor of <a href="">Disability Films</a>

"Such forms of disability which previously featured in circuses and sideshows have now become the subject of television programmes allowing us to stare as much as we want though they are disguised as learning programmes.

"If the media has been a part of the changing profile of women and ethic minorities then this may happen with disabled people. But for example the status of black people in the U.S.A. was I believe most dramatically changed by the American army which had previously been segregated and made positive steps towards integration. "

Nicola Smith, Co-national Director: learning disabilities, Dept. Health (Learning Disability Tsar)

"TV can be dangerous because it can give the wrong message across. They should make sure that people and organisations who know about people get consulted at the beginning and that in those programmes we can just be ourselves. I think more disabled people should go on TV and work alongside normal actors, whatever normal is.

"I feel that people with Learning Disabilities and other disabilities are sometimes not given the chance to be an individual on TV. They are often given a general label of being a disabled person before they are thought of as an individual."

Colin Barnes, Professor of Disability Studies, University of Leeds

"To understand the portrayal of disability and disabled people on television it is important to remember that modern society is clustered around a particular set of values that in various ways discriminate against anyone with an impairment or long term health condition ...

"It is inevitable therefore that negative stereotypes of disabled people abound in all media including television. Although this is still a problem I think the situation has improved somewhat since 1992 when I researched this topic for the British Council of Disabled People.

"However, portraying disability in a positive light is equally problematic as the overwhelming majority of disabled people do not identify as, or look, 'disabled' ...

"Moreover, regular viewers whether disabled or otherwise tend to look to television for entertainment rather than education, and do not want to be reminded of theirs, or others, disadvantage. Given the increasing competition within television this has to be a major concern for everyone working in this increasingly diverse medium. "

Michael Shamash - Academic, journalist and former head of the Restricted Growth Association

"It is too simplistic to blame television as the source of disabled people’s inequality. Television reflects disabled people’s low profile in society. However it also reinforces negative perceptions and it should be doing much more to change them. People of restricted growth are still seen as comical.

"The number of people with impairments on television is still very limited with the focus is on the disability. To challenge inequality television needs to utilise our talents and not view us as a problem."
What do you think? Add your comments below.
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