Barnes (1992) argues that mass media representations of disability have
generally been oppressive and negative. People with disabilities are rarely
presented as people with their own identities. Barnes notes several common
media representations of people with disabilities.
- In need of pity and charity – Barnes claims that this stereotype has grown in popularity in recent years because of television appeals such as Children in Need.
- As victims – Barnes found that when people with disabilities are featured in television drama, they are three times more likely than able-bodied characters to be killed off.
- As villains – people with disabilities are often portrayed as criminals or monsters, e.g. villains in James Bond films often have a physical impairment.
- As super-cripples – Barnes notes that people with disabilities are often portrayed as having special powers or as overcoming their impairment and poverty. In Hollywood films, the impaired male body is often visually represented as a perfect physical specimen in a wheelchair. Ross notes that disability issues have to be sensational, unexpected or heroic in order to be interpreted by journalists as newsworthy and reported on.
- As a burden – television documentaries and news features often focus on carers rather than the people with disabilities.
- As sexually abnormal – it is assumed by media representations that people with disabilities do not have sexual feelings or that they are sexually degenerate.
- As incapable of participating fully in community life – Barnes calls this the stereotype of omission and notes that people with disabilities are rarely shown as integral and productive members of the community such as students, teachers or parents.
- As ordinary or normal – Barnes argues that the media rarely portray people with disabilities as normal people who just happen to have a disability. They consequently fail to reflect the real, everyday experience of disability.
Roper (2003) suggests that mass media representations of disability on telethons can create problems for people with disabilities and suggests that telethons over-rely on ‘cute’ children who are not that representative of the range of people with disabilities in Britain. Roper argues that telethons are primarily aimed at encouraging the general public to alleviate their guilt and their relief that they are not disabled, by giving money rather than informing the general public of the facts about disability.
Karpf (1988) suggests that there is a need for charities, but that telethons act to keep the audience in the position of givers and to keep recipients in their place as grateful and dependent. Karpf notes that telethons are about entertaining the public, rather than helping us to understand the everyday realities of what it is like to have a disability. Consequently, these media representations merely confirm social prejudices about people with disabilities, e.g. that they are dependent on the help of able-bodied people.