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Media portrayals of people with disabilities: Watching a film scene featuring a police officer in a wheelchair improves attitudes of the public

Authors of summary: Jan D. Reinhardt (Swiss Paraplegic Research)
Original article: Reinhardt JD, Pennycott A, Fellinghauer BA. Impact of a film portrayal of a police officer with spinal cord injury on attitudes towards disability: a media effects experiment. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2014;36(4):289-94.

Media portrayals of people with disabilities play an important role in forming attitudes of the general public. This study showed that a positive depiction of a person with paraplegia in an active role as a police detective improved peoples' ideas about the suitability of persons with paraplegia for employment.

What was the aim of this study?

Some recent studies show that media consumption can cultivate beliefs about reality, and this may be particularly true for those generations which have grown up with the television and online media culture. In addition, personal contacts and experiences with disabled persons are rather rare in the general population, so that the utilisation of unconscious media knowledge in the assessment of persons with disabilities and their roles in society is very likely. Disability is a common theme of many media productions, ranging from texts like Homer's "Ilias" and the Bible, modern novels such as "Moby Dick" and "Heidi" to films such as "Unbreakable", "Rain Man" and TV-series such as "House" and "Monk". In the past, media fiction has been criticised for depicting people with disabilities in a stereotypical and negative way, for instance as dependent on others, sexually abnormal, or evil. Positive media representations of persons with disabilities in common media roles such as doctors or police officers are rare.

This study examined whether a positive portrayal of a man with paraplegia as a police officer in an action scene would improve attitudes of people with and without disability regarding the suitability of persons with paraplegia for employment.

How did the researchers proceed?

480 study participants with and without disability were recruited on two occasions: In 2010, 376 subjects participated in an online assessment using the networks of the Swiss Paraplegics Association and the Centre for Independent Living Zurich as well as the private networks of the researchers. In addition, 104 additional participants were recruited at the 20th Anniversary Exposition of the Swiss Paraplegic Centre in 2011. All participants viewed a film scene featuring lead actor Sven Martinek in the TV-series "SOKO Rhein-Main" that was broadcasted in Germany in 2006/2007. In this action scene Martinek plays a police officer with paraplegia and arrests a man who robbed a taxi driver. Martinek actively uses his wheelchair to overpower the robber. The following questions were posed to the participants immediately before and after they watched the film scene:

  1. Please tell us in percentage terms (100% is the eligibility of a person without a disability) how eligible a person with paraplegia is for the following jobs: roofer, police officer, carpenter, teacher, physician, and clerk.
  2. What percentage of persons with disabilities living in Switzerland is in remunerative employment?
  3. What is, in percentage terms, the productivity of a 40-year-old man with paraplegia (corresponding to the featured detective) in comparison with a 40-year-old man without disability?

What did the researchers discover?

After having watched the film scene study participants without disabilities stated that a person with paraplegia was more suitable for employment than before the screening. Moreover, the estimates of the employment rate of persons with disabilities were significantly enhanced in non-disabled study participants after watching the film scene. Study participants with a disability, however, did not change their assessment. The productivity of a 40-year-old man with paraplegia was estimated to be slightly higher after the film and nearly up to 100% in both groups of study participants.

What do these findings mean?

In this study, it was demonstrated that portraying persons with paraplegia in positively connoted and active roles can improve the general public's attitudes regarding employment of persons with a physical disability. In conclusion,  it is desirable that the mass media more often feature persons with disabilities in positive and active roles. This may support their empowerment in real life. The above described film scene may serve as a positive example.

Who conducted and financed the study?

This study was funded by Swiss Paraplegic Research and conducted by researchers from Swiss Paraplegic Research, ETH Zurich, and students from the University of Lucerne.


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