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Media and Disability Identities

How do mass media impact the self-identity of people with disabilities?

Author of summary: Kit Wan Chui (Swiss Paraplegic Research)

Original article: Zhang L, Haller B. Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People with Disabilities. Communication Quarterly. 2013; 61(3):319-334. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01463373.2013.776988

Over the years, plenty of studies have been conducted to identify problematic media representations of people with disabilities. These representations are known to catalyze various kinds of inequities in the society. However, there is a comparative lack of studies on how people with disabilities themselves think about these mass media representations. How do these representations impact their self-identity?

What was the aim of the study?

This study is one of the first studies to explore what people with disabilities think about media representation of the disability community and disability issues. It aimed to find out whether the self-identity among people with disabilities is affected by

  • their exposure to media;
  • the way they are presented in the media – positive or negative;
  • their perceived realism of media representation, i.e. how real people think these representations are.

People with disabilities are often framed as heroes or losers by the mass media.

How did the researchers proceed?

The study was conducted via online survey. A total of 390 people with disabilities from 18 countries completed the survey. About one-third of them were born with disabilities, whereas around 70% of them acquired the disabilities later.

In the survey, people were asked about the level of attention they pay to different kinds of media regarding information about disability. They were asked whether they think that the mass media can accurately reflect their lives as people with disabilities. They were also asked to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree that mass media give objective coverage about disability issues.

Previous research has identified several models categorizing how media frame people with disabilities and disability issues. In this study, respondents were also asked how much they agree on statements with regard to three of these models. These models and statements are:

  • The medical model: “In most news stories you read about disability issues, disability is presented as illness dependent on health professionals for cures or maintenance.”
  • The social pathology model: “In most news stories you read about disability issues, people with disabilities are presented as disadvantaged who must look to the state or to society for economic support, which is considered a gift, not a right.”
  • The supercrip model: “In most news stories you read about disability issues, people with disabilities are portrayed as superhuman, inspirational, or ‘special’ because they live with a disability.”

To conclude, respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement to six statements regarding self-identity, from which researchers would find out whether respondents show affirmation or denial of self-identity.

Time to change the way disability is presented in mass media.

What did the researchers discover?

The answers of the participants showed that news websites, newspapers and television news were the types of media most often used by people with disabilities for information about disability.

In general, the respondents rated American media representations of people with disabilities as not realistic. They believed that media tended to frame people with disabilities negatively, namely as disadvantaged or ill victims more than as super humans.

The study results also showed that perceived positive portrayals of disability would lead people with disabilities to hold positive attitudes about their disability identity, and vice versa. Interestingly, this effect seemed to be the same regardless of whether people with disabilities perceived the media representation as realistic or not.

What do these findings mean?

These findings have not only showed mass media’s power to shape what public knows about disability – they have also revealed how the media can impact the self-identity of people with disabilities, both positively and negatively.

While it is necessary to continue the discussions of disability stigma promoted by mass media, there is a bigger urge to push for changes in mass media in order to create more balanced media representations of disability issues. More positive coverage is needed as it helps people with disabilities to take a balanced approach toward their identity. In contrast, negative coverage, which makes it more challenging for people with disabilities to envision themselves properly, should be limited.

As indicated in the study,

“The best way to portray people with disabilities is to not use a sticker or label, not to focus on their disability, but to report from their perspectives. After all, disability is just one part of a person and is one aspect of human diversity.”

Media creators should be more sensitive about how to report people with disabilities and disability issues. These portrayals do not only affect one’s perceptions about disability but can also bring crucial impact to disability culture and policies.

Who conducted the study?

The study was conducted in the Department of Mass Communication and Communication Studies at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, the United States.

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