Media Representations of Disability

Earlier today, Beth Haller posted some highlights of her 2010 survey of PWD regarding media representations. (Full disclosure: I talked with Haller about this months ago, and was encouraged to participate despite not identifying as a PWD, so I’m probably in these results somewhere). It’s a little stats-heavy for this humanist to totally understand, in parts, but the takeaways are generally very interesting.

First, the most-viewed recent entertainment media with disability content were:

  • Extreme home makeover (2003-present)
  • House (2004-present)
  • Finding Nemo (2002)
  • Little people, Big world (2006-2010)
  • Monk (2002-2009)

Of these, all considered at least somewhat “empowering” representations of disability, Little People, Big World was rated most empowering. Considering my own, and others’, misgivings about the direction of much of TLC’s reality programming – more medical conditions, more multiple births, now even more wives – it’s heartening to see that at least some of this programming is resonant with an audience of PWDs. Haller goes on, though to note that older texts, such as “A beautiful mind, Sesame Street, and Children of a Lesser God all scored as having even more empowering representations than Little People, Big World.”

Haller and Zhang also analyze the survey results in respect to news coverage, respondents’ attention to media, and respondents’ identifications with disability. For my own purposes, their invocation of Clogston and Haller’s frames seems like a possibly productive way of doing initial forms of content analysis, should I ever decide to go in that direction:

Clogston and Haller’s traditional categories include:
• The Medical Model — Disability is presented as an illness or malfunction. Persons who are disabled are shown as dependent on health professionals for cures or maintenance.
• The Social Pathology Model — People with disabilities are presented as disadvantaged and must look to the state or to society for economic support, which is considered a gift, not a right.
• The Supercrip Model — The person with a disability is portrayed as deviant because of “superhuman” feats (i.e. ocean-sailing blind man) or as “special” because they live regular lives “in spite of” disability (i.e. deaf high school student who plays softball).
• The Business Model — People with disabilities and their issues are presented as costly to society and businesses especially. Making society accessible for disabled people is not really worth the cost and overburdens businesses, i.e. accessibility is not profitable.

Clogston and Haller’s progressive categories include:
• The Minority/Civil Rights Model — People with disabilities are portrayed as members of the disability community, which has legitimate political grievances. They have civil rights that they may fight for, just like other groups. Accessibility to society is a civil right.
• The Cultural Pluralism Model — People with disabilities are presented as a multi-faceted people and their disabilities do not receive undue attention. They are portrayed as non-disabled people would be.
• The Legal Model — The media explain that it is illegal to treat disabled people in certain ways. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws are presented as legal tools to halt discrimination.

The Business Model in particular is a framing that I haven’t heard in many other places, and that is particularly relevant to talking about web accessibility (as are the more familiar progressive categories), as this is often exactly how professional literature presents accessibility in relation to more commonplace web development practices. Or, more accurately, professional literature often brings up a business model and follows it with what could be called social pathology language, making a moral argument at the heels of a business argument.

Finally, as I recall, Glee was not included on the survey as an instance of entertainment media that deals with disability. It is, however, at the forefront of my thoughts today. This week’s episode, “Grilled Cheesus,” featured yet another instance of Jean, Sue’s sister with Down’s Syndrome, appearing in conversation and in person only to lend depth of character to Sue. Sue’s atheism is presented as based on righteous anger over her sister’s disability, and Jean herself appears once again at the end of an episode to provide an opportunity for Sue to reflect on her beliefs, as Jean admits her belief in God. Still, Jean does not have a story of her own, or much depth of characterization, and given Glee‘s previous uses of PWD to teach lessons to main characters (as in “Laryngitis“), I am not optimistic that this representation will see much growth in future episodes. More forgiving takes on “Grilled Cheesus” can be found at Antenna and Cultural Learnings, but I think it’s important to point out the laziness and representational politics of confining Jean to scenes in which she is used to illustrate an otherwise unseen element of Sue’s characterization.

1 Comment

  1. Great post, and thanks for alerting me to this survey.

    I was also intrigued by the “Business Model,” especially after hearing the story about the ADA on This American Life a couple of weeks ago (Act Three here: In an episode notably called called “Crybabies,” TAL reported on a PWD whose full-time activity is suing businesses for ADA infractions. While the program acknowledged that lawsuits from PWDs are the only enforcement mechanism built into the ADA (I guess that would count as a little bit of the progressive “Legal Model”), the take-away was that these PWDs are schemers who are abusing the law to extort helpless small businesses. Disappointing from a show I love.

    Finally, your point about how Jean is used in Glee is really great analysis. Thanks for that.

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