Disability is a matter of perception. My brother Lewis has complex learning disabilities. He is autistic, partially sighted, non-verbal, epileptic and needs 24-hour care. Lewis used to require a wheelchair, now he can walk with assistance. He lives a fulfilled life in his own home, facilitated by an excellent care package – something we had to fight hard for.
In the UK, there are 14 million people with disabilities. This means disabled people make up one in five of the population, yet, research by the charity Scope indicates that nearly half the population don't know a disabled person. Economically, almost three quarters of people with disabilities are not in paid employment. Yet, life for a person with disabilities costs around £500 more on average a month compared to non-disabled people.
Disabled people are economically and socially disadvantaged in the UK. Some parts of society argue that this makes people with disabilities a welfare burden to the state. My brother Lewis is required to prove that he is unable to work; the same Lewis that needs 24-hour care. Lewis and others are often accused of being 'inadequate', 'scroungers', 'cheats', 'work-shy'. Disabled people are continually asked to show what they cannot do.
Have you ever felt a shared fear towards someone with a disability? Have you ever stared at someone in public who appeared disabled? As a parent, have you ever stopped your child from playing with a disabled child? Would it surprise you to learn that some of these fears may stem from the way the news media has depicted people with disabilities?
Disability is a matter of perception. The media's portrayal of issues can have major impacts on perceptions. The news media are a significant social force in the forming and delimiting of public assumptions, attitudes and moods – of ideology. This is particularly pertinent for the 50% of the population whose only knowledge about this group might derive from what is presented by the news media as opposed to real-life accounts from people living with disabilities.
Throughout these presentations there exists conflicting polarisation of negative vs positive, of ableism vs non-ableism. Relatively, disability issues are rarely covered in the news. When they are covered, disabled people are often negatively portrayed as objects of pity, charity, and in need of medical treatment. When Lewis was in a wheelchair, a stranger approached us in the street, patted Lewis on the head, handed my mum a pound and stated: 'you'll need this'.
Then there is the 'positive' coverage surrounding Paralympic sports. Disabled people are painted as superhuman, as overcoming barriers, as inspirations to disabled and non-disabled people. Positive right? However, although positive in its intention, this coverage places emphasis on what the body can and cannot do. Focusing on the heroic side of disability is counter-productive. Underlying the heroism is the fact that Paralympic athletes rely on the charitable acts of non-disabled people to empower disabled people. This puts para-athletes into an elite disability group which is not representative of all impairment groups and misrepresents the realities of living with a disability. Paralympic coverage of people with disabilities exists in its own bubble, lasting only a month or so after the event finishes and then fizzling out. It thus ignores the wider societal issues of disability and fails as an avenue for social change.
When I was younger, STV Scotland ran a news piece on our family focused on our involvement with a charity and the impact they had in helping Lewis with sleep therapy. Again, although positive in its intention, the story ultimately focused on how difficult it must be having Lewis in the family and the hardships he must have brought us due to his disabilities. Rather, its impact could have been more powerful by highlighting how Lewis' personality and unique qualities strengthen our family, whilst reinforcing the great work charities do for families and disabled people.
For audiences, this type of coverage highlights the burden of disability rather than the positive impact on peoples' lives that someone with disabilities can have. This stands true for those who have got to know Lewis in his local community, who treat him as they would others, include him in activities and see the advantages he can bring to something as small as a coffee morning to larger community debates on social housing.
Although not the only power at play in reshaping the narrative on disability, the news media are key in raising awareness and countering stigma. Coverage that helps people understand disability issues needs to be more representative and progressive in its approach, emphasising that people with disabilities are individuals who are part of human diversity.
The BBC recently pledged a more 'authentic and distinctive' representation of disabled people in the media, and has promised an increase in the number of disabled people in its workforce – from 10% to 12%, by 2022. Further, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires that members act to encourage the media to portray disabled people in a way that respects their human rights. Do you agree that this is their right?
Disability is a matter of perception. My brother Lewis has complex learning disabilities. Lewis is a loving brother, a keen horse-rider, enjoys walks along the beach and loves an action film. Lewis is the happiest person I know.