By Beth Haller, Ph.D. & Lingling Zhang, Ph.D., both of Towson University, Towson, Md., USA (Contact emails: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)
In the summer of 2010, an online survey of people with disabilities from around the world was undertaken to find out what they think about their representation by the news and entertainment media.
To find people with disabilities to take the survey, 31 disability organizations, groups and listserves inside and outside the USA, as well as all 50 Independent Living Centers in the USA, were sent e-mails with the survey link and a request to participate in the survey.
It should be noted that the online survey was programmed to record each computer’s physical address so when the respondents completed the survey, they would not be allowed repeated access to the survey from the same computer. In this way, the survey avoided multiple responses from the same individual participant. All respondents were assured of the confidentiality of both respondent and organization identities.
Who took the survey
A total of 430 respondents started the survey and 359 completed the survey so it had a response rate of approximately 83.5%. Among 430 respondents, 390 were people with disabilities, 29.7% (n=116) of them were born with disabilities, while 70.3% (n=274) of them acquired the disabilities later. For the findings listed below, only respondents with disabilities were included (n=390).
Among those respondents, the average age was 47 and the age range was from 18 to 82 years old. In terms of gender, 26.7 % (n=104) of the respondents were male and 52.6% (n = 205) of the respondents were female, with 81 cases not answering the gender question. Participants represented a number of races and ethnicities, but the majority of respondents were Caucasians (66.9%), followed by respondents of African descent (3.8%). About 3% of the respondents were two or more ethnicities; 1.5% of the respondents were of Asian descent and 1.3% of the respondents were of Hispanic/Latino; 0.8% of the respondents were American Indians/Alaska Natives and 0.5% of the respondents were Native Hawaiian /Other Pacific Islander. Eighty cases (20.5%) did not disclose their ethnicities.
The 390 respondents in the study were from 18 countries. 65.4% of the respondents were from the United States, followed by 5.6% of the respondents from Canada. The rest of the respondents were from: the UK, 1.3%; Germany, 0.8%; Australia, 0.5%, Vietnam, 0.5%. Another 12 countries had only one respondent taking the survey: Albania, Costa Rica, France, Iran, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Sweden.
Findings about entertainment media
The most viewed recent entertainment programs with disability content were:
Extreme home makeover (2003-present)
Finding Nemo (2002)
Little people, Big world (2006-2010)
On the 1-7 survey scale of stigmatizing to empowering, all 5 were closer to the empowering end of the scale, with Little People, Big World being viewed as the most empowering.
The most viewed older entertainment programs with disability content were:
A beautiful mind (2001)
Children of a lesser god (1986)
Rain man (1988)
Sesame Street (1969-present)
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
All these entertainment programs, except for Dumb and Dumber, were seen as empowering. Interestingly, A beautiful mind, Sesame Street, and Children of a lesser god all scored as having even more empowering representations than Little people, Big world. Dumb and Dumber was viewed as having highly stigmatizing representations of people with disabilities.
Findings about news media
Respondents evaluated the news media coverage of 68 disability issues, The issues included topics such as health care access, access to legal services, Medicare funding, special education segregation, and voting access. On a scale from 1 to 7 (1 meaning minimum/poor coverage and 7 meaning enough/balanced coverage), respondents say that American news media do a poor job covering disability issues. Only two issues, autism and the Terri Schiavo case rated a 4 or above, indicating enough coverage. The study suggests that in the mind of people with disabilities, news media didn’t give enough and balanced coverage to most disability issues overall.
Only 8 disability issues scored a 3, meaning they were seen as being covered a small amount. They were:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Children with disabilities
Closed captioning – access to TV/Internet content
Disabled veterans issues
Health care access and costs
The respondents were asked their opinions of how the news media framed disability issues. The most prevalent frames they reported were negative ones: the Medical model, the Social Pathology model, the Supercrip model, and the Business model. The respondents said they do not think the news media frame disability using progressive models: Minority/Civil Rights model, the Legal model, or the Cultural Pluralism model. (See below for definitions of all the models.)
The respondents said overwhelmingly that they want the news media to use the terms “people with disabilities” or “person with disability” in news stories, and they do not like the terms “handicapped” or “handicapped people”
A number of questions were asked about how much attention the respondents paid to mass media, and another set of questions asked about the respondents’ participation in disability organizations or disability activism. Respondents also were questioned about their self-perception as a disabled person. (Disability identity questions were taken from the Hahn & Belt survey, 2004). Correlations were run to see if links existed.
• The more attention people with disabilities paid to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they are to think the news media frame people with disabilities as Supercrips.
• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame disability as an illness.
• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame people with disabilities as disadvantaged and in need of social or economic support
• The more attention people with disabilities pay to mass media for information about disability issues, the more likely they think media frame people with disabilities and their issues as costly to the society.
• The more individuals with disabilities are involved with disability related advocacy, the more positive attitudes they have about themselves as being disabled.
• The more individuals with disabilities perceive that media frame disability as illness, the more negative attitudes they have about themselves as being disabled.
• The more individuals with disabilities perceive that media frame people with disabilities as Supercrips, the more positive attitudes they have about themselves.
Models of media framing
These media models of disability representation were developed from a 1990 content analysis of the coverage of disability topics in more than a dozen major U.S. newspapers (Clogston, 1990) and a 1995 content analysis of the media coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Haller, 1999). These models of news media representation of disability fit into either a traditional (stigmatizing) or progressive (empowering) category.
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.
Clogston, J. S. (1990). Disability Coverage in 16 Newspapers. Louisville: Advocado Press.
Hahn, H. D. & Belt, T.L. (2004, December). Disability identity and attitudes toward cure in a sample of disabled activists. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol. 45, No. 4, pp. 453-464.
Haller, B. (1999). “How the News Frames Disability: Print Media Coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Research in Social Science and Disability. JAI Press, Vol. 1.