The Role of the Media in Promoting Images of Disability- Disability as Metaphor: The Evil Crip

Marilyn Dahl (University of British Columbia)

It is a commonly held theory that one cannot legislate attitude change. One can legislate behavioural change and hopefully changes in attitude will follow. Attitudes, beliefs, and misconceptions of society constitute a major barrier for people with disabilities. Attitude change can follow on heightened awareness, increased contact, and increased meaningful communication between disabled and non-disabled people. Although personal interaction is the most effective medium for conveying the personal experience of disability, the mass media can be an effective vehicle for bringing about greater understanding, and a consequent gradual change in public perceptions, of people with disabilities.

Disability as Metaphor

A review of our cultural forms of expression provides evidence of the metaphoric role of disability which is deeply ingrained in our social values. It has been a convention of all literature and art that physical deformity, chronic illness, or any visible defect symbolizes an evil and malevolent nature and monstrous behaviour (Sontag, 1978). A summary look at literary distortions of handicapping conditions illustrates this point: Captain Hook (in Peter Pan) is intentionally an amputee with a prosthesis; Shakespeare links Richard III's hunchback to his evil lust. Somerset Maugham uses Philip's clubfoot (in Of Human Bondage) to symbolize his bitter and warped nature.

Occasionally a type of reaction formation is invoked and the literary association to disability is instead quite sentimental. Hans Christian Andersen depicts The Little Lame Prince in maudlin tones, and some other childhood tales use the stereotype of the selfless dwarf, or the blind seer. Occasionally the protagonist copes nobly with a disability but even then it is depicted as a "curse" to bear. Cyrano de Bergerac with his grotesque nose and Quasimodo with his hunchback are remarked not for their deformity but because they are both deformed and good (as though one precludes the other). Rarely does there appear an average or ordinary person whose disability is incidental.

We are both repelled and intrigued by the cripple as metaphor. Children's classics are particularly graphic and concrete in this regard. Villains are always ugly and deformed in some manner, heroes and heroines are possessed of beauty and grace. Fellini used freaks and disabilities to cue people to respond with revulsion and disgust to his film characters. Disney frequently promoted disability as metaphor. More recently, Hollywood has tended to sentimentalize the disabled with stock movies of two-dimensional characters who "learn to cope" and "live happily ever after." The deaf (Voices), the blind (Ice Castles), and quadriplegics (The Other Side of the Mountain) have all been treated within this formula. Film and television have also employed the metaphor of the disabled as helpless victim. Roughing up a cripple or a blind man is a device used to show a villain as a particularly evil person. At times television has tended to transform the metaphor by endowing the disabled person with superhuman characteristics, such as the Bionic Man; while in Ironside, the paraplegic was given a brilliant mind (Bird, Byrd, & Allen, 1977).

Research into the relationship between physical attractiveness and crime in the various media found that physical ugliness and physical differences are often associated with media depictions of violence and crime (Needham & Weiner, 1974). Horror movies make free use of this strategy. Gardner & Radel (1978), who analyzed American newspapers and television for references to disabled people, found that about one half of the items portrayed the disabled as dependent persons. A tenth of the items portrayed the disabled as being in some way deviant: "strange, antisocial or bizarre." Only about one quarter of the items portrayed the disabled as persons capable of independent living and of contributing to society. Cartoons and comic strip captions are also important carriers of prejudicial and discriminatory language and images of evil cripples. Words such as "stupid moron," "idiot," "crazy," are common jargon in strips such as Beetle Bailey, and the various "animal" comic strips. Everyday words which refer to specific conditions have become standardized as curse words, and stereotypes of conditions are reinforced (Weinberg & Santana, 1978).

In spite of these trends, there have been some changes in American plays and films, which today present more sympathetic and romanticized views of the disabled. Gussow (1979) labelled the phenomenon "the time of the wounded hero." Some of the examples are The Elephant Man (congenital deformity), Wings (stroke), Whose Life is it Anyway? (paralysis), and Children of a Lesser God. There have been more recent attempts to portray the disabled as "incidental" characters, neither hero nor victim. A policeman in a wheelchair on Cagney and Lacey portrayed an average role. The elderly, the ugly, the obese, are seen more often as "normal." Marlee Matlin, as assistant district attorney in Reasonable Doubts, attempts to show a deaf person filling a professional role in much the same way as a hearing person. Made for television films in the 1980s have portrayed sensitive and realistic stories of schizophrenia and Alzheimer's victims. L.A. Law portrays a mentally handicapped man in a sensitive way, and has a lawyer who wears a hearing aid.

Effects of Media Selectivity in Describing Disability

The media promote certain images of the disabled by selectively covering certain events and ignoring others. Jernigan, President of the National American Federation of the Blind, reported that reporters invited to a press conference on a highly political topic, ignored the political topic and wanted instead to photograph and report on the various walking aids, lead dogs, and other stereotypical symbols of blindness (Bogden & Biklen, 1977). In covering the Terry Fox story, the media focused on the "dying hero" and the medical model of illness, ignoring the counter-ideology issue of environmental pollution from nuclear fallout over the area where Fox was born in the 1950s, and its relationship to causes of cancer (Harrison, 1985).

The selective coverage of disability has led to the creation of "heroes by hype." The power of the media in manipulating public response is seen in the media coverage of the disabled marathoners who in the 1980s were a uniquely Canadian phenomenon (Graham, 1987). While many marathoners crossed Canada for causes, it was only the young, attractive men with dramatic visual disabilities (Fox, Fonyo, and Hansen) who received orchestrated backing and media coverage. Promoters and handlers "packaged" the young man and directed the programs and publicity en route. A star was created. Increased coverage pressured corporations and politicians to be seen giving generously to the hero's cause. An exception was the W5 program (CTV, 1987), which presented the misgivings held by disabled people themselves about what "disabled as superstar" portrays to the public.

The Disability Network (TV Ontario) presents lifestyles of people with disabilities, but most disabled people would prefer to be shown as part of the average population. The Bay's advertising flyer recently featured a model in a wheelchair, McDonald's ads have included people with different types of disabilities (King, 1992). These ads are the exception rather than the rule. Advertisers do not seem to think in terms of disabled people as customers--drinking beer, brushing their teeth, or buying a car. One particularly onerous depiction of disability remains a television regular: fund-raising telethons. The model for this is the Jerry Lewis Telethon which presents an alliance of business, high status public persons and service providers, plus a disabled child who is helpless and appealing. The images equate disability with childlike behaviour and an infantile condition, a minor role, while the healthy normal star has the spotlight, status, and prestige. Helping the disabled becomes entertainment (Dahl, 1987).

The mass media perpetuate stereotypes of disability through their portrayals of characters. But there is no evidence that the mass media have any major effect on manipulating the attitudes and opinions of its audience. Researchers state that it is difficult to discover what are the precise effects of the media on public opinion. It is possible that attitudes and opinions change dramatically as a result of what is seen or heard. There are indications of selective perception of what is viewed, namely that audiences tend to identify with that which reinforces their existing beliefs. On the whole it appears that "the potential of the mass media to create false tempered by a tendency of the public to neglect the mass media in favour of other sources of understanding social reality" (Howitt, 1989, p. 179). Some speculation is in order, however, on the effect of negative stereotyping on the disabled themselves, especially children with disabilities. "Self-identity is formed by what is communicated through the media as well as by interpersonal acts" (Gumpert & Cathcart, 1982, p. 13). To see oneself labelled and cast always in the role of the villain, helpless dependent or victim is not an enviable fate.

Creating an "Average" Typification of the Disabled

Although there are no specific data showing attitude change in response to media communication, people tend to believe that the manner in which characters are portrayed is important. Characters presented on screen are sociocultural stereotypes designed to appeal to the majority of viewers, and reflect widely held values (albeit mostly American). It seems apparent that the repeated presentation of images in an acceptable and palatable manner will result in those images becoming a typification of everyday existence. The media are efficient in implanting new information and contributing new ideas and values, where they are not in conflict with strongly held views. The effect of mass communication on society is often more a contributory than a sole effect (Schramm, 1973). "Media images, however, can help to shape the meanings we find directly in the situation and what we discover in the actual situation can influence the way we look at the media" (Kelly, 1981, p. 167).

The CRTC recognized the influence of broadcasting on viewers in its 1986 policy statement: "Broadcasting is...a powerful medium to reinforce [sex-role] stereotyping and can be equally powerful to correct it." Since 1979, the Treasury Board, the Advertising Management Group, the CRTC, and CBC have developed policies on the elimination of sexual stereotyping and cultural stereotyping. The CRTC called for self-regulation by the industry in regard to policy implementation. Guidelines are monitored by the CRTC, the industry, and consumer groups such as Mediawatch and Evaluation/Medias (in Quebec). The CRTC report (December, 1986) indicated that some sensitization to the issue of sex-role stereotyping had occurred, but significant reductions in such stereotyping had not been achieved. No separate set of guidelines exists with respect to persons with disabilities, such guidelines are included under regulations prohibiting discrimination. In 1990 the Department of Secretary of State, Canada, published two reports: Worthless or Wonderful includes recommendations on elimination of social stereotyping of disabled persons, modelled on the guidelines for sex-role and cultural stereotype elimination; A Way With Words (1990) provides guidelines and appropriate terminology for the portrayal of persons with disabilities.

We have moved somewhat away from the disabled as hero or victim but we are still a long way from a normal depiction of disability. Disabled people could be depicted as living and working in a variety of situations, with a diverse range of responsibilities, and not necessarily overcoming great odds to achieve their status. The mass media affect public opinion and public perception of social reality by their ability to create typifications. Careful use of terminology and visual images of the disabled can gradually create a more acceptable and realistic typification of people with disabilities as "average" people.


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