Why do media portrayals of disability always have such a terrible ring of finality about them? Sinead O’Donnell picks up on some recent heavy handed stereotyping and looks at the damage done.
Nell McCafferty featured on the March 29th broadcast of The Saturday Night show. While discussing her 70th birthday, she commented as follows:
“What I dread is some ghastly disease, or something that will leave me disabled or dependent”, then going on to add that if she were to become such she would be “ looking for one (disease/disability) that will allow me to get on the plane to Switzerland and take the pill to kill myself”.
In a televised 2010 Road Safety Authority awareness campaign, Doctor Aine Carroll begins the piece by saying:
“As human beings we think that the worst possible outcome is death, as one mother said to me there are worse things than dying, and I had to agree with her.”
The opening shot alongside this narration was of a wheelchair, captioned ‘There’s before and there’s after but there’s no turning back’, followed by a lingering shot of prosthetic limbs. Despite the need for these advertisements to be hard hitting, the association of disability with a fate worse than death is far too commonplace.
I am someone who could be considered, as Nell put it “disabled and dependent.” I have been so since birth.
While acknowledging everyone’s right to their own opinion and life choices (including the right to die), and the absolute necessity to increase awareness concerning road safety, statements such as those above and the association made between disability and an fulfilling life is hurtful and unhelpful.
As a teenager I was deeply disturbed by an advertisement depicting a man with a disability bouncing a basketball repetitively as if it was all he was left capable of due to “ending up in a chair.”
The notion of being a victim of such a destiny, coupled with images portraying the utter futility, finality and the fatality of disablement can only have a negative effect on the mind of any young person with a disability.
I am not arguing that public service announcements dealing with road safety can’t be hard-hitting. However, the reinforcement of disability and traumatic, life-changing events with utter dejection, death and disaster must stop.
Many people have a disability from birth – not as a result of some catastrophic event later in life. These people, with the correct surroundings and supports, can engage in as active a life as they choose.
Negative attitudes in the media do little to dispel preconceived notions in wider society about the limitations placed on one’s life by the presence of a disability.
It also reinforces the medicalised view of disability as merely a condition or deficiency, as opposed to a social definition encompassing not only the condition but also the disabling effect of one’s environment.
Dealing with a high dependency disability is often hard for everyone concerned: you just try and maintain a forward focus and keep one’s emotional state as balanced as possible. A lack of visibility within the community does not assist the cause of disability normalization.
Negative media portrayals do little to change this tide. One cannot deny the insufferable hardships endured following a grievous accident or sickness, and acquiring a disability may be a major factor.
Instruments such as integrated mainstream schooling, independent living and comprehensive personal assistance should not be rolled back upon. Positive imagery in the media can greatly help this process.
RTE’s recent Somebody To Love was a good example of this, providing a platform for the exposure and promotion of the possibilities of living life to the full regardless of traditional barriers.
A recent Guinness advertisement featured a group of wheelchair basketballers who eventually emerge as being “able-bodied”, but choosing to play with their wheelchair-bound friend. An individual may have been the victim of some calamitous misfortune, but that does not mean his life is over.
Disability may change the playing field, but it certainly does not indicate the final whistle.
Sinead O’Donnell is a Phd Researcher at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy. She has Cerebral Palsy since birth and is an outspoken proponent of the right to Independent Living and self determination.