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Disability and Media: Representation

By Nookaraju Bendukurthi

In the wake of mushrooming mainstream and alternative media in the country and constant cutting edge developments occurring in online media platforms at the global level, disability representation in media is becoming an important area to explore. There has been very little interest in Indian academia, particularly in media studies, to study disability representation either in terms of studying meaning and interpretation or to work towards theorizing disability representation. Against this background, my recently completed doctoral study was aimed at understanding disability representation in Indian media based on an analysis of news narratives on disability and on the media’s preparedness to include persons with disabilities in the process of media production through its policies and practices.

I argue that the nature of disability representation in the news serves neo-liberal objectives which are mirrored in the production practices of news organizations. News articles present people with disabilities as having use value in society and ready to be offered for exchange value in the market, which is what I call political economy of disability coverage of the media. At the second level, my thesis aimed at understanding the construction of disability representation through different print media content and design elements. At the final level, the study aimed to understand the perceptions of media producers on the inclusion of people with disabilities in media production. Additionally, the study attempted to understand how PWDs as media consumers perceive the same issues. The juxtaposition of these various arguments allowed me to understand the levels of media’s commitment and preparedness to accommodate PWDs in media production as well as the expectations and apprehensions of the disability groups in intervening in the media production process. 

A few key findings:

  • Indian (print) media representations emphasise disability as a dependency category.
Source: The Hindu, 23 September, 2012

Source: The Hindu, 23 September, 2012

It is a category that is presented through media messages akin to other marginalised identities such as gender, sexuality, caste, ethnicity, and race. Though it was presented as an omnipresent category along with other marginal sections in society, the underlying representation seems to be one that emphasizes disability as a problem that requires a solution. Getting social acceptance for what they are (with impairments) and assistance to ensure accessibility of things and places which they use/need to use to lead a life they want are the solution/s that these stories evocatively stress. Further, media through the photo-journalism substantiate this and also re-introduce PWDs as people with use value to the ableist world. More than 70% of news stories collected as part of the study reiterated this.

Source: The Hindu, 1 January and 20 May, 2012 respectively

Source: The Hindu, 1 January, 2012

Source: The Hindu, 20 May, 2012

Source: The Hindu, 20 May, 2012

In both the above images 1& 2 PWDs are presented as people with worth or people with use value as they are demonstrating their skills to the (normal) world through media lens.

  • In case of disability representation, media tends to project disability in relation to conflict or complex events or as an issue within a larger social conflict, or an issue that negotiates for and on behalf PWDs. Media images, as seen below, further highlight the relentless battle the PWD community continuously engages with either to question/demand/plead/pressure the state in getting their constitutional/legal entitlements.
Image source: The Hindu, 23 September, 2012

Image source: The Hindu, 23 September, 2012    

News story titles such as “It’s a challenge for them to get their due”, “Make disabled rights violation penal offence”, and “Disabled Rights Group quits civil aviation panel” reinforce the fact that media organizations, to a large extent, constantly engage in activities related PWDs are political in nature. Stories of this kind also imply that the issues of PWDs and PWDs themselves are caught up in the political crisis. These presentations would always be suggesting through their construction that disability is political construct and it is the political solution to the problems that they have been going through in society.

  • Disability representation through news articles pitches in for the need of social acceptance of PWDs by highlighting their abilities/skills or use values and at the same time presents the case of industry requirements of people with acquired skills through different framing techniques. By framing pattern/techniques, what I mean, is news designing practices being followed by media producers such as page in which the story positioned, the way story is placed, for instance, a lot disability related stories are given as stories in boxes as they look different from all other stories in the page, colours used in the headlines, type of fonts and size of fonts in the title of the story, punctuation marks used in the titles – a good number of disability news story headlines, as observed in the study, ended either with exclamatory mark or question mark, backgrounds used behind the photograph used in the story, and so on.
  • There were different types of editorial formats within which news related to disability appeared to generate the ‘feel good’ sense about the PWDs among the audience. Through the use of specific language such as “differently-abled” and “visually impaired”, and “Specially gifted” are a few expressions to mention, aimed at generating an inclusive and positive impression, the media aimed to indicate their support to PWDs and also draw in the support of the audience.
  • It was observed that there was a distinctive framing pattern (editorial and design techniques of news) being followed by media in their regular usage of existing frames such as Human Interest, Conflict, Responsibility and Economic Consequence. The distinction between the picture frame – focusing more on the impairment than face of the impaired person or highlighting the part of the impairment on the human body through different camera techniques, as well as the frame stories – placing or positioning the PWD stories at different pages of news paper, presenting the story in boxes (as boxed news item), etc., in their saliency, particularly, in coding certain disability related matters pushing the expansion of these existing frames to lead to the emergence of new news frames. Upon categorizing collected news stories considering their nature of presentation, it was identified that media organizations need to incorporate other set of new frames which I call as Charity Frame and Achievement Frame. Stories grouped under Charity Frame would be reinstating the philosophy of Charity Model of disability where PWDs or the organizations/people working for/with PWDs seeking some or other kind of charity in more unsaid manner. News stories carrying Achievement Frame would be celebrating the success of PWDs. These stories are what they call it in disability studies as “inspiration porn” –presenting PWDs achievements as inspiration to normal world.
  • While representing disability issues through their narratives, media are aggressive in presenting the abilities of PWDs as unused or in waiting or PWDs as people with different abilities to gain social acceptance or to be part of the mainstream work force or combination of both, whereas in the case of accepting or including PWDs in media production, media organisations are not sure in the same abilities. News representations of disability, in other words, were observed, to be more geared towards fulfilling the economic/productive needs of the labour market than fulfilling the social needs of PWDs. Through their meticulous constructions or presentations particularly emphasising on/about the abilities of the PWDs, media fetch or introduce labour with difference or with different skill-sets that are to incorporate into the productive activities of other private entities. Thus media are fulfilling the labour needs of industries and marketing the abilities of disabled people through their variety of representation techniques and strategies.
  • One of the major findings from this research was that the level of interest that the media organizations demonstrated in covering PWD issues sharply contrasted with proportion of interest expressed by media producers in including PWDs as part of the production process. Despite the media’s ‘presentation’ of PWDs as a “reserve army of labour”, as was shown in my political economy analysis, with their abilities showcased for the market, the media itself makes little use of these abilities. I have arrived at this conclusion through meticulous analysis of personal interactions I had with the media producers as well as physical verifications of the media houses I did as part of my study.

Nookaraju Bendukurthi is a Ph.D. holder in Communication from University of Hyderabad.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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