How we describe disability experiences in the media can help or hurt the disability community.
Positive portrayals promote inclusion, increasing opportunities for education, employment, and social integration. People with disabilities represent the largest minority group, numbering one billion worldwide. Reaching an audience of this scale benefits media producers. Those who choose to produce positive disability stories also move us towards a more inclusive society. While we can’t change our past, we can influence our future through the messages we send.
Positive Messages To Send
- We respect and admire disabled leaders, just as we respect and admire our non-disabled leaders.
- We can always find alternative techniques to reach goals and accomplish tasks. These creative solutions are equal in value to mainstream solutions.
- We’re all interdependent and go further when we support each other.
Harmful Messages To Avoid
- Non-disabled people should feel grateful they don’t have disabilities. This perpetuates hierarchies of us versus them, continuing the marginalization of people with disabilities.
- Successful people with disabilities overcame their disabilities. When the media portrays the problem as the disability, society is not encouraged to change. The biggest barriers exist not in the person, but in the physical, social, and digital environment. People with disabilities and their communities, succeed when the community decides to dismantle digital, attitudinal, and physical barriers.
- Flat, one-dimensional portrayals of people with disabilities. Stories that reduce a person to just a disabled person encourages potential employers, teachers, and other community members to similarly reduce the person to just a disability. We are all diverse and participate in multiple communities, and flat stories actually make it harder to participate in many communities.
- Avoid victimizing language when describing medical conditions and other aspects of the disability experience. E.g., “She is blind” is neutral, but, “She suffers from blindness” encourages pity.
- Avoid using the phrases “special needs,” “differently abled,” and person-first language like, “person with a visual impairment.” These linguistic gymnastics perpetuate stigma. We plainly state other human characteristics. We write, “She is a girl,” rather than, “She has a special gender.” The words we use to discuss disability should similarly be straightforward. Tiptoeing around our differences is also cumbersome. E.g., “He uses a wheelchair,” compared to, “He is a person who uses a wheelchair.” Keep it simple and just say “disability” or the specific disability. The word disability has some great connotations: civil rights, Stevie Wonder, Stephen Hawking, innovation, and more. Society will move away from the stigma associated with the word if we promote more positive disability stories.
- Spotlight the voices of people with disabilities. Stories about disability have a disturbing pattern of marginalizing disabled voices in favor of the voices of the non-disabled parent, teacher, friend, etc. Practice focusing the story’s attention on the perspective of the person with a disability rather than the perspective of the non-disabled person.
- Avoid assumptions and ask questions. Many disability myths are so deeply entrenched in our culture that people assume them to be true. Should you use blind, partially sighted, low vision, hard of sight, or legally blind? Ask the person being described rather than making assumptions.
- Challenge yourself to create a disability story without using the word inspiration. The overuse of the word, especially for the most trivial things, has dulled its meaning. People sometimes even use the word as a disguise for pity. For example, “You inspire me to stop complaining about my problems because I should feel grateful I don’t have yours.” Messages that perpetuate us versus them hierarchies contribute to marginalization. Engage audiences by moving beyond the inspiration cliche.
Make Your Stories Accessible
- Provide captions so that Deaf individuals can access the audio content. You can learn how to create captions on YouTube , and upload captions to Facebook videos.
- Provide audio descriptions so that blind individuals can access the visual content. Audio descriptions are spoken narrations of key visual information that is inserted during pauses in the dialog.
- Provide a transcript that also includes key visual descriptions. This is particularly helpful for Deafblind viewers.
- Here’s an in-depth guide for making accessible videos: University of Washington: Creating Accessible Videos.
Provide a transcript to ensure access for Deaf viewers.
Provide an image description near the image. The image description should communicate key visual information. On Facebook and Instagram, type the image description in the Status/Caption field. For images on Twitter, follow Twitter’s guide for inserting image descriptions.
Please make sure the text in your articles is machine-readable. Machine-readable text can be read by software used by blind viewers to convert the text to speech or digital braille. Most text on the web is machine-readable, so your text is probably accessible. One way to check is by selecting, copying, and pasting a sentence into a new document. If the sentence copied correctly, then it’s machine-readable.