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Disabled People and Their Portrayal in Media Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2020


In the era when tolerance and political correctness are viewed as the pillars for the society to stand on, the issue of addressing people with a disability seems to be underrepresented. Although the problem is being dealt with at the political and economic level with the recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the social problems related to accommodating the disabled in the society have been overlooked and, as a result, filled with a variety of prejudices and misconceptions. While the very phenomenon of disability and what effects it has on one’s life has been worn out to death, most people face significant problems when actually communicating with the disabled people (Morris, Mueller, & LaForce 2013). The recent tendency to glorify disabled people by putting an emphasis on their ability to perform basic tasks instead of their accomplishments merely for the reasons of political correctness may trigger severe aftermath for the target audience as the images displayed and depicted in a recent article published by the International Labour Organization (Ryder 2014).

People with Disabilities and the Ambiguity in Their Portrayal

In a very weird way, the article that was supposed to debunk the myths about disabled people only contributed to their further development. A closer look at the pictures under analysis will reveal that they fail to subvert the traditional perception of a disabled person as an extraordinary one on all levels. One might argue that the author tries to convey the opposite by stating that contemporary media tries to portray disabled people as heroes. However, when providing the images of the specified denizens of the population in the traditional setting with the intent to draw attention to a particular person, one faces the threat of underrating their abilities.

Apart from the pictures, though being rather formal and focusing on legal issues, the text of the article contains the imagery that creates a negative perception of disabled people like the ones, who do not need to make an effort to be recognized: “When they do appear, they are often stigmatized or stereotyped, and may appear as either object of pity or superheroic accomplishment and endurance” (Ryder 2014, p. 1). The passage provided above may be interpreted in several ways.

On the one hand, it may be viewed as innocent and quite reasonable, seeing that there is an evident tendency to portray the specified denizens of the population in an objective light, avoiding viewing them in either sympathetic or heroic light. On the other hand, the fact that these people are lauded for doing the regular activities, which other people are not recognized for, questions the reasonability of the approach in question. Specifically, one must bear in mind that the images of people living their regular lives do not appear that often in media unless stock pictures are required. When reading about differently-abled people, however, one is more likely to see the casual images of people, whose lives are described in an article or a magazine.

The above-mentioned argument begs the question whether the differently-abled should be portrayed in media as people doing regular things or whether they should only appear as the people, who challenge the social norms and the extent of their physical and mental abilities. Presumably, the way, in which people are depicted in an article, should coincide with the focus of the latter. In other words, the disabled should be portrayed as both regular people and the people challenging their limitations depending on the topic chosen by the authors; however, these portrayals must not be manipulative or enhanced by prejudices concerning the problems that differently-abled people allegedly have.

The picture displayed in the report made by the International Labour Organization, therefore, implies that disability is an intrinsically negative phenomenon. While one must not deny disabled people the course of their decision to choose to live up to the standards that the society sets for people regardless of their physical capacities, conveying the idea that disability is a stain on an otherwise good image of a person would be bigotry, which the editors of the magazine in question, unfortunately, have unwillingly contributed to.

The Social Cognitive Perspective

Defining the social cognitive elements in the image in question, one must admit that, unlike the traditional portrayals of people on a magazine cover, which typically capture only the face and the upper part of a person’s torso, the pictures under analysis include a range of details. Some of them, though not all, even display the wheelchair or the crutches r as essential attributes of the portrayal of a disabled person. The aforementioned element puts the image into the social perspective that singles the woman in the picture out, thus, making the readers assume that he is somehow extraordinary.

The rest of the frame, which expands to the office setting, puts the fact that the person assumed to be disabled works in a traditional office setting. By expanding the frame and distracting the audience’s attention from the woman’s face, which is a striking contrast to what magazines typically do, the photographer states that having a disability makes a person exceptional. The statement concerning the uniqueness of a person being attributed to the latter’s disability is a dangerously misleading one.

The images displayed in the picture can be viewed as a graphic example of how deeply prejudices may be rooted. Although claiming that people with disabilities cannot function as members of the society and perform the same tasks as the rest of the population is unacceptable nowadays, the biased concept of the disabled still demands that the specified group of people should claim their right to be seen as normal people, who are capable of performing regular actions without anyone else’s need. The pictures used as the means to convey the message, therefore, seem far too persistent to work properly. The fact that people with disadvantages are able to carry out regular tasks and do not need this ability to be viewed as something out of the ordinary clearly puts the information conveyed by these pictures in a wrong perspective.

Indeed, when considering the evolution of the acceptance of the disabled into society, one must admit that it has seen impressive peaks and drops. The introduction of the American with Disabilities Act, though creating the foundation for an adequate attitude towards the people that are challenged in some way, has not affected the lives of the disabled on a social level (Lamport, Grave, & Wagg 2012); while providing decent legal protection of their rights, the ADA did not manage to alter the social perspective of disability completely, as it manifests itself even in the contemporary setting in a range of environments, particularly, in private companies (Quaigrain, Winter, & Issa 2014).

Nevertheless, the image of a disabled person as portrayed in media seems to incorporate a number of prejudices based on the assumption that disabilities are viewed as the obstacles to living a full life and being a full-fledged member of the society. Indeed, the tendency to place the given denizens of the population into the setting that would otherwise be considered standard and stress their outstanding courage might be viewed as a type of support, yet it is as far from empowering the disabled as it can get. By placing these people in the environment that does not require dealing with any obstacles that can be defined as something out of the ordinary and at the same time emphasizing the amazement of the audience, one defies the very concept of equity. By displaying people with disabilities adjusting to regular elements that may be viewed as obstacles to the physically or mentally challenged, one point to the fact that the disabled may have problems with the regular environment. Thus, the process of discrimination occurs despite the clearly positive intentions of the authors.

Positive Aspects: People Just Like Us

Claiming that the portrayal of disabled people in traditional and modern media in the manner displayed by the author of the journal in question necessarily triggers a negative effect would be quite a stretch. On the contrary, stressing the fact that people with physical or mental deficiencies are capable of performing the same actions that people without these deficiencies can do, including the regular (e.g., driving a car) and the extraordinary ones (e.g., winning in a sports contest) is crucial to the promotion of tolerance and social acceptance.

Nevertheless, the stereotype implied in the image under discussion still affects people with disabilities in a very harmful manner by foisting the opinion that physically challenged people are different from the rest of the population and, therefore, have to be treated differently. This message serves as a breeding ground for the promotion of discrimination of disabled people in the contemporary society since it makes people assume that the disabled are somewhat different from the rest seeing that they must be congratulated on every action that would be seen as ordinary when performed by any other person.

The Grain of Objectivity: Stereotype Accuracy

Weirdly enough, the images created by the authors of the article as opposed to those created by the photographer identify the aforementioned discrepancy in the portrayal of the disabled rather precisely. The article makes a very valid point regarding the overly emphasized significance of the accomplishments of the disabled people, who chose to challenge themselves to achieve more than regular people could. Indeed, the results of a few people’s hard works should not be used as the tool to evaluate and judge other people with disadvantages, who may have little to no achievements to be proud of when compared to the success of the few disabled people, who reached an unfathomably high level of proficiency at a specific subject or activity.

As a result of the introduction of these images into the society, people’s perception of other people with disadvantages may be distorted, and they may be perceived solely as record breakers instead of actual people with emotions, ambitions, and aspirations. However, while being admittedly valid, the above-mentioned argument becomes buried under the weight of inconsistencies between the information represented in the text, the images that are created with the help of the article, and the pictures that are represented to the audience as visual aids (Anastasiou & Kauffman 2013).

In fact, the stereotypes portrayed in the images and the implications that they contain can be considered fairly accurate as far as the depiction of determined people with disabilities is concerned. The pressure of the society can hardly be underestimated when it comes to stereotyping; once the idea of being deficient is foisted onto the people with disadvantages, they are likely to seek ways to prove the people around them wrong, hence the need to participate in the contests that help them achieve socially acclaimed success. A recent study shows that people with disabilities are restricted in the choice of their lifestyle to a considerable extent due to the prejudices that still thrive among the members of numerous communities: “disability is conceptualized as a limitation of relevant capabilities, and is seen in its relational aspect to impairment and social designs” (Terzi 2013, p. 31).


Although the article by Ryder can be viewed as progressive due to the emphasis on the importance of the social perception and the social image of the disabled, it still succumbs to the same misunderstanding of stereotyping people with disadvantages based on the preconception regarding disability as a deficiency that makes these people unfit to be members of the society. Nevertheless, Ryder gets across a range of important messages concerning the social perception of people with disabilities. Thus, the stereotypes portrayed in the article become a tool for building awareness.

Reference List

Anastasiou, D, & Kauffman, J M 2013, ‘The social model of disability: dichotomy between impairment and disability’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, vol. 38, no. 4, 441–459.

Lamport, M A, Grave, L, & Wagg, A 2012, ‘Special needs students in inclusive classrooms: the impact of social interaction on educational outcomes for learners with emotional and behavioral disabilities’, European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 5, pp 54–69.

Morris, J, Mueller, S, & LaForce J 2013, ‘Social media, public emergencies, and disability’, Journal on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 167–178.

Quaigrain, R A, Winter, J, & Issa, M H 2014, ‘A critical review of the literature on disability management in the construction industry’, In A Raiden & E Aboagye-Nimo (Eds.), Proceedings 30th annual ARCOM conference, Portsmouth, UK, Association of Researchers in Construction Management, 1121–1130.

Ryder, G 2014, Reporting on disability: guidelines for the media, International Labor Organization, Geneva.

Terzi, L 2013, ‘Disability and civic equality: a capability perspective’, ANICIA, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 25–40.

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