Too often the media portray physical afflictions as tragedies worse than death. But a more sophisticated and accurate approach would see disability as an inconvenience and a nuisance that needn't end a productive life.
That's the message of a new book, "The Disabled, the Media and the Information Age" (Greenwood Press), edited by Jack A. Nelson, a professor of communication at Brigham Young University. He argues that while the media have become more sensitive to disability issues in the past 20 years, they still have miles to go in seeing the disabled as people.His book was appreciatively reviewed in the Aug. 27 Editor and Publisher trade magazine. It was mentioned prominently, with a quote from Nelson, in a U.S. News & World Report article last week on computer help for the disabled.
Nelson has been a paraplegic 46 years, since he suffered a viral infection of the nerves in the spine as an 18-year-old high school athlete.
- THE BOOK GREW OUT OF a paper he presented at a journalism convention three years ago, "Broken Images," which was about portrayals of the disabled, especially in the movies and on TV.
Nelson himself contributed three chapters, including one on stereotyping. He points to seven stereotypes in film and television. As summarized in E&P, Nelson says the disabled person is often seen:
- As pitiable and pathetic, as when presented on TV telethons.
- As "supercrip," which makes other disabled people feel like failures.
- As sinister, evil and criminal, like the one-armed killer in the TV program and movie, "The Fugitive."
- As better off dead, as in the play and the movie, "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?"
- As maladjusted - his own worst enemy - as with the bitter, maimed former Vietnam War lieutenant in "Forrest Gump."
- As a burden.
- As unable to live a successful life.
Nelson cites some noteworthy reasonable portrayals of the handicapped - the book mentions Dr. Gillespie of the "Young Dr. Kildare" movie, played by Lionel Barrymore after he was in a wheel-chair. Nelson also points to Raymond Burr's "Ironside" as a strong positive example. But he says these are the exceptions. When a character shows up on the screen with a physical affliction, especially when it is seen as threatening as with a hook on the hand, you can just about bet he will end up as the villain.
It's not just the entertainment media that are at fault, Nelson and his co-authors argue. Generally the disabled are invisible in the news. When they do appear, it is usually in so-called "success stories," what he calls "the heroic gimp - the guy who limps across Canada on one leg." Other disabled, he says, are made to feel that unless they can do something heroic they aren't worthwhile.
- DON'T TELL NELSON that you can't legislate attitudes. He says civil rights legislation has gone a long way toward changing our view of blacks, who used to be seen only in demeaning roles. Most young adults will have a hard time believing that the movies of their grandparents' generation found amusing a well-known black film figure called Stepin Fetchit, who rolled his eyes and was shiftless, incoherent and servile. Nelson credits the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which provides that public accommodations have to be accessible to wheelchairs, as spurring what he calls "the disability movement."
And Nelson says ad illustrations finally are coming around to include some disabled people, and though they are usually relegated to backgrounds, "that's some progress."
Nelson is a good example of how the disabled can live full lives. Successful in many roles, including his family and profession, he travels and hunts. In addition to his journalistic and scholarly writing, he has written four published novels.
THE PROBLEMS Nelson illuminates are at last being addressed institutionally by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, though it is too early to assess how effectively.
Nearly four years ago, when I had been eight months on crutches with a broken leg, I wrote in this space (Media Monitor, Jan. 28, 1991) about how my accident had sensitized me to some of the problems of the disabled. I was pleased to read then how the ASNE had set up a disabilities committee to produce guidelines "to clear away the confusion and self-conscious fumbling that has characterized reporting and writing about people with afflictions."
Like Nelson, the ASNE said that newspapers had to do a better job of recognizing the personhood of people with disabilities. It urged foremost that the media avoid pity and "learn what the person can do - try not to be amazed at his or her accomplishments." And it reminded writers not to mention disability unless clearly pertinent to the story, just as they would do in mentioning age, sex and race.
BOTH THE ASNE committee and the Nelson book say it is hard nowadays to come up with acceptable terms to describe disabled people.
The committee found no firm consensus in the use of "handicapped" and "disabled." It recommended choosing phrases that focus on the person, as in "she has partial hearing" rather than "she is hearing-impaired." One of Nelson's chapter authors, Mary Johnson, editor of the Disability Rag, worries that the new euphemisms such as calling the disabled "physically challenged," while they try to be positive, only trivialize and segregate the disabled. She believes that "correct" terminology has to arise from the culture and cannot be imposed.