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Are we handicapped by our media portrayal?

Sunday 3 December marked the United Nations International Day for Disabled Persons. We are also in the midst of New Zealand Disability Pride Week. These events not only celebrate the contribution disabled people make throughout the world but also highlight the barriers we face both in Aotearoa New Zealand and worldwide. The major barrier being the negative attitudes and erroneous assumptions and beliefs of others, including the media.

Chris Ford and I recently co-presented a paper at the Disability Matters Conference at Otago University in Dunedin. The presentation was an update to research we had previously produced for the Convention Coalition Monitoring Group in 2013, about how disabled people are portrayed by the media. The research found negative and stereotypical media reports abound: focusing on medical and/or charitable aspects of impairment, but failing to address rights-based issues about removing barriers to our participation. N.B. coverage of the conference by the mainstream media was negligible, just a couple of local interest stories were published.

So has anything changed since 2013? Well a little but there’s still some way to go. In the main, the unique views of disabled people continue to be unrepresented in critical discussions of national importance, in the mainstream media. The most noticeable change was in stories about disability produced in the digital and social media spaces. These tended to be more positive and focus on rights-based issues, for example the Blind Side series of 5 podcasts produced by Jonathan Mosen, in which he interviewed disability spokes people from the five major New Zealand political parties. This podcast series represents the only disability focused media discussion with relevant political party representatives in New Zealand, prior to the 2017 general election.

In updating our original research into the portrayal of disabled New Zealanders by the media we came to the conclusion that there is still some way to travel before we can say disabled New Zealanders are portrayed accurately: as people with impairments, disabled by the barriers erected by society.