The media affect us in many ways: as a major socialising influence, a carrier of culture, a source of information, education and entertainment, an important factor in political communication and participation in a democracy and a communicator of ideological values and norms, attitudes and believes.
Thus the media can be seen to exert an influence on identity formation and associated issues around stigma, self-esteem, social relations, economic and political positions. There are various discourses of disability which should be disseminated through the media and other channels of communication.
Nobody can sanely begrudge the sanctity that the coveted ACSA Disability Trade and Lifestyle Expo & Conference enjoys amidst the disability sector, which annually descends to its shores, akin to a spirited religious pilgrimage. Despite the fact that this extravaganza was running into its 7th year, there was poor coverage by the mainstream media – not to mention sponsorship. In this instance, one would be justified to texture pity for Bette McNaughton, event director.
Admittedly, the event das extensively carried on many portals of interested or like-minded institutions. However, an appropriate opportunity to brand the disability environment; its challenges, achievements and aspirations was lost for at least another year. This absence of representation in media spaces is also a form of prejudice that can have harmful effects, it points out that members of society who do not see representations of people ‘like themselves’ in the media learn a fundamental lesson about the importance of disability in media spaces.
“HIV counselling not available for the disabled”, screamed a headline (which went viral around the world) in the Mercury on Tuesday, 11 October 2011. This is almost all that one could salvage from proceedings at the 8th World Assembly for Disabled Peoples’ International, which took place from 10–13 October 2011 at the Inkhosi Albert Luthuli Convention Centre, Durban. With 84 countries in attendance, and international media enchanting ardent interest, this was a ‘decent’ headline indeed!
The language employed in the media to describe disability is significant. Numerous expressions used in news reports encompassing people with disabilities reveal a perception of disability as an abnormality, an impairment, an illness or a tragic loss of ‘normal, healthy’ functioning. The inkling that people with disabilities require pity or remedial treatment is often unintentionally conveyed by media, which effectively naturalises perceptions of this sector as dupes who require assistance, treatment and rehabilitation. This perception does not recognise the individuality, agency and abilities of people with disabilities.
Society sees the world through the eyes of the media. Thus this important sector should be persuaded to come to the party and adequately groomed to understand the dynamics underlying disability, get the terminology correct, and comprehend the pivotal role that it could play in shaping perceptions on disability and its myriad manifestation.
Changing laws can be swift, but giving them effect, and changing the mind-sets that often render them ineffective, is a much more demanding task. The most fashionable argument, I propose, would be for us to be jostling for practical ideas on how to refurbish our own prejudices and cast the same spell upon our compatriots. This can only be achieved with a little help from media!
By Edwin Sipho Rihlamvu