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How Disability Has Been Portrayed in the Media

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For centuries, disability has always been a challenging topic to grasp. This is perhaps due to the continuous confusion and lack of knowledge surrounding disability, which has resulted in society being unsure on how to approach and understand the appropriate way to treat someone who has an impairment. This essay will focus on the misunderstanding and confusion between the medical and social models of disability, with reference to the media portfolio. 

The idea of disability had not always existed, until the progression of diagnosis and medicine occurred in the 19th century. This led to the notion that disabled people needed to be cured and fixed in order to be a normal, functioning person in society. According to the medical model thinking, which has been the most prominent view of disability for years, the word ‘disabled’ means less able. This gives the impression that disabled people are less able to participate fully in society and achieve their full potential. The medical model has been known for only seeing the individual’s disability as the issue, which has influenced society to feel pity and sympathy towards people with impairments. An example of this can be backed up in Entry 4 of the media portfolio. In the tv programme Undateables, the individuals with impairments are often given sympathetic commentary, such as, ‘has never been on a date before due to their disability’, ‘lonely’, ‘miserable’ and ‘ ashamed to date because of their appearance’, this language is clearly used to provoke sympathy from the viewers,  exemplifies that ‘stereotypically disabled people are depicted as pitiful and pathetic’, this is such a devasting and upsetting stereotype to have, as people with impairments are the complete opposite of pitiful and sympathetic, they are normal human beings too and deserve to be treated with respect. 

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The medical model enforces that if an individual has an impairment, it is a ‘personal tragedy’. This an extremely negative depiction of people with impairments as it encourages them to believe that they are lesser than able bodied individuals. The medical model is flawed for believing that being disabled is a disaster and that anyone who has an impairment should be cured so that only then, will they be able to function efficiently within society, in reality, this is not the case. People with impairments should not feel like they are someone who needs to be cured or cared for as it makes them feel like a burden on society which is entirely unfair and a problematic outlook to have. The medical model should not enforce that individuals with impairments should be helpless and pitiful people who, people who have disabilities should be accepted and treated like everyone else, just because someone has to use a wheelchair as transport, a stick to walk down the street due to being blind or have to have a prosthetic limb, does not make them any less of human-being. Being disabled should not be seen as being a negative thing. The issue is not the individual having a disability, it is societies arrogance and inability to accept that having a disability does not make anyone a pitiful, broken or a meaningless person. It is impossible for someone with an impairment to ‘fit in’ and adapt within society if they are constantly being shut away. Those with disabilities have nearly always been shut away according to, ‘people with disabilities were often, sent to asylums, sold off to freak shows, and even sterilized’. This type of treatment reflects how negative societal attitudes can poorly impact those with disabilities. A lot of people hold the perspective that those with disabilities should be feared, pitied, and neglected. Today, people who have disabilities are often still frequently ‘attributed stereotypical characteristics such as weakness, dependency, and incapacity’. This is a problematic way of thinking and needs to be challenged.

According to, the media and film industry can often depict disabled people as being miserable and pitiful people. For instance, media portfolio 5, the young boy Auggie is portrayed as being a weak and sympathetic character due to having a facial disfigurement. Auggie’s teachers and parents refer to him as ‘brave’, ‘strong’ and ‘a hero’. This touching language makes the viewer feel emotional and sympathetic towards the young boy and gives the impression that impairment is a tragedy and needs to be cured. Auggie’s classmates called him cruel names such as ‘freak’, which clearly had a negative impact on his self-esteem and confidence as he wore a helmet to school to hide his facial disfigurement. Disability is not something that someone sho

uld be made to feel ashamed about and should be embraced as it is what makes them unique, ‘not a hopeless victim to their disability’. 

Another issue which is raised from the medical model, is that it tends to need donations from charities, this can make people with impairments feel vulnerable, helpless and pitied as a result. It can be argued that charities send out the wrong message to people as it depicts people with impairments as being a ‘charity case’ and people who should be sympathised by the public. An example of this is a money box of a young schoolboy with books on his knees, with a guide dog beside him saying, ‘give money to the blind’. This is clearly attention grabbing and makes the public feel pitiful, as the fact that the boy is young with schoolbooks on his knee gives the impression that he is vulnerable and pitiful. Some people do not like the idea of using pitiful images to receive donations. However, it is perhaps an effective idea as without charities those in need would not receive the money, they need to buy equipment and medicine.

The medical model is perhaps outdated, therefore has been challenged by disabled people to the social model as they believed that the medical model blames their disability, something they cannot control, rather than social issues such as poor environment and societal attitudes which can cause oppression and isolates disabled people. 

The modern term, social model was developed by disabled people and refers to barriers and attitudes implemented by society. The social model thinking believes that the individual is disabled by society. It is due to the physical barriers and attitudes imposed on disabled people by society which prevents people being able to participate to their full potential within society, resulting in feelings of discrimination and isolation, cited In Swain, French. The social model of disability highlights that societies attitudes and opinions can strongly shape how an individual with a disability feels and is treated by others. According to Swain, there is quite a lot of confusion on the terms that society can use to call people with impairments. For example, ‘Disabled people’ and ‘people with disabilities’, can be appropriate in some cultures and be being purely offensive in others. Swain firmly believes that the term ‘People with disability’, is a more positive phrase as it is more ‘person first’, as it places the individual before the disability, as their disability does not define them. They are more than just their disability. This term is positive as it makes the person feel more included and respected by society rather than just being downgraded to a disability and nothing more.

Labelling is a controversial issue when discussing the topic of disability. For instance, referring to someone as handicap, cripple, spastic, can have an extremely damaging effect on their self-esteem and can make them feel that society does not consider them to be equal members within society, instead they feel like an outsider. This can have an extremely negative impact on the individual as it can discourage them from making friends and socializing as they feel inferior, isolated and mocked. Society arguably is uneducated and confused on which term is appropriate to call someone with a disability as it is difficult for people from different cultures to agree on only one term which is suitable to use. Entry 6 of the media portfolio, is an excellent example of how offensive words and insults have been challenged through reappropriation, meaning that words which have been previously used to belittle and dehumanise disabled people are now being reclaimed and used as a badge of honour and acceptance. Crippen uses his illustrations to challenge discriminatory behaviour through comedy and light-hearted jokes to prove that harsh comments do not belittle him and that he is proud of who he is. Society need to open their eyes and see that being disabled is not something to be ashamed of. People who have impairments can do many day to day activities, just like any other person, extends this view as he argues, “Environmental barriers and social attitudes are a crucial part of our experience of disability – and do indeed disable us –“, this clearly illustrates that it is societies words and actions that disables people with is unethical and should not be endured any longer. Society has continuously failed to change and adjust to disability as it has repeatedly lacked respect and empathy for people with impairments causing them to feel stigmatised.

The social model encourages that there should always be an appropriate environment for disabled people. A lot of employers have misconceptions and attitudinal barriers about disabled people and consider them to be unskilled workers, this misconception is dehumanising and degrading as this is untrue. Disabled people should not feel unwelcomed, underestimated and discriminated against by society for something they cannot control, states that most job organisations are only concerned about maximising their profits, therefore are more inclined to only hire individuals who are able-bodied. This is an incredibly unfair attitude to have as it underestimated their abilities and makes people feel inadequate to able bodied individuals. To overcome this the Equality Act, 2010 has been put in place to ensure everyone is granted equal rights to work and grants protection from discrimination. It is mandatory for correct control measures to be carried out by the place of work, in order to make it as comfortable and risk free as possible for the individual. An example of this could be having access to an elevator in a building rather than stairs, another measure could be simply adjusting the work hours. Changes like these can make a tremendous difference to the work life of someone who is disabled and will make them feel like an equal citizen within society.

According to, there has been positive changes on how disability has been portrayed in the media. An example of this is the Freeserve’s advertisement featuring Aimee Mullins which showed her running with her prosthetic leg with a lion running beside her. This image portrayed strength and fearlessness. This created a break-through in the long history of oppressive imagery of disabled people as she showed that beauty and strength is not just shown in able bodied people. This advertisement demonstrated that disability is not something pitiful and shameful and challenged societal assumptions of what beauty is. Combatting discrimination towards disabled people is extremely important and should be continued to be enforced.

In conclusion, it is evident that medical model thinking is restrictive as it gives the impression that disability is not a normal thing and should be cured. If someone cannot be cured, they are excluded and isolated, leading to feelings of self-blame and shame as they do not fit into the stereotypical person society wants them to be. According to, the social model is ‘undoubtedly a powerful tool to remove discrimination and is necessary to remove barriers, encourage independence and opportunity’. Disability is a social construct and has created barriers for people which must be eliminated in order to create a more equal society which will enable everyone to reach their full potential and live a happy and fulfilling life. 

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