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Representation, portrayal and accessibility of people with disabilities in the media

Covering an event with a video camera

Media is an important part of all our daily lives. It is one of the mediums that sub consciously leaves a huge impression on our decisions, choices and even prejudices. By media one does not just mean popular media but everything to do with the means of carrying communication and information – the true essence of the word media.

First, let’s talk about the popular media and it’s representation of people with disabilities. What we see is what we sometimes choose to believe. If we are constantly reinforced with imagery that associates poor people on the street as criminals, then it is that very impression of them which will remain on our minds. Similarly, the depiction of disability in the media plays a major role in moulding public perception. Any kind of interpretation portrayed in the media will directly influence the way people with disabilities are treated in society.

Unfortunately, when a person with disability is portrayed in movies and television shows, s/he is almost always depicted as the victim or the helpless soul in dire need of charity. We would have even seen or heard of movies or shows where characters who are blind or use a wheelchair are miraculously “healed” and “cured” thus leading a happy life thereafter.

The other common depiction is at the opposite end of the spectrum – The inspirational or brave representation. This is often the terminology used by traditional media outfits as well. I often read stories describing people with disabilities as inspirational and courageous. And more often than it’s mostly because they do simple things like get a job, finish education – nothing extraordinary. Unfortunately, this exaggerated use of linguistics leaves the public thinking people with disabilities must be perceived as inspirational for “daring” to go out of their way and try something “normal”.

And the third representation, perhaps the most common these days – the heroic portrayal where a person with disability has superpowers and overcomes a disability as a result. Quite often found in comic books, these characters sub consciously leave a strong impression in the minds of children. The superhero/superhuman complex is not just limited to children’s books but it has also been a tag line of the Paralympics.

Disability is also seen as a great storyline – The pity and sympathy card! And for non-disabled actors to test their acting “abilities” to their fullest potential. But how many actors do you know of who are actually disabled? Research shows that one segment within the disabled population that gets parts in movies is that of amputees. Movies on artificial intelligence often cast people with amputations as extras since they need people without limbs to attach their futuristic prosthetics to. But their names will never be recognized.

This has been a topic of debate especially in the recent past because of the number of disabled characters played on screen by non-disabled characters. It is easy to see through them and while I appreciate the intention of bringing to the forefront the life of a person with disability, sometimes the realities shown are so utopian and unrealistic that it misses the very point – People with disabilities don’t have it easy. From attitudes to societal stigma and finally to accessibility, it is a long battle.

And this brings me to accessibility in the media, which is where my expertise lies. Once again by media, I don’t mean just television or news but any kind of service that helps in communication and delivering information.

In the last few years, one of the most revolutionary changes or developments to have come about is no doubt the internet. Information is now at the tip of our fingers. The world has become smaller.

Accessibility is often perceived to be of assistance only to people with disabilities. This is the biggest myth surrounding any kind of accessibility be it in physical environment or on the internet. Just the way a ramp, a means of access, is useful to a person on a wheelchair and a mother with a pram, web and technology accessibility also helps users across a spectrum. One of the key principles of web accessibility is designing in a flexible way in order to meet different user needs. This also includes people without disabilities in certain situations – For example, accessing a website in a very noisy area, slow internet connection or older people.

There are now so many tools to ensure accessibility of popular media. People who are blind or deaf if provided information in accessible formats like audio descriptions and captioning can easily just like all of us enjoy going to the movies. Once again, this can be useful for all of us. Sometimes so many of us use captioning on movie and TV shows if we don’t understand the accent. This is called universal design – accessibility for all.

Web and technology accessibility in itself is a huge market and a topic of discussion. The world is now talking about why it makes business sense to design your products, websites and software keeping accessibility in mind. In a few countries legislations are already in place to ensure accessibility universally. The problem however is implementation which also boils down to attitudes and understanding of Disability and accessibility.

Which is why representation becomes so important. What we see is what we choose to believe. So if we are constantly learning about disability as an issue of charity, inspiration, heroism or a victim – we will never be able to look at it as a humane issue. Which is why we need real people portraying real lives and not those of superheroes.

About the Author

Aqeel Qureshi
Aqeel Qureshi

Aqeel Qureshi is Founder and CEO, Techbility and passionate about improving the online experience for persons with disabilities by ensuring that all information systems are accessible to the broadest possible audience. Aqeel has served as Vice President of the GAATES (, and the Editor of the Global Accessibility News (GAN). Aqeel is currently serving as Chair of the RI-ICTA for the Asia Pacific.