Media shape attitudes toward disabled


In 2010, the United States Census Bureau reported that 56.7 million Americans, or nearly one in five, are living with a disability. For comprising such a large portion of the population, people with disabilities and policy issues related to disability are under-represented in the media.

To make matters worse, when the media do include people with disabilities in their reporting, it is generally approached from one of two ways. Either it is suggested that people with disabilities should be pitied or the individual is portrayed as heroic. Stories often describe an individual who “struggles” with disability X, yet achieves something “remarkable.”

A recent story about a girl with cerebral palsy who won the title of Homecoming Queen is a case in point. The story emphasized that her winning was not the result of “pity” votes. The takeaway point seemed to be that it is remarkable that she won and legitimately at that.

Why should it be so surprising that she won?

In no way am I attempting to downplay the young lady’s accomplishment. Being named Homecoming Queen is certainly special and she certainly deserves all of the attention that surrounds being queen. Stories just shouldn’t be framed in a way that suggest to the public that succeeding while living with a disability is unusual or extraordinary.

The news media have a powerful role in creating perceptions and influencing the views of the public. Reporting that pities people with disabilities or on the other extreme deems them heroic for doing things not generally seen as heroic are an obstacle to the acceptance of people with disabilities into society.