Disability in the Media: Are We Just Being Too Sensitive?

On September 25, 2005, an article appeared in the New York Times Sunday magazine featuring an anonymous blind man. The author, Gabrielle Hamilton, interviewed him for a position as a line cook in her restaurant. The man never disclosed his disability or requested any accommodations, and as a result, he failed the interview miserably. The article is rife with disability slurs and stereotypes, beginning with the description of the man’s eyes as “rolling around in his head like fish in the aquarium of a cheap motel lobby” and continuing to describe his spilling salt on the counter, fries on the floor, and almost burning his hair over the grill as he tried to see the meat. Ms. Hamilton focused on her first-person account of her reactions to the applicant, admitting that she was at first awed by him, then frustrated, and finally she failed to tell him the real reason he did not get the job.

I was a 20-year-old college student when that article made the rounds. My eyes have always moved uncontrollably, and the article felt personal. So, I put my homework on hold, and wrote a detailed complaint letter to the editor. Several other blind folks did the same. But, far from pulling the offensive article or even apologizing, the editor sent a form reply to all of us, stating, in brief, that “we do not feel that Hamilton’s story was insensitive to the blind…..We believe the story was a poignant and sensitive slice-of-life about a difficult subject. And we hope you will reconsider your thoughts about our judgment.” Instead of taking responsibility for any unintentional offense caused, the editor put the responsibility on us to just not be so sensitive. And, the article is still online Check out some responses from blind people

On October 3, 2008, a film called “Blindness” was released. An adaptation of the award-winning novel by the same name, Blindness features a society plagued by a sudden epidemic of “white sickness.” Everyone goes blind, and can only see a fuzzy white light. The people are quarantined, and the social order collapses. Among other things, the book and film feature blinded individuals literally defecating in the streets or their beds because they cannot get themselves to the toilet; an armed gang of blinded men terrorizes the others, stealing food and valuables and abusing the women; and the social order is saved by one woman who mysteriously avoids becoming blind.
Several of us organized informational protests at movie theaters on the film’s opening night. In discussions, however, it became clear that some people thought we were, again, being overly sensitive. I was told, by both blind and sighted people, that I shouldn’t be upset by this film because it wasn’t about “real” blindness. Instead, the term “blindness” was just being used as a metaphor for the depravity that can rise up in society when we fail to cooperate. The awful living conditions in the film were supposed to be analogous to life after a natural disaster. I was told that the blinded characters in the film were different from the “real” blind people who inhabit this earth. Intelligent viewers, I was told, would be able to make the distinction. I explained that I could see little difference between people who go blind suddenly from “white sickness” and my friends who went blind suddenly from illness or accident. I explained that one of the characters, who actually became the gang leader for a time, was congenitally blind and used braille. And, I explained that even if people can consciously distinguish between movie characters and people they meet on the street or around the conference table, we all have unconscious, implicit prejudices and associations that can be activated by these kinds of depictions. Fortunately, the film did not perform well and only stayed in theaters for a few weeks, although this probably had little to do with the blindness community.

Finally, just this week, I read this article about an ad for a powdered “green” juice product called Zuma Juice. One of the characters in this ad was a woman sitting in a power wheelchair, shoveling cheese puffs into her mouth and washing them down with soda. She was presented as a stark contrast to a fit woman making the juice. As David Perry states in his critique, the ad played on two of the worst stereotypes toward wheelchair users: that their disability is due to unhealthy choices, and that they’re just using the chair out of laziness rather than a real mobility need.

At first, dialogue with Zuma went similarly to the dialogue with NYT and the Blindness filmmakers. Zuma reps apologized, but said that “There are a lot of people out there who use power chairs who don’t need them,” a comment that ignores those individuals who need power chairs but can’t afford them. Zuma reiterated that their company was “all about inclusivity and positivity,” implying, again, that as long as they didn’t mean to be offensive, there was no problem.

Eventually, however, Zuma listened to the disability community, and removed the wheelchair user from the ad. “We did damage, and we realize it now” they told Mr. Perry. I commend Zuma for their honesty and humility, but at the same time, I wish they had come to this realization before 300,000 people viewed the ad.

Media portrayals of disabled people matter. They matter just as much as portrayals of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, homeless people, and any other group that has been historically devalued. But as long as journalists, filmmakers, novelists, advertisers, and others deny the importance of how they portray disabled characters, stereotypes and stigmas will continue to be reinforced.

It’s said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I know it is difficult for companies to do damage control after something is released. But disabled people are around, and we’re available to evaluate media that involves us before it gets released to the public. Perhaps by contacting us first, the people who want to include us in print media, in film, or in commercials can start off on a good foot.

I recognize that often people who portray us negatively don’t do so out of malice. They usually have some other goal that has the potential to conflict with disability justice. But by talking with us, it is possible to find a way to reconcile your non-disability-related goals with positive disability depictions.

For example, Gabrielle Hamilton wrote about the challenges of interviewing a visibly disabled job applicant who chose not to disclose his disability. That is a genuinely challenging situation, one that deserves consideration. But, if she had talked with us, she could have found a way to present her dilemma without relying on demeaning stereotypes and clichés. She could have even had an ADA expert write an addendum to the article, discussing the legal ramifications of her situation and what she was or was not allowed to ask him about his disability. She could have done well, at least, to cut that sentence about the guy’s eyes rolling around like aquarium fish. Similarly, there are ways to create metaphor and allegory without exploiting real conditions, and to sell products or raise money for charities without playing on people’s stereotypes and fears.

Are you a journalist or blogger writing about disability? The National Center on Disability and Journalismhas some great resources, including a list of national disability organizationsContact the presidents of these organizations to gain perspective on how the piece you are writing might impact their community; and keep in mind that, as in the Blindness film, there can sometimes be debate even within a community. Even if not everyone agrees, though, I’ll bet they’ll be glad you asked.