Representation of

Disability in the Media

Image: A group of hands in motion.


The first myth [we have to] debunk is that there is no disability representation in media. (Jones, 2016).

In fact, we see disability in broadcast media regularly, in news stories, advertisements, stock photography and social media. Depictions of disability in media can vary wildly from authentic and inclusive to flawed or offensive. It’s important to question who is being represented, and who is behind the representation. What we often see of disabled people in broadcast media is a very narrow part of the wide spectrum of disability, and often it relies on stereotypes. In this section we will investigate the politics of representation and the constant stereotypes and tropes that are used around disability.

Developing an Understanding

Published in 2005, The Canadian Association of Broadcasters report The Presence, Portrayal and Participation of Persons with Disabilities on Television Programming opens in new window found an overall lack of coverage of disability issues by television news; the types of coverage that focus on the disability rather than the person; and the use of inappropriate language when referring to persons with disabilities in news programming. The report included findings from one-on-one interviews, a discussion forum, and research and analysis with disabled people from a variety of news and media organizations (CAB, 2005).

Key findings included:

  1. On-screen presence of persons with disabilities was extremely low. Negative social attitudes, resistance from the independent production sector and a lack of direction from the education sector were viewed as key barriers.
  2. Negative and stereotypical portrayals of persons with disabilities in both dramatic and news programming. Given the small numbers of persons with disabilities on-screen, it was important that portrayals were fair, accurate and complete. Negative social attitudes and a lack of consultation and research by the independent production sector were cited as key barriers.
  3. Issues of portrayal in news programming were viewed as more critical than in dramatic programming, owing in part to the perceived use of inappropriate or insensitive language referencing persons with disabilities in news coverage.
  4. Low participation of persons with disabilities in the broadcasting industry, both on-screen and behind the scenes, was attributed to a number of factors, including an education system that does not promote careers in broadcasting.
  5. There was a general belief that greater inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Television Programming presented opportunities for broadcasters to increase audiences, gain a competitive edge and benefit all employees by implementing accommodation measures.
  6. Study participants agreed that building communication/outreach between broadcasters and the disability community was a key starting point for a broadcaster toolkit.

(Modified from CAB, 2005).

So, in 2021, what can journalists do better? It is important to cover disability communities using the same fundamentals of journalism used to cover any other group: by getting to know sources well; consider the many different angles of a single story; and find out how the story can serve readers and subjects alike beyond simply “inspiring” them (Lu, W. 2017).

Wendy Lu, in an article in The Columbia Journalism Review opens in new window offers the following tips for journalists:

  • Use neutral language. Instead of ‘they are wheelchair-bound’ use ‘they use a wheelchair’.
  • Interview disabled people directly as well as caregivers, family, friends, and associates.
  • Make news accessible opens in new window with captioned video, transcribed audio, image descriptions, and access to larger fonts.
  • Ask sources if they prefer person-first (“person with a disability”) or identity-first (“disabled person”) language.
  • Identify under-reported disability issues in sports, health, education, criminal justice, and in other news.

(Adapted from the Colombia Journalism Review opens in new window)

The D-Net, The Disability Network Program Archive: A Resource for the Community by the Community

D-Net, The Disability Network, was a news and current affairs television series broadcast on CBC and Newsworld from 1990 to 1997. It was the first program at the CBC to employ people with disabilities on air and behind the cameras. It was also the first to provide them with professional training, to get them started in broadcasting careers, to provide closed-captioning, and the first to train the people who wrote the captions (CILT, n.d.).

D-Net was a co-production between the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT), CBC, and Fireweed Media, a production company run by people with disabilities. It was a great example of an innovative partnership between the community of people with disabilities, their organizations, public broadcasting, private and public funding (CILT, n.d.).

CILT recently collected the original broadcast tapes and digitized the programs, and they are now available on the CILT YouTube channel opens in new window.