The current portrayal and inclusion of people with disability in television is a problem, according to a not for profit aiming to change mainstream attitudes to disability with a new documentary series.
Frustrated by representation of disability in the media, particularly in television, the Attitude Foundation, founded by former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes, is seeking to change the story.
A 13-episode documentary series will feature “interesting people who happen to have a disability” telling their story.
Alex Varley, the foundation’s CEO, told Pro Bono News the portrayal of disability in television didn’t reflect real life.
“When we were looking at where are the issues, the problems around the portrayal of people with disability, we recognised that the big area is the way that people with disability are portrayed in the media,” Varley said.
“You’ve really got two dimensions for that. One is that you don’t necessarily see many people with a disability actually in the media, particularly… television programs where you have normal drama.
“There’s some Screen Australia studies which have shown that around 4 per cent of characters in Australian drama are people with disability, whereas of course the general population is around 18 to 20 per cent.
“And then when you actually see people with disability in things like television programs, there’s a lot of stereotypes.”
One of the stereotypes, according to Varley, is the idea that disability needs to be cured.
“Particularly when you’re watching things like the news where a very typical scenario is the scientist or the doctor who has discovered some miracle cure for a poor disabled child who is helpless and pitiful, and really focusing all the time on those extreme stories and extreme portrayals of disability,” he said.
“Whereas in fact we know… most people with disabilities are not helpless.
“They’re just ordinary people getting on with their lives and sometimes their disability and the way that society deals with it may impact on their lives, but it doesn’t define them necessarily.”
The Attitude Foundation said other common stereotypes included “disabled villains”, with disability framed as the as the basis of resentment or “objects of total inspiration”, where a person is shown to “overcome” their disability.
Varley said accurate representations of other minority groups have been proven to change societal attitudes.
“Television still has a major impact,” he said.
“There’s a few research studies that have been done over the years and in fact one of the more famous ones was the ‘Will and Grace effect’, after that American TV show, which was actually about attitudes towards gay people.
“What that showed… is that it actually helped to change mainstream attitudes towards gay people as just being part of society as your colleagues, your friends and neighbours and everyone else.”
There are some guidelines that television studios are supposed to follow around the portrayal of people with disability.
But Varley said, despite these measures chipping away at the issue, it wasn’t enough.
“We look at it and say: ‘Can we actually change every single television program that appears?’ and of course the obvious answer to that is: ‘Well no you can’t,’” he said.
He said there were a number of reasons to produce TV series featuring people with disabilities.
“The reason for us doing it and making a series from it is that you get prolonged exposure,” he said.
“And what you get to see then is the variety of people with disability, and it’s not all about the stereotypes like every blind person has a guide dog or carries a white cane… or every person with a physical disability is in a wheelchair.
“It’s about us focusing on something that we think is achievable, that we know will have an impact, and that we can help to control that message and get those proper stories made by people with disabilities.”
Varley said the series would be in a similar style to Australian Story.
“It’s about telling an individual’s story – someone with disability – and it’s not going to be sensationalist,” he said.
“But obviously the people who will be involved in the programs will have interesting stories in themselves. No one watches boring television and you don’t change attitudes if no one watches it.
“But what it will do is really give you more nuances and tease out how they live and what happens when their disability impacts on them because of what society does.”
The Attitude Foundation is fundraising to produce the pilot episode.