Narrow Construction of Disability in Media

Much like other underserved and often underrepresented populations, all forms of media continue to narrowly construct people with disabilities. Whether referring to news media, or characters in movies, on Broadway, or primetime television, each provides the general population a limited glimpse into the lives of people with disabilities. On the small screen, GLAAD’s Where Are We on TV Report 2014 indicates only 1.4% of regular, primetime character in scripted series on broadcast networks will be depicted as people with disabilities despite the fact that nearly 20% of Americans have a disability. Unfortunately, even those few characters generally fall into one of a limited number of categories of disability typically including characters with Down Syndrome, hearing impairment, people using wheelchairs, or those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In advertising, the new trend is featuring models with disabilities. Unfortunately, like network television, the few models currently being featured are people with Down Syndrome, or those with prosthetic limbs, and who are rarely signed to major modeling agencies, but instead smaller agencies who specialize in representing people with disabilities and modeling contracts for lesser-known brands.

Even when people with disabilities receive the opportunity to be represented in various scripted media, media creators are making decisions to cast actors and actresses who are not actually disabled. Take for example the recent backlash on Broadway when a non-autistic actor was chosen to play the lead in the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Similar situations have been seen in the movies and on television. Arty Abrams, the character who uses a wheelchair on Fox’s Glee, is played by the non-disabled actor Kevin McHale. Non-disabled actor Eddie Redmayne was selected to portray Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything. Max Braverman, a teen with Aspergers Syndrome on Parenthood, was played by neutrotypical actor Max Burkholder. While it is unfortunate that actors and actresses with disabilities are missing vital opportunities for employment, also discouraging is the often misinterpreted representation of various aspects of disability which occur when characters are not disabled. Whether it is the media created fallacy that all autistic people are monotone and possess little in the way of personality, or that blind people touch the face of others to identify another person, these misconceptions perpetrated by narrow constructions in media affect the way the general public receives, interacts with, and includes people with disabilities. It is necessary to diversity not only the type of characters portrayed in various scripted media, but the types of actors playing these roles to ensure that people with disabilities are represented accurately and widely across all media.


Entitlement Reform | Where are Disabilities?

A subject that is often widely debated in political news media is the recurrent issue of the US budget and subsequent budget cuts. In recent years, public assistance programs have continuously found themselves on the chopping block, despite exorbitant tax breaks offered to multi-billion dollar corporations. The problem with media coverage of welfare reform is less about what they are saying and more about what they are not saying. Discussions about welfare are often diluted to a two-dimensional problem: welfare queens and the working poor. What news media continually fails to cover is the 73% of entitlement benefits which are allotted to two of our most vulnerable populations: the elderly and people with disabilities. Even in articles which attempt to cover the ill effects of anti-poverty reform in the US seem to miss the mark in truly underscoring the populations which these programs serve. In this article from The Atlantic, there is only one mention of disability, and it is only a referral to the various types of payments the poorest American’s receive. Even this article from Salon which denounces the media created stereotype of the “welfare queen,” seems to simply repeat the stereotype (in case anyone missed the coverage before, they surely have it in their head now), and then fails to inform the reader about exactly who is receiving benefits and why these programs are in integral part of survival of people with disabilities and other financially vulnerable populations. This article from NBC News appears to criticize an NPR report on the number of non-disabled people receiving Social Security disability. Yet like the Salon article, not only does it simply restates the stereotype created by the NPR report without providing any context about Social Security Disability, it does not refute the information with any statistical evidence regarding the needs of the disability community and how urgent this coverage is for so many Americans.

Fortunately, there is some glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Daytona Beach News-Journal recently feature two articles outlining the effects of cuts to people with disabilities. The article, though fairly brief, attempts to provide context to the wide net of needs of the disability community, and how cuts can affect not only necessary programs like SNAP, but also programs which provide a better, more inclusive quality of life for people with disabilities. Debates in the news media about entitlement programs are not where this problem ends. The media consistently fails to cover the effects of budget cuts in education, health services, housing programs, legal services, technology, transportation, and more. It is time for news media to cover issues of disability with context, statistics, and accurate representations of the individuals most affected by these issues.

Grading the Media | BBC and Disabilities

A recent article on the BBC titled, “Children with learning disabilities ‘more vulnerable to abuse’” attempted to bring much need attention to a serious issue facing the disability community. While the publicity is certainly welcomed, the BBC’s coverage of the issue is confusing at best.

Abuse of individuals with disabilities is a long standing and well documented issue that has plagued schoolslong term care facilities, and many other community resources which should be educating and protecting this vulnerable population. Unfortunately, the BBC article failed to provide any background or context to the issue of abuse in the disability community for this piece.

The BBC article begins its coverage of this important issue with a broken link referencing a “report” conducted by “a coalition of children’s charities.” A few paragraphs later, the article states, “The report was commissioned by Comic Relief, and was produced by Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities, Paradigm Research and Coventry University.” Unfortunately, not a single link is used allowing readers further investigate the organizations behind the report, a vital process to help savvy readers verify content they find online.

After lazily summarizing the origination of the report, the BBC fails to provide any statistical or other data from the report anywhere in the article. Instead, the article provides what appears to be a disjointed series of quotes pulled directly from the report which provide little insight or depth to the issue at hand.

The article proceeds to include quotes from what appears to be an interview with one case study participant they call “Jane.” Jane, now 19 years old, describes through a series of quotes an online encounter she had with an older man when she was just 14 years old. While the BBC should be commended for including people with disabilities in their article, her account of being manipulated on social media sounds like one of a million we have heard before: young, naive girl falls prey to older man asking for private pictures online.

The use of this example with no context articulating how this situation differs from those encountered by neurotypical teens would leave most readers wondering how this is an issue specific to disability. The BBChad an opportunity to provide in-depth reporting and context on the issue of learning disabilities, the challenges and benefits of children with disabilities participating in an online platform, and how all of these affect children with disabilities use of social media. Unfortunately, this article failed to provide any substantive information about any disability, and certainly did not offer any insight to its readers about how this is an issue specific to the disability community.

The article closed the story with more quotes, little data, and no links to any further reading or resources. The first sentence of the final section of the article subtitled, “Stay safe,” begins, “Emilie Smeaton, research director at Paradigm, said there was a perception children with learning disabilities did not have the same sexual needs and desires as others.” The BBC once again began to dip their toe into the water of another hot topic in the disability community—sexuality— yet decidedly pulled back, again providing no context, background, links, or any other substantive information to back up this statement. It is yet another missed opportunity by the BBC.

Finally, the issue of neglect and abuse in the disability community is widespread. Resources and legislation currently exist which provide people with disabilities and their support systems ways to preventreport, and learn about issues of abuse against this community. This article provided an excellent opportunity to provide additional resources and direction to those in the disability community looking for resources as well as those outside of the disability community who would like to be better informed or know how to go about identifying and reporting abuse—an opportunity wasted by the BBC.

Grade: D 

Not only did the author fail to provide background and context to the issue, readers would be unable to easily locate information about the topic because only one link was used in the entire article, which was broken. The author of this article seemed to add little commentary or explanation to the report findings within the article, failing to cite any specific data while overusing generalized findings from the research in the form of a series of disjointed, direct quotes. While the author did appropriately include input from a person within the disability community, only one person was quoted, which is not enough to adequately represent the diverse array of experiences surrounding the sexual abuse of children with disabilities. All in all, I can appreciate the BBC’s attempt to shed light on an often underreported topic—the only reason this article was not downgraded to an “F”—however, the BBC repeatedly missed an opportunity to allow its readers to experience a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.

Disabilities in the News | Missing the Mark

Despite the fact that nearly 20 percent of the US population and 15 percent of the world’s population have disabilities, very little news coverage is provided for issues concerning people with disabilities. We know from existing research that media representations shape the perceptions we have about cultures with which we do not have personal experience, and these representations (and resulting perceptions) are not always positive. In the case of disabilities, mainstream news media largely ignores issues of importance to the disability community and when stories are covered, the constructions of people with disabilities are often very narrow, either presenting members of this marginalized community as helpless, in need of charity, or representing one of a few select disabilities such as Downs Syndrome, someone using a wheelchair, or more recently, autism spectrum disorders. This past week, two very different articles about issues of disability were presented by ABC News/Good Morning America and Al Jazeera America.

Read Ohio Dad’s Tear-Jerking Letter to Newlywed Daughter With Down Syndrome” 

Source: ABC News/Good Morning America

The first article titled, “Read Ohio Dad’s Tear-Jerking Letter to Newlywed Daughter With Down Syndrome,” from ABC News wasn’t the worst article I’ve read about people with disabilities, but there were a few glaring issues. This article shared a story about a father who had written a letter to his daughter with Down Syndrome on her wedding day. While ABC should be commended for including a story portraying a person with a disability participating in a common life activity (a wedding) which many people assume is not a viable life option for people with disabilities, there is one noticeably absent participant in this story: the woman with the disability, Jillian. It is revealed in this story that the father was approach by another media outlet,, to write about his daughter with a disability getting married. Oddly, as the story on ABC unfolds, not only are the subjects of the story, Jillian and her new husband Paul (who also has a disability), not including in telling the story, at the end of the story the father reveals that he has not actually given the letter to Jillian. This left me wondering if Jillian was unknowingly part of a news story about a letter from her father on her wedding day of which she has no knowledge? It makes the entire story seem like more of a story to get clicks than to bring awareness about the abilities of people with disabilities.

In addition to Jillian and Paul being absent in the process of telling their own story, the article also does very little to provide context to why the father is writing this letter, other than revealing briefly that many people assume people with disabilities cannot accomplish the same things neurotypical people can accomplish. I think if Jillian and her husband had told their own story about struggles with cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities it would have provided an opportunity to challenge the readers own assumptions or beliefs about people with disabilities.

Title: “Public schools disturbing conflation of race and disability
Source: Al Jazeera America

The second article titled, “Public schools disturbing conflation of race and disability,” while not perfect, does a far superior job covering an issue of importance to the disability community than the ABC News article above. Given the weight of this topic and the depth that would be required to understand the full extent of the issues, I thought the article was a great introduction to the topic and provided an abundance of links to previous research findings, statistics, and existing laws, which provided readers the opportunity for a deeper understanding of the issue of race and special education. The article also attempted to not point to just one issue of race that affects special education, but tackled several different angles, including identification, discipline, quality of resources and treatment, and how advocates would like improve the system.

Unfortunately, like much of the media coverage about disabilities, the author of this article did not seek out and include the input and experiences of students with disabilities in reporting on this issue. By including the stories from students themselves, I think the story could have been far more powerful in conveying the issues than just a listing of statistics and studies. These improvements would have created a really stellar piece of reporting on a very important issue for the disability community.

Welcome to DonnellProbst.Com!

Welcome friends!  Direct from the “About” Page, here is a little introduction to and insight into what we hope to accomplish here at

Who I am…

I am a disability and special education advocate, professional photographer, and media literacy proponent with a passion for politics and social issues, particularly education.  I am also a mother and a wife raising three spectacularly unique children with three vastly different educational needs.

As the parent of a child with a disability, I have spent the better part of the past decade working and volunteering within the disability community. I have spent a great deal of time assisting children and their families access special education services and other community supports through various non-profit organizations.

As a media critic, I created DonnellProbst.Com as a place to discuss how media can better represent disability. As we get things up and running, we will seek to include voices from the disability community as well as lively public discourse.

What I am doing…

DonnellProbst.Com will examine the relationship between disability and the media. We will attempt to challenge narrow constructions and question the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in current media. Currently there is very little existing literature or practice focused on disabilities in media literacy education. My goal is to shine a light on the need for media literacy education to include topics relevant to the disability community.

What I am not doing…

DonnellProbst.Com will not argue personal opinions or the validity of personal belief systems. We all have opinions, however, we strongly feel opinions should be formed through factual, evidence-based research and outcomes.

This is not a forum designed to draw universal agreement. Our goal is to challenge the opinions, stereotypes, and assumptions of the media. Our opinions will be designated as such and we encourage our readers to evaluate and designate their comments in the same manner.

While I will attempt to remain politically neutral, it is important to remember that sometimes there is a “correct” side. We will not give weight to opinions and practices in the media which devalue people with disabilities, and will do our best to provide facts and/or evidence to support our view.

In short, I hope this blog will inspire to critically evaluate how the media you consume represents people with disabilities and how this has possible affected your perceptions of those individuals.

Let’s get started…