Presenting better images of disability

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 27 Nov 2019

IT is encouraging to note that the media (print, broadcast and Internet) in Malaysia is giving more attention to disability issues. With the forthcoming International Day of Persons with Disabilities (Dec 3), it is a good time to assess the impact of such efforts, in particular the depiction of disability through images.

The theme of the observance for 2019, “Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda”, is concerned with promoting the participation and leadership of persons with disabilities (PwDs).

To give them more voice and involvement in decision-making, we, as a group of linguistics researchers, would like to share views from PwDs and their stakeholders (with whom we have been interacting throughout our research projects for more than 15 years) on how to better represent and empower them through images in the media.

Firstly, PwDs should be depicted in an “agentive” or “participatory” manner, reflecting their capability of being independent and taking charge of their lives. Although some PwDs may still require long-term support, they should not be painted in a passive, pitiful or dependent light.

While the reality can be difficult and many PwDs live in poverty, they should be presented as individuals leading a dignified life and able to have families of their own, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) Geneva officer who was interviewed.

Group photos should depict every member of the group as a unique individual. Avoid the “they-all-look-the-same” kind of homogenised representations which categorically mark people by biological or cultural signs.

Wheelchair users assert that a wheelchair is not to be perceived as a limitation but a representation of accessibility, mobility and independence. Images of people on wheelchairs should be captured at eye level, not with a top-down angle.

When the images are viewed, this will present them as equals with the viewers. Any non-disabled positioned in the same row with wheelchair users should be seated together, not standing next to a wheelchair, again to present them all as equals.

Blind research participants have commented that while they could not see, they are aware that visually impaired people are often captured in stereotyped ways. Frontal, close-up shots that draw attention to their eyes must be avoided as well as representing them by using only pictures of the white cane and tactile walkway.

Blind persons also want us to know that training is needed to use the white cane. It is not merely about picking up a cane and fumbling to find one’s way.

They also feel that there is a tendency to capture them on the road from a distance without informing them. This not only makes them appear “lost” on the street but also creates an inaccurate portrayal of the experience of blindness. Therefore, please ask before taking images of a blind person.

For a posed shot, photographers should provide voice cues so that blind persons know where to face based on the source of the voice.

A prominent Deaf linguist has remarked that “the media love our beautiful hands”. Our local Deaf community prides themselves on being a linguistic minority that signs the Malaysian Sign Language and this ought to be respected.

A former Deaf leader of an NGO also advises that images of children with cochlear implant devices should be avoided.

Carers and NGOs advocating for children with autism are also urging for a balance in the exposure of those with special talents and those without. An NGO representative has commented that there have been parents who brought their children to the centre, expecting them to be transformed into one of the savants highlighted in media reports.

Adults experiencing non-visible conditions such as communication difficulties and degenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, often feel that images do not fully tell their lived experiences. The difficulties faced may not be fully understood by others, resulting in a lack of consideration for their well-being.

Also, they are often depicted with other accompanying adults. This highlights their dependence and reduces their rights when it comes to decision-making that directly affects them.

Images should also include younger people with such non-visible conditions to increase the awareness of young onset (below 40 years of age).

Mental health issues are almost always typified by the “head clutcher” image – a lonesome person with the hand covering the eyes or face, looking downward and depicted against a dark or gloomy background.

World Health Organisation officials in Geneva said we should encourage more images of them seeking help and being with others. This would help motivate them to do something about their issues.

In progressing towards a rights-based Malaysian agenda for PwDs, social perception of disabilities ought to be checked.

The media plays an important role in supporting inclusivity and equity for PwDs through images that do not perpetuate stigmatisation.




Faculty of Languages and Linguistics

Universiti Malaya

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