Getting the scoop on disability

Gary Barling
The media often presents people with a disability as special. Stories often focus on how people with a disability have been helped. A recent newspaper article told a story about a man with a disability who buys coffee. The service was no different to what all people would expect. It would be better if articles explored all the ways that they community could be more accessible. Articles could help build understanding and acceptance.
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Gary Barling on 14/04/2011
A painting of an old man with a hat and beard reading a newspaper

Newspapers should portray people with a disability in a better light

A recent article in a suburban newspaper highlights that people with a disability are still often represented as outsiders in the community. The article praises a local shop just because it serves coffee to a man with cerebral palsy.

People with disabilities are too often represented in the media as outsiders or newcomers to the community. We should just be acknowledged as an accepted part of the community. But relationships between people with a disability and businesses or other organisations are often portrayed as "special". It should not be this way. Businesses and organisations should serve everyone.

Relationship unequal

In the article about the man buying coffee, it says the man became a regular because staff accept him and know how he likes his morning brew. The service helps overcome his severe communication difficulties. But the specific nature of the article suggests that such service is extraordinary.

Reporting of the relationship between a person with a disability and the wider community is often unequal. The person in the coffee shop is not just being a normal customer, they are being "helped". Our mate buying coffee is given minimal assistance above that which is expected for any customer buying coffee (remembering what he likes). And it is hardly a surprise given he is a regular customer.

There seems to be a feeling that businesses are outstanding because they cater to people with a disability. But it is only treating customers decently and not discriminating. Articles like the coffee man are not very enlightening for people with or without a disability. They also give the impression we should feel lucky to receive good service.

Better light

Newspapers tend to run more articles about people with a disability than other media. But they need to portray us in a better light.

Disappointingly, the media tends to give more attention to these presumably rare occasions when community members are "accepting". It should instead examine the delays in ensuring all community life is accessible to people with a disability. The media could more thoughtfully cover the challenges that people with disabilities face.

Media coverage that assists the community to understand the daily challenges that we face would be most welcome. But few articles give readers a good understanding of life for people with a disability. More articles should have the goal of improving people's understanding. It would lead to improving community acceptance.

Another perspective

Even articles about individual circumstances can help readers think about wider issues from another perspective. Take our coffee man as an example. What other difficulties or successes are there in his typical week? What are some of his genuine achievements? Reading about how people overcome challenges can be inspiring.

We don't want special treatment. We just want acceptance. Like the wider community, the media still has a long way to go.

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