Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Jan/Feb 1998

Electric Edge


Critiquing disability images
on screens large and small

By Mary Johnson

Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. Edited by Anne Pointon and Chris Davies. 245 pages illus. British Film Institute (distributed by Indiana University Press). $24 softcover (or spiral-bound).

Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. By Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D. 230 pages illus. New Brunswwick: Rutgers University Press. $17 softcover.

Two new books offer critiques of disability in the arts and entertainment media.

Framed brings together the thinking of numerous disabled arts activists centered in Great Britain; it's edited by two of the group's most prolific members, Ann Pointon and Chris Davies. Originally published by the British Film Institute, the large (8" x 11 1/2") softbound volume(spiral-bound is also available) is being distributed in North America by Indiana University Press.

It has always seemed to me that Great Britain has a more activist -- and analytical -- group of disabled people working in the arts than we do here in the U.S. Primarily I think of David Hevey, whose groundbreaking work The Creatures Time Forgot, published in 1992 (Routledge), introduced those of us on this side of the Atlantic to many of these people's very radical (in the sense of "getting to the root") and right-on analyses of the uses of disability in images, from commercial film to the ad industry. For me personally, Hevey's most stunning contribution was his ability to say "the emperor has no clothes" in pointing out the handicappist nature of much so-called "positive imagery" of disability put out by mainline help-the-handicapped groups like the Spastics Society.

In Framed, this point is made once again: "It is . . . too simplistic to talk about 'negative' compared with 'positive' images because although disabled people are in general fairly clear about what might constitute the former, the identification of 'positive' is fraught with difficulty. Some accepted ideas of 'positive' may include the suspect 'triumph over tragedy' stories, often with the emphasis on physicality of a 'compensating' or fulfilling nature, whether these are stories of fictitious blind skaters or real wheelchair basketball champions." Or Chicken Soup for the Soul stories, they could have said. (See the Nov./Dec. Ragged Edge.)

The writers' take-back-our-images approach that says "we will define who we are, we will produce the images about us," informs the entire volume. Its first two sections, devoted to film and television, "demonstrate the ways in which disabled people have been manipulated by imagery and stereotyping in order to fulfill the 'needs' of the nondisabled film- or programme-maker and audience." An entire chapter in this section is devoted to the specific problems inherent in telethons. A third section reports on progress in getting disabled people into these media industries.

The last two sections, "Culture and Identity" and "Product and Control," move this book beyond the standard critiques by suggesting ways disability imagery can be "re-imaged." A key requirement, say these authors, is that disabled people be in control of the ways they're "imaged" in society. It is "too simplistic to say that the treatment of disabled people in film and television would improve if the films and other media 'products' were made by disabled people," the editors point out. Disabled people themselves "are conditioned within the negative cultural climate around disability," they write, so they may participate in projecting negative images also. But were disabled people involved, they suggest, quite sensibly, "one might at least expect more variation of representation." A more critical issue is whether the piece has a "non-disabled" or a "disabled perspective."

Chris Davies, writing about TV series directed primarily at disabled people (they do that in Great Britain, on BBC4), points out that "the content of most specialist programmes differs mainly in the degree to which they're willing to concede to a non-disabled viewership" and rates them accordingly. Shows that retain their dedication to the disability vision are obviously better than those that "sell out." He then asks why shows designed initially for a disabled audience, which end up being more edgy (such as Link, which produced pieces like "We Won't Go Away," about disability rights protests in the U.S., and a documentary "Rights, not Charity") are always assumed to be of little interest to a larger mainstream audience. Good question. The book is jammed with these good questions.

Perhaps its the arts climate in Great Britain that allows this kind of thinking to bubble up. Most of the people involved with this book are with the Arts Council of Great Britain's Arts and Disability Monitoring Committee. and the British Film Institute's Disability Committee (I don't think there are equivalent groups in the U.S.).

Framed closes with a discussion of media guidelines by Colin Barnes, who explains that the problem with the PC term "people with disabilities" is that it "assumes that disability is the property of the individual and not of society." I always knew I didn't like that term; thank you, Colin Barnes, for helping me understand why.

"While it can be assumed that all media studies courses . . . now probably contain modules that introduce students not only to the notion of cultural diversity (e.g., the representation of women, black people, gay men and lesbians) but to the work and intellectual positions of a diversity of film-makers and other media practitioners, what has not yet been routinely added to this 'diversity' is the notion of disability as open to analysis or of disabled people as artistic contributors to the culture," write the editors (emphasis added). Such courses could start to mend their ways by using this book as a text.

After Framed, Media Madness's critiques of the uses of "mental illness" in the U.S. entertainment media seems somewhat pedestrian. Author Otto Wahl does a good job of looking at how film, TV, ads and cartoons portray "mentally ill" people. Wahl, a psychology professor at George Mason University, is with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Campaign to End Discrimination (he uses the term "mentally ill" throughout, rather than the more activist "psychiatric survivors"). He offers by-now standard analyses of "positive" and "negative" portrayals; he suggests educating producers and protesting bigoted ("negative") portrayals.

Wahl sensibly recognizes that people affected by the bigoted images haven't really protested all that much. "When few people appear to object to media depictions, there is little reason for media professionals to perceive a problem," he writes. "Lack of response from people with professional and personal knowledge of mental illness has thus contributed to the continued lack of knowledge of media personnel about mental illnesses and about the problems in their presentations."

The National Stigma Clearinghouse, begun in 1990 in New York, is, he says, doing this now. It's clear from his report they've got a big job ahead.


The National Federation of the Blind publishes a series of books which they describe as an "attempt to take the mystery out of [blindness] by giving firsthand accounts of how blind people live on a daily basis." Under the editorship of longtime NFB icon Kenneth Jernigan, the NFB has published two of these Kernel Books each year since 1991. "What we are trying to do is take advantage of the cumulative effect of story after story, year after year, coming in a steady stream."

The books have Jernigan's tone and imprint. Simply told, the stories, (which read as though they are meant really to be told aloud -- and being by blind people, they probably are!) really do introduce the average sighted person to the fact that blind people are like they are, only doing things differently. Making this point, of course, was Jernigan's lifelong mission.

The Kernel Books we've received are in large print. It's not clear how these books are marketed. They're thin little paperback volumes, each under 100 pages, filled with many short anecdotes, each receiving its own chapter. They would be a great education tool for schools.

Kernel Books are available from the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson St., Ste 300, Baltimore, MD 21230-4998.

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.


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