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Mediating disability in 'broken Britain'

 by Dr Paul Reilly,Science Relief Contributor
Wheelchair basketball

Dr Paul Reilly, Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester, asks how disabled people perceive the British media’s coverage of issues relating to disability…

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) still has a lot of work to do if it is to strengthen the integrity of the benefit system in such a way as to ‘reduce the negative media portrayal of disability issues’. According to recent research published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), disability hate crime continues to rise with 1,788 incidents reported in England and Wales in 2011. Furthermore, activists such as The Broken of Britain’s Sue Marsh have accused politicians, such as Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling MP, of using language that reinforces public perceptions of disability benefit claimants as ‘workshy’.

The news media often focuses on ‘bad news’ in relation to disability, drawing distinctions between ‘deserving and undeserving’ claimants of benefits such as DLA – perhaps because journalists are unable or unwilling to reflect on the lived experiences of disabled people.
Dr Paul Reilly
In November 2012, I organised an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) symposium entitled Mediating disability in 'broken Britain’, bringing together academics, activists, and policymakers to discuss these issues. Presentations from research teams based at the Universities ofGlasgow and Leicester showed that there has been an increase in the coverage of disability issues from television and print media outlets over the past 20 years. However, much of this content continues to use pejorative language, such as ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’, to describe those who claim benefits such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Hence, it is perhaps no surprise that members of the public perceive that the level of DLA fraud is much higher than the 0.5 per cent reported by the DWP (compared to 3.4 per cent of Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants and 1.3 per cent of those on Council Tax Benefit).

The results of these studies prompted much debate amongst the delegates. Many of the disability activists found the results of the research to be unsurprising. The news media often focuses on ‘bad news’ in relation to disability, drawing distinctions between ‘deserving and undeserving’ claimants of benefits such as DLA – perhaps because journalists are unable or unwilling to reflect on the lived experiences of disabled people. Activists such as Julie Howell argued that the news media framed conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) as a ‘death sentence’, when it might be more appropriate to describe it as a ‘life sentence’. The notion that DLA was a ‘lifestyle choice’ for disabled people was rejected on the grounds that most would choose to work fulltime if they were able to do so. The theme of ‘fairness, not special treatment’ for people with disabilities would also emerge from the panel, that featured politicians such as Shadow Minister for Disabled People Anne McGuire MP.

The event closed with a discussion about whether the London Paralympics would ultimately lead to a change in attitudes towards disabled people. The consensus was that there had been progress over the past few decades in terms of the language used to describe disability. Phrases such as ‘confined to a wheelchair’ were now less commonly used by the news media. However, the success of Paralympians such as swimmer Ellie Simmonds, may ultimately do little to reverse the negative portrayals of disability that continue to feature in the mainstream media.

It was clear that the activists felt they had a duty to lobby against welfare reforms, such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), as they felt that the voices of disabled people were still being ignored by those responsible for implementing these changes. Liberal Democrat Disability Association (LDDA) Chair Robert Adamson believed that the ultimate goal of the disabled people’s movement should be for society to treat disability as ‘unremarkable’.  Whether this will happen in the next two decades remains to be seen, and the rise in disability hate crime appears ominous in this regard. Nevertheless, the ways in which the media frame disability issues should be subject to closer scrutiny in light of the continued victimisation of disabled people and public misconceptions surrounding those in receipt of benefits such as DLA. Our politicians must also re-examine the ways in which they describe disability benefit claimants if they wish to strengthen the integrity of the benefits system and reduce the negative stereotyping of disabled people. 

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Posted by Omkarr singh on Friday, January 04, 2013. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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