Addressing Disability Representation in Canadian Media (French version available)
How Should Disabilities be Addressed?
There are two types of language that are primarily used when describing disabilities: person-first language and identity-first language.
In Canada, person-first language has been used by organizations since the 1980s. It places disability as something that people have, rather than something that fully defines them — a person is not their disability. However, person-first language could be thought of as something that describes disability as an individual aspect, rather than a wider issue.
In contrast, identity-first language affirms a person’s disability — it is integral to their identity. To separate a disability from a person in a way like the statement “person with a disability” does is akin to taking away from their lived experiences.
Say for example you are describing an individual who is autistic. Person-first language would refer to them as “an individual who is autistic” or “an individual who has autism.” Identity-first language would refer to them as “an autistic person.” The terms vary case-by-case; therefore, it would be best to consult with the person in question how they would like to be addressed.
In short, if you can ask someone how they wish to be addressed, go with their answer. If you cannot consult with other people, the Government of Canada prefers the usage of person-first language over identity-first language.
Depictions of Disabled Characters within Canadian Media
Children and teens are aware of the stereotypes that plague current media and the hole it leaves for diversity, according to the “Being Seen: Children’s Media Report” published earlier this year. Unfortunately, it is hard to rid the media of stereotypes in the cases when representation is often written and portrayed by people without those experiences.
In 2019, less than 3% of characters in North American media were disabled. Furthermore, 95% of those characters were portrayed by able-bodied actors. Between 2020-2021, this percentage was 3.5%.
Also from 2019, “The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada” report showed that overt representations of disabled characters in children’s TV was severely lacking. It reviewed over 1,000 children’s TV shows in North America during 2017. Zero per cent of characters in Canadian children’s TV shows were disabled, and their American counterparts barely fared better at 1%.
The number of disabled characters hardly holds a candle to how prevalent disabilities are in North America: more than 20% of Americans, and more than 20% of Canadians, have a disability.
Depictions of Disabled Athletes within Canadian Media
Perhaps disabled fictional characters, the few that exist, do not resonate with audiences. There are plenty of real-life notable people with disabilities out there with an (albeit limited) national media presence. Look no further than the Paralympics, which are held every two years.
Despite being heralded as the “world’s number one sport event for driving social inclusion” by The International Paralympic Committee’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Craig Spence, representation is not handled perfectly. An analysis of Canadian coverage of the 2016 Rio Paralympics found that depictions of Paralympians was mostly positive, if not for the abundance of stereotyping.
Athletes were portrayed as “overcoming” their disabilities to participate in the games, or that their success was owed to their adaptive equipment. To make matters worse, Paralympians’ records were often compared to their able-bodied counterparts, as if the athletes could not have their own victories.
People with disabilities should not be “congratulated” for living with their disabilities. To live with a disability is a full-time responsibility, not a small issue that people can easily overcome with enough blood, sweat, and tears. Paralympians are athletes, but often the wrong achievements are put on a pedestal over their medals.
Solutions to These Issues
One of the biggest steps, and most difficult steps to take, towards solving this issue is to employ people with disabilities to help tell their stories. Everyone has a story to tell, but everyone has lived experiences unique to them. Without personal experiences or thought-out research, future portrayal of people with disabilities will continue to be few and limited in scope.
Helping disabled writers, producers, actors, and other roles related to media production will not only employ more authentic perspectives to stories but will also benefit companies financially. A 2019 study showed that Hollywood was losing an estimated $125 billion USD per year due to lacking appropriate disability representation.
Tearing down hurtful stereotypes in the process will also display people with disabilities in a more genuine perspective. Like all people within a group should be, they should be varied: disabled people do not exist in real life as a couple of archetypes.
Furthermore, disabilities can be obtained at any point in one’s life. Some people may be born with their disabilities, some people may acquire disabilities through various events in their lives, and some people may acquire disabilities due to old age. Including people with disabilities means accounting for a group of the world’s population that is not necessarily specific to one demographic.
Appelbaum, Lauren. “Percentage of Characters with Disabilities on TV Reaches 11-Year Record High.” RespectAbility, 14 Jan. 2021, https://www.respectability.org/2021/01/glaad-report-2020/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2022.
Brevig, Sheena. “The Case for Authentic Disability Representation in Media and Why Our Society Desperately Needs It.” Center for Scholars & Storytellers, https://www.scholarsandstorytellers.com/blog-main/diversity-in-hollywood-the-case-for-authentic-disability-representation-in-film-and-tv. Accessed 15 Mar. 2022.
Dallaire, Justin. “Calgary Non-Profit Uses Fake Ads to Show Lack of Representation of Disabilities.” Strategy Online, 3 Dec. 2019, https://strategyonline.ca/2019/12/03/calgary-non-profit-uses-fake-ads-to-show-lack-of-representation-of-disabilities/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2022.
Dickson, Jeremy. “Kids Talk Representation and Authenticity in Being Seen Report.” Kidscreen, 28 Feb. 2022, https://kidscreen.com/2022/02/28/kids-talk-representation-and-authenticity-in-being-seen-report/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2022.
“Is the Advertising Industry Doing Enough for Disability?” International Paralympic Committee, 17 June 2019, https://www.paralympic.org/news/advertising-industry-doing-enough-disability. Accessed 10 Mar. 2022.
Lemish, Dafna, and Colleen Russo Johnson. The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada. The Center for Scholars & Storytellers, 2019, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c0da585da02bc56793a0b31/t/5cb8ce1b15fcc0e19f3e16b9/1555615269351/The+Landscape+of+Children%27s+TV.pdf. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
Pearson, Erin, and Laura Misener. “Paralympians Still Don’t Get the Kind of Media Attention They Deserve as Elite Athletes.” Phys.org, 2 Sept. 2021, https://phys.org/news/2021-09-paralympians-dont-kind-media-attention.html. Accessed 12 Mar. 2022.
Wong, Jessica. “Kids’ TV Lacks Gender Balance and Diversity, New Study Suggests.” CBC News, 4 May 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/childrens-tv-study-diversity-1.5118385. Accessed 12 Mar. 2022.