Disabled Women and the Media - Presentation for National Women's Day

Fadila Lagadien considers how media communicates images of the estimated 13 per cent of disabled South Africans, especially women with disabilities. Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs1/fadila97.html

 Presentation for National Women's Day 1997

Telkom Women's Day Celebrations

by Ms. Fadila Lagadien

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Disabled Women and the Media


Media, in the form of television, radio, print, movies and theatre is a uniquely powerful shaping tool. It shapes the way in which society views and understands the world. Whether one uses media on a micro or macro level, it has the unequalled capacity to examine, communicate, educate and inform about people, places and ideas.

Mindful of its ever-expanding nature and role in shaping society's views of itself, we have to consider the way in which media communicates images of disadvantaged groups; minority groups; marginalized groups and in this instance one such group is the estimated 13% of disabled South Africans; in particular, disabled women.

I'd like us to examine the current status of disabled people in general but hone in on the status of disabled women for a moment by looking at the following key gender issues and disability. We will also look at how the media can be instrumental in either perpetuating the situation or in redressing it. 

Key Gender Issues and Disability

The Double Disadvantage

As disabled women, we are often discriminated against not only because we are women but also because we are disabled. We face the same prejudices, disadvantages, and exclusions as non-disabled women and disabled men face in legal, social, cultural and economic context.

To this end, disabled women are more likely to be poor; to be illiterate and without vocational skills and therefor more likely to be unemployed.

We have less appropriate services available than non-disabled women do and have comparatively less access to rehabilitation services than disabled men (e.g. sexuality counseling).

We have less chance of finding a partner and having a family. As disabled women we are often physically, emotionally and sexually abused or deserted by the father of our children and left to fend for them on our own.

Because women are more likely to be the carers in the family or community, disabled women who are physically unable to perform this demanding role are more likely to be left without family or community support (including physical, emotional and financial support) unlike our male counterparts. We are subjected to greater social isolation due to the stigma of disability and related myths and fears. These lead to negative attitudes among non-disabled people towards those of us who are disabled.

Because of these myths, disabled people often have related feelings of shame, guilt or punishment. Superstitious beliefs and prejudices contribute strongly to the social isolation of disabled women, be it directly or indirectly. 

Why Do These Myths Exist

Having identified the media and its power to shape and influence our thinking and as a result our decision making, I would like us now to look at some examples of how these images and words we see, read and hear influence our attitude towards one another.

These negative attitudes are irrational, not logic or reason and they are based mainly on superstitions that have existed since time began. Our attitudes are created, re-inforced and perpetuated by what we hear, read and see in the media.

Let's take some examples and analyze how the media conveys the message that molds our attitude and its implications. I will give some examples from both the visual and print media.

Visual Media

As it stands, visual media, including TV and film, negates the existence of disabled people, by virtue of its portrayal. Disabled women do not buy products, fall in love or have careers.

The sight of a disabled person thus becomes unusual and unusual sights are stared at often leaving disabled people feeling like outcasts in society. For example, have you ever seen a disabled women buy detergents, give a child medicine or engage in any activities of daily living in advertising and commercials? I think not! 

Print Media - Language

Upon examining the use of language in relation to disabled people in the print and electronic media we will discover the effect it has on society and how this impacts on the lives of disabled people.

With the Internet and the electronic media, fast communication with the general public through the written word reaches extensive numbers of people. This means that the media is once again in a powerful position to shape attitudes and beliefs towards disabled people. With certain words and phrases, we are inclined towards certain action and behaviour towards a particular group of people.

For example, if we say that a person who uses a wheelchair is "wheelchair bound" or "confined to a wheelchair", non-disabled people feel that they cannot socialize (ACTION) with that person as he/she will restrict their own movement. But, the fact of the matter is that a wheelchair is a liberating device not a BINDING/CONFINING device!

If we say that a person who is physically disabled is "physically challenged", we imply that barriers (because barriers challenge) are good and that they exist to build a disabled person's character. Society will then make no effort to remove barriers (BEHAVIOUR).

The media also likes to describe disabled people as extra-ordinary by using phrases such as "ä.achieved in spite of being paralyzed/deaf/blindä" or "ädespite his/her amputated legä.". In fact, the disabled person being described here only did what had to be done in much the same way, as any non-disabled person would have. Again, the media portrays disabled people as deserving of their circumstances by using words such as "victim", "afflicted" or "inflicted". These words also sensationalize disability and should be avoided. It is this type of word usage that make disabled people have the feelings of guilt and shame I mentioned earlier and feel that they have sinned and deserve the punishment! 

The Effect of Negative Images and Language

...on society

Being constantly fed a diet of negative images and language by the media results in a society that believes that disabled people are eternally sick and belong in hospital or an institution of some kind.

This is true by evidence of the negligible numbers of disabled people we see interacting with non-disabled people in places of employment, in our schools, in our sports and social clubs, even in our places of worship.

In this we can see that the potential of disabled people to achieve and succeed is not acknowledged by society because we have been socialised into believing that anything less than "normal" is useless. And this might be true, again by evidence, for, if we look around us in our communities and try to identify disabled people who have realised their potential, we will find that they are few and far between. 

...on disabled people

The reason that disabled people are not integrated into the activities of non-disabled people is because, like non-disabled people, we also are fed a constant diet of negative images and language by the media. Behavioural scientists will tell us that if you tell a person long enough that they are a certain way, or should behave in a particular manner, they will be just that!

(In a nutshell, the labelling of disabled people through negative media makes them indulge in self-pity, act sickly and poverty-stricken and wait on mercy gifts of charity from some well meaning Samaritan. This can be no good for the mental, physical or spiritual well being of any person.) 


Having considered these examples and the effects of the media on both disabled and non-disabled people, there is a great and urgent need to take a good look at the way in which language and visuals used in the media influence people's thoughts, behaviour and actions.

I know many people are tired of hearing the term "affirmative action" but unfortunately it will continue to be necessary as a corrective measure until the equalization of opportunities for ALL disadvantaged South Africans have been achieved, particularly for disabled women.

To combat the negative effects that the incorrect usage of the media has had on the lives of disabled people a series of affirmative action steps need to be considered.

  1. Although disabled people are represented in the Gender, Human Rights and Youth commissions as well as on the SABC Board, we also need representation on media bodies such as the:
    a) South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority
    b) National Information Technology Forum (NITF)
    c) Independent Broadcasting Authority
    d) Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
  2. Disabled people should be empowered to monitor the media and devise policies for the regulation thereof. These policies must clearly spell out necessary corrective mechanisms and measures and how it should be implemented.
  3. Disabled people should be actively encouraged to study journalism.
  4. AA should be practiced when selecting students for journalism courses so that disabled people can participate in mainstream media as well as develop their own media.
  5. Discussion workshops should be held between disabled people's organizations and journalism bodies.
  6. As it is mostly the women or the girl child who has to care for the disabled child, sibling, parent or spouse, they often experience the same social stigmatization, isolation, occupational and educational disadvantages as disabled women do. They should therefore be included in the target group in all programmes aimed at equality of opportunity and treatment.


Equality is a fundamental principle of our new constitution. For the first time in the history of South Africa discrimination is outlawed on the basis of, among others, gender and disability.

The promotion, protection and realization of equality between men and women, as well as between disabled and non-disabled people can only come about as the result of equal opportunity legislation. As our policy makers form part of society and feed off the same negative diet fed to us by the media, it is only obvious that they will not develop policies that include disabled people.

Gender equality, particularly for those of us who are disabled, will not happen just because of the goodwill of society, but because of correlating laws and legislation. Corrective measures such as targeted programmes aimed at development. Women's equal participation is essential for development objectives of our country.

Media personnel should not focus on the disability or even mention it unless it has direct bearing to the story. If the focus is on the person's disability and not on the human being (the person), it evokes pity from the public. Just like everyone else, disabled people dislike being pitied and want to be viewed just like others and not be objects of pity.