Editorial: Mainstream media in India has a disability problem

The image shows a figure wearing black standing to the right of the frame, their arms slightly outstretched. They are grasping onto the many red threads that criss cross in front of them. Their face and hair is also red, and black coloured words cut out of newspaper are placed on the hair such that they look like thoughts. The background of the top half of the image is black with white trails of dots, just like the figure’s clothes, while the bottom half is orange with light brown streaks.
Credit: Alia Sinha

Shreya Ila Anasuya writes about on the stereotypes created by mainstream news media by the biased and often insensitive reporting of disability and its impact on public discourse.

Recently, a young man living with mental illness climbed a light pole in Noida. Within half an hour, he was convinced by officials from the fire and police departments to climb back down.

A leading news agency chose to report this incident in the following way:

’26-year-old man believed to be mentally-challenged climbed a light pole in a crowded area here on Monday and refused to get off for at least half-an-hour, leading to chaos just as office rush was building up, police said.’

A leading publication published the article with the headline: “Noida traffic brought to a standstill as mentally-challenged man climbs street light pole.”

This seemingly objective, factual narration of what happened is filled with casual prejudice. Its lack of empathy or even a minimum amount of sensitivity is revealed in its framing – rather than care or concern for the well-being of the young man in question, it foregrounds the impact on traffic. The implication is clear – even a tiny amount of inconvenience caused to people who are assumed to be non-disabled is far more important than the life of a person living with psychosocial disability. This sense is further heightened by the text of the report, which treats the young man’s presence as a nuisance, framing it in terms of causing “chaos” to people returning from work.

This is just one example of a particular way in which disability is regularly written about in the mainstream English language Indian media. It assumes a default subject – a non-disabled person – and talks about people with disabilities from a firmly ableist lens, when it talks about them at all.

Elsewhere, on a popular news website known for being progressive, is an example of another common approach the media employs.

A report published on that website is titled Watch: This video of a disabled man delivering food for Zomato is inspiring many. The story itself a round up of people’s reactions on Twitter to a man using a hand-powered cycle to deliver food. One might argue that the purpose of such articles is to capture and report what may be momentarily popular on social media.

The fact that the publication deems it important to highlight non-disabled people’s voyeuristic delight in the life of a man who is after all simply doing his job is telling in itself. What little commentary the piece provides confirms this lens:’But one such delivery executive has captured the attention of people on social media and is providing everyone with some much needed motivation.’

This sort of reporting may be seen as benign, even positive, but it is just as dehumanising as the first kind of report.

Two predominant lenses still plague a large amount of reporting on disability in India – one sees people with disabilities as objects of pity or a nuisance, another sees them as objects of inspiration.

When this framing is replicated over and over again in the mainstream media, it has a serious impact on public discourse and perceptions about disability, already a deeply misunderstood subject.

As Preeti Singh writes, ‘People with disabilities are paraded around with thoughts like ‘What’s your excuse?’ and ‘If they can, you can.’ I simply don’t relate to this approach. As a person with a disability, I don’t want to be a figure of bravery. I want to simply be accepted as I am. […] Like the rest of society, people with disabilities are simply carrying on with their lives. Whether we are being pushed away because we are pitied, or pushed forward because we are used as objects of ‘inspiration’, both ways, our common humanity is denied.’

These lenses are an exact mirror of social and cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities, which refuse to see them as people, just like anyone else, and reduce their experiences to stereotypes. These are rooted in models of disability that look at it as a medical problem located within the individual, to be “fixed” and as inherently tragic and worthy of pity.

As Amba Salelkar writes, ‘In fact, the movement now chiefly subscribes to the ‘social’ model, which is to say that people who may have impairments are disabled by lack of access to infrastructure and communication and by attitudes around them that create barriers. That it is these barriers to participation that should be addressed by the sector by enacting rights-based legislations prohibiting discrimination, and promoting new technology and services to support people’s efforts to communicate, move and make decisions.’

The assumption that the existence of the non-disabled person is the desirable norm leads to attitudes and actions that centre this person at the cost of the full participation of people with disabilities. This impacts everything from social behaviour to infrastructure. There is no doubt and no wonder that it impacts media representations.

It is not that disability is entirely ignored, or only talked about in ableist ways. There are strong disability rights advocates and sensitive reporters who make an effort to give disability the centrality and nuance it deserves in the media. However, this needs to be understood in the wider context of the media landscape in India, where ‘beats’ related to human rights are not taken as seriously as those considered part of ‘hard news’. This limits the amount of coverage given to disability as an issue of rights or citizenship. Further, as with gender, sexuality, caste and class locations, there is a serious lack of community representation when it comes to employment within the media. This obviously impacts the quality and number of reports being produced.

This is a chart listing models of disability — the models listed are disability as disease (the medical model), disability as victimhood, disability as an act of God, disability as a socially constructed phenomenon (the social model), disability as culture, disability as identity, disability as a human rights issue, and disability as embodied experience.

Image credit: Anjali Menon. Text credit: Retief, M. & Letšosa, R. (2018)

Whose voices are counted when it comes to conversations about disability in India?

The census places the population of people with disabilities in India at 2.68 crore, and experts argue that the number is likely to be far higher. Disability itself is widely misunderstood as a category – in public perception it is far more homogenous than it actually is in reality, with different kinds of disability needing different kinds of accommodations. Nor is the experience of disability uniform, with a number of social and economic locations and factors impacting the amount of autonomy and accessibility enjoyed by people with disabilities.

Different types of disabilities are also shrouded in different types of stereotypes – for example, though the sexual rights of people in disabilities in general are denied in India, it is people with psychosocial disabilities who are generally pathologised as being “hypersexual” while people with locomotor or developmental disabilities are assumed to be automatically “asexual.”

Despite having ratified to the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities way back in 2007, and having a committed and robust disability rights movement, India still falters when it comes to providing a full range of rights and opportunities to people with disabilities.

Overall this is the sort of situation that lends itself to deep and sustained journalistic enquiry, deserving of a great deal of attention and investment. It is the sort of project that media organisations can do so much with, far beyond what is currently happening on the strength of a few individual and organisation-led voices. There are stories to be told, information to gather and disseminate, lived experiences to widely represent and understand. The possibilities are manifold.

This is an opportunity for Indian media, particularly progressive-minded and independent media, to take representation very seriously – both in their hiring policies and in the quantity and quality of their reportage. Plenty of resources exist that can guide editorial teams on the use of sensitive language and approaches.  There is a lot of ongoing conversation around rights-based, person-first (and/or identity-first) language that news organisations would do well to follow and cover. But it is mainstream news organisations that need to take the first step towards overhauling how they tackle reportage on disability, and before anything else, they need to decide to take it seriously. It is high time they did so.

Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer, journalist and the managing editor of Skin Stories. Skin Stories is the award-winning digital publication of the Sexuality and Disability programme at the non-profit Point of View. It is the only publication in India that centers disability, gender and sexuality. It has been widely republished in the mainstream media, used by national and international organisations as a resource, and is taught in several university classrooms.

Featured image credit: Alia Sinha