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Disability and the Media

Prescriptions for Change

Charles A. Riley, II

Publication Year: 2012

In the past decade, the mass media discovered disability. Spurred by the box-office appeal of superstars such as the late Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, Stephen Hawking, and others, and given momentum by the success of Oscar-winning movies, popular television shows, best-selling books, and profitable websites, major media corporations have reversed their earlier course of hiding disability, bringing it instead to center stage.

Yet depictions of disability have remained largely unchanged since the 1920s. Focusing almost exclusively on the medical aspect of injury or illness, the disability profile in fact and fiction leads inevitably to an inspiring moment of "overcoming." According to Riley, this cliche plays well with a general audience, but such narratives, driven by prejudice and pity, highlight the importance of "fixing" the disability and rendering the "sufferer" as normal as possible. These stories are deeply offensive to persons with disabilities. Equally important, misguided coverage has adverse effects on crucial aspects of public policy, such as employment, social services, and health care.

Powerful and influential, the media is complicit in this distortion of disability issues that has proven to be a factor in the economic and social repression of one in five Americans. Newspapers and magazines continue to consign disability stories to the "back of the book" health or human-interest sections, using offensive language that has long been proscribed by activists. Filmmakers compound the problem by featuring angry misfits or poignant heroes of melodramas that pair love and redemption. Publishers churn out self-help titles and memoirs that milk the disability theme for pathos. As Riley points out, all branches of the media are guilty of the same crude distillation of the story to serve their own, usually fiscal, ends.

Riley's lively inside investigation illuminates the extent of the problem while pinpointing how writers, editors, directors, producers, filmmakers, advertisers and the executives who give their marching orders go wrong, or occasionally get it right. Through a close analysis of the technical means of representation, in conjunction with the commentary of leading voices in the disability community, Riley guides future coverage to a more fair and accurate way of putting the disability story on screen or paper. He argues that with the "discovery" by Madison Avenue that the disabled community is a major consumer niche, the economic rationale for more sophisticated coverage is at hand. It is time, says Riley, to cut through the accumulated stereotypes and find an adequate vocabulary that will finally represent the disability community in all its vibrant and fascinating diversity.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xviii

Every time Aimee Mullins sees her name in the papers she braces herself for some predictable version of the same headline followed by the same old story. Paralympian, actress, and fashion model, Mullins is a bilateral,below-the-knee amputee, who sprints a hundred meters in less than sixteens seconds on a set of running prostheses called Cheetahs because they were...

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1 | Heroes of Assimilation: How the Media Transform Disability

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pp. 1-23

One in every five people on the planet has a disability and, because of that, is shamefully misrepresented in the fun-house mirror of the mass media. Consigned by the arbiters of what is published or produced to a narrow spectrum of roles, from freaks to inspirational saints, lab rats or objects of pity, people with disabilities have not seenthe evolution in their public image that their private circumstances haveundergone in the aftermath of political and medical progress over the past...

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2 | Whose Life is it Anyways?: The Use and Abuse of the Disability Memoir

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pp. 24-49

We had the good luck of starting WE magazine right in the middle of the golden age of the disability memoir, when earth-shaking revelations were coming fast and furious from the lap-tops of glamorous celebrities including Christopher Reeve, Lance Arm-strong, Kirk Douglas, Montel Williams, and Michael J. Fox. These were joined on the shelves of the book store chains by memoirs of such second-tier media fixtures as Andrea Bocelli, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John...

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3 | Getting it on Paper: Revising the Disability Story for the Print Media

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pp. 50-68

One of the first things a journalist does upon starting with a new magazine or paper is to get hold of the in-house style sheet and a stack of back issues to become familiar with the editorial voice o fthe publication. My compact blue three-ring binder of Reporter’s Guide-lines never left my desk at Time Inc. The first copy a reporter turns in,often written as a respectful parody of recent clips, inevitably needs “styl-ing” by editors and copy editors more familiar with the organization’s...

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4 | I'd Like to Thanks the Academy: Losing Focus on Disability in Movies and Television

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pp. 69-108

To pan television and movies in toto for their perpetually offensive treatment of disability would require a book in itself, but I hope in this chapter to skewer enough of the worst offenders—Hollywood directors and stars, television sitcom writers, and, surprise, Barbara Walters—to raise hackles or at least suspicion about most of the others. From Lon Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) to Cuba Gooding’s Radio (2003), Jamie Foxx’s Ray (2004), and beyond, so much money has...

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5 | And Here's the Pitch: How Advertising Uses Disability

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pp. 109-129

Of all the cynical branches of the media, the most soulless and ruthless is generally considered to be advertising, where anything fora buck trumps state-mandated “truth in advertising” and the manipulation of mind through image and word descends to subliminal lows. At least journalism can defend itself by pointing to its lofty muck raking ideals, film making to the higher calling of the auteur, and the Web to the utopian connectivity of the New Economy. For advertising, there is no...

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6 | Milestones, Mixed Messgaes, and Missed Opportunities: The Unfinished Business of the Disability Media

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pp. 130-156

You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.With the mainstream press locked in an echo chamber of clue-less sentimentality, and book publishers stuck in a rut of melodramatic memoirs, it is up to the specialized disability press to show the way. During the most promising period in the history of the disability media, those heady years of heightened public awareness and community spirit attending the passage of the ADA, it seemed as though the...

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7 | WE: The Short Happy Life of an Independent Magazine

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pp. 157-195

When a group of individuals becomes a We, a harmonious whole, then the Control over the media qua business is arguably the only means by which people with disabilities can be ensured adequate representation. Although, as we have noted, there are a few outlets that are owned and operated (as well as edited) by people with disabilities, the only organization that managed to produce a glossy lifestyle magazine worthy of comparison with mainstream competitors such as Vanity Fair...

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8 | "On the Web We're All Equal": And Other Myths about Disability and Multimedia

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pp. 196-218

If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Between editorial takes at the magazine, I would wander in Soho, generally stopping in at art galleries to recharge my visual and intellectual batteries for the next round of deadlines. One hot summer afternoon in 1999, when dot-com fever was at its height in New York, I turned up at the blue door of a gallery I had never visited and, after one look at the invitation card taped by the buzzer, which read Prosthetic,...

Appendix A: Guidelines for Portraying People with Disabilities in the Media

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pp. 219-223

Appendix B: Guidelines for Web Accessibility

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pp. 224-230


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pp. 231-236


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pp. 237-244


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pp. 245-248

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683936
E-ISBN-10: 1611683939
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584654735

Page Count: 284
Publication Year: 2012