Leading disabled artists and commentators have raised concerns about how journalists will report on the high-profile disability arts and sport set to take place this summer around the London 2012 Paralympics.
The Headlining Disability: Arts, Sports, Disability and the Media seminar at London’s Royal Festival Hall focused on how disabled people are represented in the media.
The leading disability arts figures who organised the event believe that how journalists write about the Paralympics and the disability arts that will feature during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad will provide a “unique opportunity to re-imagine the way the public see disabled people”.
Michael Shamash, the disabled researcher and lecturer, said it was not yet clear what impact the Paralympics themselves would have on the representation of disabled people in the media.
But he pointed to Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who because of her gold medal-winning exploits at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics was “seen as a very good thing” and helped to “take small people away from the realms of the ludicrous and ridiculability, into somebody who has achieved something”.
In a discussion with Shamash, writer Will Self said many reality and other factual television programmes were guilty of “exploiting the age-old freak show”, but in a way that was “insidious”.
He added: “The capacity for television and now internet-based media to masquerade as being sympathetic when in fact they are being voyeuristic has never been greater than it is now.”
He said he constantly noticed references to disability in the media that were “actually offensive to somebody who is disabled”.
And he suggested that Ricky Gervais’s BBC comedy Life’s Too Short, which starred disabled actor Warwick Davis, was “exploitative”, and had featured a short person in the starring role so the audience could “laugh at somebody being disabled”.
The seminar was organised by Shape, the disabled-led arts organisation, and the Leading Through Change network of senior figures in the disability arts world.
Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape, told Disability News Service after the seminar that he feared journalists this summer would focus on the impairments of disabled artists and Paralympians, instead of their work.
And he pointed to the widespread concerns about reporting of disability benefits cuts and reforms and the use of rhetoric about “benefits scroungers” in the mainstream media over the last year.
He said he was disappointed with the failure of non-disabled journalists to take part in the seminar – despite advertising it widely, including a plug on Self’s widely-followed blog – with most of the participants disabled people from the arts and media.
He said: “Disabled people really want to have an intelligent debate about the way journalists report on the work of disabled artists and the performance of disabled athletes.
“Have journalists even engaged with that notion? Possibly not. The outcome is likely to be that journalists will respond in an incredibly lazy way.”
Asked if he thought there would be a problem with how disabled people are represented by the media during London 2012, he said: “I think there will and we will be disappointed as disabled people by the reporting.
“It feels to me that we have been saying this for a long time and nobody has grasped the idea that it could be problematic.”
Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online (DAO), has written a blog about the Will Self discussion on the DAO website.