A few years ago, I was invited to be a panelist on the popular TV show “The Big Fight” on ND TV. The topic for debate was “Is the Govt of India doing enough for the country’s disabled population?” While the Govt was being bashed and blamed for not doing enough, I asked the anchor as to how “Inclusive” the programming on his TV channel was? I wanted to know if disabled people were invited as panelists or participants in other programmes that covered politics, economics, policy, entertainment or sports? Would I as a citizen of India who happens to be visually impaired be invited onto a show to discuss the Union Budget, State elections, Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th International century or Salman Khan’s latest film release? The fact of the matter is that disabled people are seen on TV or heard on radio only when the topic has a disability dimension to it. In other words disabled persons are invited onto shows to discuss disability. Their identity and their relevance for media most often tends to be the disability.
In 2003, India hosted the International Abilympics, an event where the focus is on skills and ability. It is a platform where disabled persons compete with each other on their vocational skills. One of the participants, a young girl who had lost both her arms played the harmonium using her feet. Truly fascinating. This caught the fancy of the media and a number of stories appeared on various channels as well as newspapers. The girl was projected as a wonder kid. The sudden exposure encouraged the girl to begin dreaming of becoming a famous musician. The media coverage got the girl to believe that she was a great music genius in the making. Little did she realize that the focus of the media was on her feat of playing with her legs and not on the quality of the music she was playing which was at best very basic.
At conferences and seminars, we often hear people talk about need to use the media to sensitise, spread awareness and influence mindsets about persons with disability. Certainly, the media has tremendous potential as a platform to bring about change in the perception/perspective space. However, we should also recognize that the editors, reporters, photographers and others in the media are also part of the community and tend to carry their own share of baggage.
The year was 1991, the city was Bangalore and the event was the finals of the National cricket tournament for the blind at the St John’s medical College grounds. There were about 400 spectators watching the action amongst whom were several blind youngsters. In one corner of the ground, I saw a press photographer assembling a few blind youth. He was frantically looking about for white canes and dark glasses. I approached the group and asked as to what was going on and the photographer replied that he was trying to take a picture of blind people enjoying the game. His concern was that the boys were not looking blind and were not carrying themselves as blind people would. They were all happy and excited. Looking for the sterio-type image I guess.
Traditionally, persons with disability are viewed as lesser beings with very limited ability and talents, often considered to be a potential liability. I have lived in the mainstream world with my disability for over 5 decades and have been working and interacting with people in the disability sector for over 20 years. My experience tells me that there is a huge amount of negativity in societal perceptions and attitudes towards disability. Some of the common perceptions are
- Pitiable and pathetic: need help, charity
- A victim
- Aggressive or evil
- Objects of curiosity or freaks
- Noble and triumphing over tragedy: brave
- Laughable or the butt of jokes
- Having a chip on their shoulder: having an attitude
- A burden or an outcast from society
- A non-sexual person
- Incapable of fully participating in everyday life
Over the years, media portrayals have been mere reflections of these perceptions. I had started promoting cricket for the blind in 1990. During the inaugural National cricket tournament for the blind, I had approached a prominent TV journalist who ran one of the early private TV channels with a request for coverage. He agreed to cover the event but he asked me why I was forcing the blind to play a game that was so visual. What was I trying to prove? He could not appreciate the fact that the blind, thanks to the radio commentaries had been fascinated by the game and had started playing an adapted version of the game using sound. In fact this game is truly action packed, extremely competitive and very captivating.
Some years ago I was invited onto a show On one of the FM Radio stations. It was essentially a music programme where in between songs the anchor carried on a conversation with his guest. The chat was going on very well except that at the beginning of each segment the anchor would very enthusiastically introduced me and say “unfortunately he is blind”. The third time he did it, I interrupted and asked what was so unfortunate about being blind. I asserted that I was leading a perfectly happy life: I had a family, a profession and like everyone else had my own share of achievements and failures. I also added that being blind did not diminish in any way what I got out of life. Of course the anchor to his credit was quick to say something like “Sure, it is overcoming challenges that adds to the excitement of life”.
Over the years disabled people have been refered to as “Special People” or as “People with Special needs” or “People with Special Talent”. In my book, calling disabled people special is very patronizing. The Anth Akshari programme on Zee TV and Star Plus have been very popular shows. I had always wondered why blind singers could not be invited to participate in this programme. Sure enough, the “Special Episode” arrived with “Special singers”. It certainly did give the blind singers their glorious moments in the sun, but then they were not considered good enough to be part of the regular Anth Akshari show.
Both the electronic as well as the print media in recent times have been regularly profiling disabled achievers. Disabled individuals who have done well in their chosen vocation in life. They are often projected as exceptional human beings who have battled extreme odds to reach where they have got to in life. Great inspirational stories that must have motivated many. These stories certainly do set a bench mark for human potential and are an encouragement to many a struggling soul. But then we could view these personalities as exceptions and not the norm. Do they really represent the regular disabled citizen of the country?
It is very easy to be critical of the media and their portrayal of people with disability. Whatever we see in the media is a straight forward mirror image of our society’s perception of disability and the people who are disabled. This can change only when more and more disabled persons come out into the mainstream space and express themselves. The emergence of the internet and the various social media platforms like Face Book and Twitter have in recent times given persons with disability the opportunity to engage and participate on discussions and debates on a wide variety of topics at both National and International levels. This I believe is the beginning of a serious engagement by disabled people in the media.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation when dealing with disability tell their producers to ask themselves the following:
- Does the programme come through as being patronizing?
- Does the programme come through as being victimizing?
- Does the programme come through as being demonizing?
- Does the programme come through as being normalizing?
I was involved with the production of a weekly radio programme called Eyeway; yea hai roshni ka karawan” which is broadcast from 30 cities of the country on the Vividh Bharti network of All India Radio. The aim of the programme was to inform inspire and empower the listeners about “life with blindness”. On several of our episodes, we have interviewed persons who are visually impaired. The object is to present them as people who have had a disability but have lived a life that is fulfilling and very much part of the community. The endeavour is to work towards portrayals that present people with disability as regular day to day people living in the community- nothing special.
Ps: This article was published in CMJI, a publication from CMAI (Christian Medical Association of India) in 2011