Monster Blog – February 12, 2006: Sympathy or Opportunity – Media’s Portrayal of Disabled Persons

Most people get to know about disabled persons and disability issues from the mass media, namely through televisions and newspapers. Disability issues have been highlighted and awareness created among the public and officials in the government to the challenges faced by disabled persons. Admittedly, without the media, many important issues would have been swept under the carpet to be ignored and forgotten.

The recent rally by the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) to advocate for accessible public transport is one such example. The wide coverage by the print and electronic media has raised awareness up to the ministerial level. BEAT would not have achieved much without the support of the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that some articles in newspapers and programmes in televisions have a penchant to dramatise the stories that they carry. Disabled persons who have achieved their place in life are often hailed as people who have overcome extraordinary odds to reach where they are today where non-disabled persons who have accomplished the same would have been overlooked.

While there is truth to what these disabled persons have accomplished, many of those extraordinary odds are manmade. Those are barriers to equal educational and employment opportunities. And then there are barriers to public transport and in the built environment. I am not saying that by removing those barriers, disabled persons can achieve more. However, is it not ironic that we are applauding these people for overcoming the hardships that we created for them in the first place?

Another angle that the media like to use is the sympathy approach. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words. Images of a man with skin and bones for limbs certainly can tug at one’s heart strings, and purse strings. It is undeniable that we are a nation of generous people. That said, sympathy should not be used as a tool to canvass for donation. It is an undignified portrayal of disabled persons. Disability should never be manipulated in such ways to make the public part with their money, however worthy the causes may be. Disabled persons do not need sympathy. They need opportunities to realise their full potential.

If the media is truly interested in supporting disabled persons who are in need of assistance, they should work with reputable non-governmental organisations on sustainable projects that not only benefit one individual momentarily but an entire community in the long run. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. You then have to give him another fish tomorrow and the day after and the day after. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.

Education is one way to lift disabled persons up from the marginalised position that they are in today. They need to understand their rights and their needs and advocate for it. They need to understand that the nation as a system entrusted to look after the interests of citizens, and not their family alone or even public and corporations, is responsible for their well-being, and work towards making the nation play their part responsibly.

What disabled persons do not need is dramatisation of their lives with pathetic scripts and pitiful images for the sake of soliciting money that can only maintain them temporarily. Is the mass media ready to play a positive part to empower disabled persons by highlighting the inequalities that they are facing and what can be done to right those wrongs? Will they portray it from a rights-based approach angle? Or will they continue to portray disabled persons as helpless beings and tell tear-jerking stories to gather sympathy for short term gains?

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.