Labelling Disability In The Media – Does It Educate Or Create More Stigma?


When you have a visible difference or a disability, you may spend a lot of time noticing how society reacts to you looking different to the masses. There’s curiosity, exclusion, horror, patronisation, encouragement, inclusion, rudeness, surprise, honesty, fear, ridicule, and great compassion and kindness. I think I’ve experienced the full range of human reaction living with my visible difference – a rare and severe genetic skin condition called Ichthyosis, meaning scaly red skin.

While it is so important for awareness about disabilities to be raised, the media often doesn’t present visible difference and disability in a positive way. We are the villains (think Two Face in Batman or Freddy Kruger), a person to be ridiculed (remember the short statured person, repeatedly described as a dwarf by the media, who was hired for entertainment then set alight by a footballer on Mad Monday?) or described as “wheelchair bound”. People without disabilities play us on TV – there’s Artie in Glee and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and prime ministers have been known to pat people with disabilities on the head – maybe through condescension or misplaced kindness?

Social media can be just as bad as the mainstream media – with the heroifying and ridicule of people with disabilities. I can think of a lot of social media memes that picture people with disabilities playing sport, and an accompanying caption “the only disability is a bad attitude”. There is also the audience reaction that is no longer limited to discussion in the privacy of one’s own home – I cringe when I see people clicking and commenting on photos of sick babies on Facebook – there’s a sense of naivety that a click for a prayer will donate money for a cure, and also the cruel reactions to the pictures.

I have a great problem with not being in control of my story. That’s why I write and speak my own. I want it told in a respectful, non sensationalised, non patronising way. And I don’t want my condition to be labeled exploitatively by the media just to draw in readers. Since I’ve had my blog, it’s given me more confidence to tell my story across a range of publications and on a community TV program called No Limits, and also for me to consider approaches from the media to tell my story. In July 2013 I was verbally abused by a taxi driver – and I wrote about this on my blog and for Daily Life. It was also reported (very fairly and sensitively by a journalist on I found it interesting that when I have told my own story, the readers’ responses have been far more empathetic than when a story was written about me.

And that brings me to participation in disability related media when you’re not in control of your own story.

Last year Carly discussed how the TV program The Undateables had moved her and restored her faith in humanity. At that stage I had not watched it – I was reluctant to do so because of the way I feel about Embarrassing Bodies (I have a big problem with the title and viewers’ gross out reactions to Embarrassing Bodies, but after reading Carly’s thoughts on it and asking me what I thought. I watched The Undateables on iView.

The Undateables shows the stories of people with visible differences and disabilities trying to find love. They sign up to a dating agency and are matched with potentially compatible dates. The program highlights the struggle people with visible differences and disabilities face with self-esteem, being accepted and also the discomfort that society sometimes has around being in the company of a person who looks different.

I found it very similar to Beauty and the Beast – The Ugly Face of Prejudice which pairs up self obsessed, vain beauties with people born with disabilities or acquired disfigurements, and helps the ‘beauty’ do away with the importance placed on image. The premise of both The Undateables and Beauty and the Beast is to showcase the reality (if a reality TV show can be deemed a reality) of the prejudices faced by people with disabilities and disfigurements, and change peoples’ perceptions and value of appearance. Both programs were very sensitive, allowing the viewer to feel empathy with the participants (I think anyone could relate to the situations of the participants – both those with visible difference and disabilities and those without), and I felt like they invited less ridicule than Embarrassing Bodies.

However, I completely disagree with the term ‘beast’ or ‘undateable’ used about someone’s appearance. It is these labels that create negative perceptions and exclusion towards people with visible differences and disabilities. Twenty one complaints were made to the British Advertising Standards Board after the ad for The Undateables was aired. Complainants said the title was offensive and derogatory towards people with disabilities, suggesting they were “inevitably dateless and incapable of having a personal relationship”.

Raymond Johnson, a participant in The Undateables, told The Guardian that he has received a great response from strangers since appearing on the program (he feels like a celebrity!), and he believes the program has helped change attitudes towards people with disabilities. “It was done really impressively, apart from the title,” Johnson said. “If there is going to be a third series, they should change the title”, he told The Guardian. A friend of mine, Nelly, also with Ichthyosis, has written on my blog about the positive experience she had on Beauty and the Beast. “[Beauty and the Beast] helped me to get more confidence and I wanted to show people what I had to do keep my self healthy and alive”, Nelly said.

It is a relief to me that both Raymond and Nelly have had positive experiences participating in these TV programs. Their experience and watching the programs also shown me that just like with meeting people with a visible difference or disability and forming an initial judgement based on appearance or a label, I need to get to know the program by watching it rather than judging it by title alone. And I encourage people without visible differences and disabilities to watch these shows with an open mind too.

The UK’s Channel 4 has made a commitment to disability programming – and these programs have filtered to ABC in Australia. I hope the Australian media has the same level of commitment to disability programming in the not too distant future.

Carly Findlay is an award-winning writer, speaker, TV presenter and appearance activist. She likes food, travel and Darren Hayes. Carly blogs about all of her loves as well as what it’s like to live with a visible difference at  Carly Findlay


  1. Jasmine 3 years ago

    I’ve been discussing similar with a couple of mothers at my son’s school. We each have a disabled child at the school and we’d like there to be a bit more ‘education’ of students, just addressing the fact that disabilities exist and children with disabilities attend the school. I don’t feel like it has to be a huge deal – just sitting the kids down, talking about the different disabilities that exist and what it means, but stressing that these kids are still their peers and still desire friendship in the playground (without necessarily identifying specific disabled children at the school). The school keeps rejecting the idea, which is disappointing – I’d rather answer a child’s questions as honestly as possible than teach them to look away/ignore anyone who is different.

    • Carly Findlay 3 years ago

      Hey Jasmine thanks for your comment. You may be interested in this piece I wrote:
      I think it is much better for people to ask about a condition than turn their head away or snigger.

      • Jasmine 3 years ago

        Thanks for the link – I agree with everything you said. I don’t think kids, particularly young ones, are inherently cruel. They’re just curious. But they’ll also take their cues from their parents, so if parents won’t talk about differences, children will presume there’s something there to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Which is why we’d really like to see the school being proactive and just broadly addressing disabilities, instead of trying to cotton ball children as if these things don’t exist. Parents should be doing it, too, but schools have many more resources at their disposable which would help them to make a greater difference (we’ve discussed the idea of either disability advocates or psychologists visiting the school, or at least advising us as a group on how best to present the information to different age groups).

        Because my son is autistic he can be extremely blunt – but he also doesn’t tend to make any sort of judgements. In the instance of a cerebal palsy kid at the school, he just walked up and said ‘Hello, what’s going on with you?’. He stared at a down syndrome girl once and I thought he was about to ask questions but he just told me she was beautiful. We’ve talked about how his brain can be a bit different from other people, which is why he doesn’t like loud noises and flashing lights, and he accepts that everyone is different, sometimes it’s a visible thing, sometimes not.

        • Smaggle 3 years ago

          We have some beautiful kids that come and volunteer at the school and some of them are just heart breakingly gorgeous. They ask questions like ‘Can he talk? Or can he hear me?’ and depending on the student I’ll just encourage them to have open ended conversations with non-verbal kids like ‘Hey buddy, do you want to read a story or listen to some music? Oh I like your lunch box!’ things like that and they always try so hard. Intergration programs are really great, although it’s bit more difficult if your son is mainstreamed and he presents as being very functional because it’s harder for kids to accept a disability that’s not so obvious which is why it’s so important for their to be a discussion around the different types of people at the school.

    • Smaggle 3 years ago

      I work in special ed and I always much rather have someone ask me about one of my students than stare at them and laugh with their friends. But I give it back if people are awful. The school I teach at has kids with profound autism and the playground shares a fence with the mainstream school. One of my students is very sensory and likes to sit by himself and play with his own saliva. There was a group of bratty year 6 girls near the fence one day and I heard them going ‘Ewww! Gross! Look! He’s disgusting!’ and I went over to get him to and one of them had the audicity to say ‘Excuse me, can you tell him to stop being gross? I fee like I’m going to spew over here.’ and I said ‘Oh my goodness I’m so sorry! I’ll take him away right now – what are your names?’
      The stupid bitches gave me their names and I said ‘Thanks. I’m reporting you to your principal for being out of bounds and for bullying. Have a nice day.’
      And I did report them and they had to come apologise to my student and me.

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