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The Media’s Ableist Language in Response to Disability Issues

Along with a number of people in the disability community, I was unimpressed by Kylie Jenner’s photoshoot for Interview magazine.

Following widespread criticism, Interview explained to E! the imagery was intended to depict Kylie in a number of situations with varying levels of power, to prompt us to think about “Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention.”

So Interview used the wheelchair as a prop to explain to us that sometimes Kylie is empowered and sometimes she’s disempowered. This use of disability as a prop did not go down well with people with disabilities. Or the mainstream media.

The mainstream media was outraged, apparently on behalf of people with disabilities everywhere. But they still thought disability was inherently bad.

Almost every article I read on the topic used ableist language to criticize Jenner’s ableism. Like Kylie, they used disability as a prop.

CNN described the photo as “tone-deaf” while my local rag, the West Australian, suggested it was a “limp effort from model.” Then The Huffington Post hypothesized the wheelchair symbolized that Kylie was “‘crippled’ by fame.” BuzzFeed thought the imagery was communicating Kylie’s belief that she is “limited” by fame.

The news media, which claims to be an authentic retelling of events and issues in society, reinforces preexisting public knowledge and accepted cultural values. When it comes to people with disabilities or stories about disability, the news tends to conflate disability with worthlessness.

In an article for Disability and Representation, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg explained that metaphors and synonyms for disability are used as a cutting insult. In a 2006 article about disability in the news for the journal Disability & Society, Tanya Titchkosky observed the way disability is “connected to limits, such as death, and represented as if such limits are not necessarily also possibilities, life.”

Disability media scholar Beth Haller told me these disabling linguistic metaphors are frequently found in a number of communication contexts. While they offer a shorthand for criticisms, they stigmatize people with disability.

When the media uses ableist language to criticize, it reinforces the cultural belief that there is something inherently wrong with having a disability — that only limitations are associated with disability.

These pejorative metaphors reinforce the cultural devaluing of people with disabilities who continue to be excluded from participation in communities and public life. Cultural stigma impacts people with disabilities who are denied essential social services and are less likely to be in paid employment. People with disabilities are also treated as powerless, childlike, asexual and incapable of participating in decisions that affect their lives.

In 2013 I surveyed 341 Australians with disabilities about the ways the media was representing disability. With specific reference to the news, 80 percent of respondents felt that news portrayals were not doing a good job of helping the general public understand the social issues faced by people with disabilities. In general, the news was seen as offering inaccurate portrayals and not providing objective information or covering disability issues fairly and fully. The respondents saw the media as failing to reflect how people with disabilities are in real life.

According to Women with Disability Australia, media-perpetuated stigma has a detrimental effect on the lived reality of women with disabilities, who are thought to embody the powerlessness the Interview wheelchair imagery sought to invoke.

Chris Wallace, who interviewed Jenner, wonders in the article if “discussions about Kylie not only happen, but kind of, like … matter?”

These discussions do matter, disability activist Karin Hitselberger wrote on her blog Claiming Crip.

“So often the lives of actually disabled people are seen as a terrible fate,” she said. 

And using ableist language to criticize or insult continues the cultural stigma of the “terrible fate” of disability.

In the interview, Kylie talked about her public persona and the disconnect she feels between her image and her real self. A number of people with disabilities say they feel a disconnect, too — a disconnect between who they are and who the media believes them to be. Ableist language isn’t helping.

When some justify the use of ableist language because some bodies are just “better” than others, this shows how deeply entrenched the stigmas is. Why are some bodies better? And why are some people excluded? People with disabilities say their lives aren’t just connected to limits — they have real possibilities, too.

While it is great to see the media paying attention to disability issues and criticizing the use of disability as a prop by Interview magazine, the ableist language used to make this critique perpetuated the same stigma. Disability should not have been used as a prop in Kylie’s photo shoots, and it is not necessary to use disability as a prop to make this criticism.

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Lead photo source: Interview Magazine / Steve Klein