Disabilities & the Motives in Media

Throughout this quarter I have come across particular themes that stood out to me while analyzing the angle of viewership that media focuses on.  I have separated the them into three categories with examples of how these people are represented to the audience’s eye.  We are presented with disabled individuals who are examples of exceptionalism and play into the society of consumerism.  Than there are individuals who are recognized for their disabilities but weren’t seeking for the media’s attention although they inevitably were.  The last type of media recognition I wanted to talk about are groups who facilitate and help athletes with disabilities and how they are perceived in the media.  I want to touch on who is behind the scene writing the script in media in each of these situations because I believe it’s a strategic tool producers use to capture responses from their audience.

In my previous post I discussed an article, “Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change” by Charles Riley where he discussed problem of identity.  “One of the reasons the representation of people with disabilities in the press is such a fascinating problem is due to the complexities posed by this question of identity” (Riley, 19).  I directly related this to Aimee Mullins, a Paralympic Athlete who is all across the media for her athletic abilities, modeling, and acting career.  After further research, I have changed my idolized view of Mullins to an image of her disabilities as an asset to her success and fame.  This isn’t arguable to a certain extent, but her identity in the media seems to appear a lot about her looks.  In “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson she states, “Photography authorizes staring…Disability photography offers the spectator the pleasure of unaccountable, uninhibited, insistent looking” (Garland-Thomson, 191).  This author manages to capture the image that all photography of the disabled body are constructed or assumed from the nondisabled gaze.  Mullins plays into this to a tee with her legs being the object and focus of her difference.  Her modeling images have been recognized for the technology that are attachments to the human body.  There is something about Mullins that also is apart from the majority of individuals with prosthetics and that is her beauty and sexualization.  Viewers are exposed to Mullins story and there is no denying her success and beauty but the fine line that is crossed comes to the surface when we think of disability as an unappealing quality.  Not all individuals, especially women would meet the criteria it takes to land the cover of Life magazine due solely to the inability of reaching the ‘ideal white woman’ that media consumes.  This places Mullins in a different category than many other women with or without prosthetics because to achieve this status on magazine covers is out of reach for the norm of women in our society.  All of Mullins’ successes have been praised, as they should be but they are written in her favor and play with the American dream for women to be fit, beautiful, successful, and smart.

There is than this framing of achievement that is more relatable to the general audience and individuals that are living lives away from being the front cover of a magazine.  There seems to be a longing to become recognized for overcoming disabilities and seen as a great influence for those that are struggling to achieve success as well.  There are two young brothers, Conner and Caden Young who were 2012 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKids of the Year.  Conner’s younger brother was diagnosed with hypertonic cerebral palsy at birth, which is a disability that restricts him from walking or talking on his own.  Conner and his brother began participating in triathlons together where Conner pulls his brother through each part of the race because “..seeing him smile and laugh” lets him know he’s having fun (Conner Long).  This is the type of example where these two young boys, specifically Conner choosing to participate in a race with his brother was for the pure joy of bonding with him.  They than began gaining recognition for their astonishing story which got them nominated for this award.  The story behind these boys is from their family and Conner’s voice of how and why he races with his brother.  The voice is not only praising their accomplishments but the touching bond between two brothers without the ability to truly communicate in equal matters.  It would be hard to imagine producers creating a story from a 9 year old boy’s life to increase income and although I am not ruling it out, I see in this clip and in their article voicing the story of the genuine and loving bond between the boys.  There is a theme of dependency within many disabled individuals and although Aimee Mullins doesn’t quite fit this because of her ability to be on her own, these boys independently from their parents chose to race together.  Cayden, due to his disabilities is dependent on his older brother Conner to assist him from the start line to the finish line.

In our reading “Cyborg and Supercrip: The Paralympics Technology and the (Dis)empowerment of Disabled Athletes” by David Howe discuss how media exposure defines a supercrip.  “…label of supercrip can be negatively bestowed on impaired individuals who simply manage to live ‘an ordinary; life” (Karma, 2004- Howe, 869).  The media exposure on these two boys sheds light not on the supercrip or the boy that is disabled, but the fact that their lack of knowledge of being publicized is touching to consumers.  In the San Francisco Globe, it mentioned how Conner is a hero but he is too young and careless of what others are thinking of them because his focus is to show his brother how to have fun together (SF Globe, 2014).  Conner Young in his interview made a point, “…if people could race with people that can’t walk or talk or with any type of autism, it might open up the eyes of people that don’t really care about it… and care about it in the future hopefully.”  Conner is only 9 years old and wishes to have recognition for the amazing experience it is for both the independent and the dependee when given the opportunity to help.   The boys’ story is much more relatable to the majority of disabilities because of their motives without the enforcement of income or care towards receiving something back.  Mullin’s story is touching but seems out of reach for if not all, many; but helping a friend or near by community is rewarding for both parties and is more accessible to the broad society.

This brings me to my last exposure of disabilities in the media, focusing on agencies or groups that work for and towards disabilities.  In “Cause Marketing” by Angela Eikenberry she discusses how marketing can put up blinders on the consumer.  Many marketing objectives such as the Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness, put up a front that their proceeds all go towards research but in reality they are getting the best of both worlds (Eikenberry, 51).  Yes, your proceeds when purchasing Pink Ribbon products do help funding but that is after the deductions are made for the finances towards their own corporation.  Corporations like this bring up the question of the honesty and truth behind objectivity in the media and how they target their audience.  There are other foundations that are set up in order to facilitate and assist people who are not able-bodied citizens, looking to compete and be involved in athletics around the world.  There is an organization for running called Achilles International which has able-bodied runners volunteer to help train and guide athletes with disabilities.  This is a non-profit organization began in 1967 by Dick Traum, an above the knee amputee and also the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon.  His goal is to have help bring hope and inspiration to those with disabilities through his organization.  Groups like this, are hard to tell the difference when it comes to whether the agency is gearing towards the people in need or profiting the organization.  Their website does a good job not crossing a line of who they praise in the situation; the volunteer or the disabled being assisted.  This type of agency balances a stable position of which agency is benefiting and how.  I referenced in a previous blog, “The ‘Supercrip’ in sport media: Wheelchair Athletes Discuss Hegemony’s Disabled Hero” written by Marie and Brent Hardin who discussed media’s portrayal of people with disabilities.  The article relates well to this organization and groups around the world whose goal is to incorporate all individuals with disabilities (blind, prosthetic, wheelchair, etc.) into athletic settings without setting them apart from those without impairments.  Many scholars believe that mass media has a tendency to praise huge successes of athletes with disabilities which in turn creates a standard which the accomplishments of the cultural norm, won’t be able to be reached.  Non-profit and other organizations who work towards creating a better and more involved community I believe do a better job than the producers who can’t stop raving about the small percentage of athletes who push even further past a successful discourse, in order to acquire fame and recognition with consumers.  Emotional responses are sure to come with this take of involvement due to the face to face interaction the volunteers will have and experience with the disabled athlete.  The pain and feelings that they presumably have are reached not through the media itself, but the requiring involvement that person has in their work.

Producers behind media whether that be magazines, videos, or organizations, have a knowledge on how to trigger certain emotional reactions from their audience.  These reactions can either help induce awareness and involvement, but also a strong passion for income.  The more recognition individuals with disabilities have, depending on their resources and means of reaching a type of audience, in my eyes are helpful in any situation.  I think awareness is something that is found through social media and purposely targeting the viewers in order to get a response.  I don’t agree that all sources handle or present it well but I do believe awareness is the key especially if it’s done with the means for more involvement above all else.



“Critical Questions to Ask Before You Buy Pink.” Think Before You Pink » Before You Buy Pink. Breast Cancer Action, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Editorial Staff. “The San Francisco Globe.” The San Francisco Globe. SF Globe – Credits: Sports Illustrated Kids, 25 Jan. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

Eikenberry, Angela M., “The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing” (2009). Public Administration Faculty Publications. Paper 39.http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/pubadfacpub/39

Hardin, Marie, and Brent Hardin. “The ‘Supercrip’ in Sport Media: Wheelchair Athletes Discuss Hegemony’s Disabled Hero.” Sosol. School of Physical Education, University of Otago, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Jay Dolmage. Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.

P. David Howe, Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University, Leicestershire LE11 3TU, UK. Email:p.d.howe@lboro.ac.uk

Riley, Charles A. Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 2005. Scholar Google. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Snyder, Sharon L., Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002. Print.

“Sports Illustrated Kids 2012 SportsKids of the Year: Conner and Cayden Long (OFFICIAL).” YouTube. YouTube, 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

“Who We Are.” Achilles International |. Rappy & Company, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

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1 Response to Disabilities & the Motives in Media

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    I appreciate your attention to awareness in the conclusion of your argument. You are correct in pointing out that if people do not know of an issue or condition, they certainly cannot do anything about it. Each of the three approaches you mention do accomplish awareness, but in very different ways. One of the sites of difference that interests me is how in each case the disabled person is endowed (via representation) with varying degrees of agency. For someone such as Mullins, she is represented as a fully independent person with her own voice who articulates her experience and interprets her own body and goals, dreams, desires, accomplishments, etc. Caden Young literally has no voice, and thus I begin to wonder to what extent agency and independence relate to being about to articulate meaning. Instead, it is his brother Connor who speaks. The final example is just as complex, as these organizations seem both for the helper and the person who needs assistance. These three examples demonstrate the complexity of disability, particularly related the way bodies (and able-bodiedness) relate to ideals of independence, agency, the ability to speak, and representation. Further, they demonstrate the role of such relationships to the possibility of commodification. What it is possible to sell is related to these ideals, and (just as importantly) our emotional response. Our emotions in many ways are not our own, but intricately related to ideologies of our lives.

    Nice job! Great having you in class and I hope to see you around campus.

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