“It is an honour to be here at this Social Forum and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Convention and the many important disability rights achievements of the past decade.
However, some barriers have continued despite important progress in many areas and it must be acknowledged that mainstream cultural and historical perspectives continue to play a significant role in driving negative assumptions about persons with disabilities and in creating or contributing to many of the barriers that result in social injustices that diminish the human rights of persons with disabilities, as expressed in the many Articles of the Convention.
We all know that persons with disabilities are invisible in the media. For instance, last year less than 1% of characters on TV were persons with disabilities. Moreover, only 5% of those characters with disabilities were played by disabled actors. This is how grave the lack of representation is.
This is the result of an ableist society. Ableism is considering persons with disabilities less, second class citizens, not worthy. Ableist perspectives of disability can be reflected in media in many ways. For example, when disabled people are cast as objects of pity, burdens on their families and on society; when disability is framed as human “defect” to be “cured” or overcome, rather than a manifestation of human “diversity” that should be accommodated by a society that welcomes all. It’s also applauding people with disabilities for being “so brave”, or super heroes.
These are all damaging images of persons with disabilities that build up stigma and contribute to keep persons with disabilities apart from the rest of society. We must change these stereotypes if we want to change the attitudes towards persons with disabilities.
This Social Forum raised important elements in connection to the media.
We have heard the important call by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Catalina Devandas, for disability to be understood by mainstream society within the framework of human “diversity”, not human “defect”. Many other speakers and commentators at this Social Forum have also This Social Forum raised many important elements in connection to the impact of cultural perspective on human rights.
To achieve this shift in how mainstream society understands disability, we must ensure that our efforts and activities are directed at reshaping mainstream perspectives of disability and stimulating a culture of acceptance, non-discrimination and inclusion of people with disability.
While it is true that cultural change doesn’t usually happen overnight, we live in an age where the media is a significant driver in shaping how we perceive the world around us and how we act in. In this way, the media can also be a tool for social change, in reshaping attitudes to, and outcomes for, persons with disabilities.
For example, we just saw wonderful and positive images in the press about the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, which had high level of attendance. This had a direct impact on the attitudes of people in the streets. British Channel 4 hired staff with disability to cover the Games.
Ten years ago the character of a girl with Down syndrome was introduced in a popular soap opera in Brazil, under the advice of activists of the disability movement. This soap opera, “Pages of Life”, was a watershed in the transition from special to inclusive education system in Brazil. It was sold to 90 countries giving further impetus to an awareness wave.
Article 8. of the Convention recognizes the importance of the role of the media and the obligation of State Parties to ensure “all organs of the media to portray persons with disabilities in a manner consistent with the purpose of the present Convention”.
The relative brevity of Article 8 does not mean that its implications for the realization of human right is any less significant as, for example, the right to inclusive education which was recently amplified by the Committee of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
I believe that only with a deliberate and sustained engagement of the media in relation to persons with disabilities and its role in entrenching or challenging discrimination, can the social inclusion of persons with disability and the realization of their human rights occur in a timely manner.
I would hope that one of the outcomes of this Social Forum will be to communicate to State Parties the expectations that they need to take more concrete actions in relation to compliance with Article 8.
In particular State parties must be required to take action to ensure:
- the production of media content that promotes respect for the rights, capabilities, skills, merit and contributions of people with disability and challenges myths, negative stereotypes and prejudices about people with disability;
- and provide opportunities for individual agency and empowerment through the direct participation of people with disability in the media, including by supporting initiatives for employment of persons with disabilities in the media.
By engaging the media in relation to persons with disabilities more generally will also educate media workers, to become allies and help to expose rights violations and to eradicate pervasive stereotyping, by employing proper language and portraying persons with disabilities as rights holders. Furthermore, it is important that journalists are in contact with sources who are persons with disabilities and adopt a human rights approach to the stories.
It is also important that media become more aware of the importance of all information being presented in accessible platforms to reach a wider audience inclusive of persons with disabilities. Media related regulations and initiatives should devote to ensure accessibility.
Another area that can also provide a platform for cultural change is the inclusion of persons with disabilities in mainstream, advertisement and other media products. Generally producers are not against this idea. They just never thought about it. It is our job to make them think. We can assure that hiring actors with disabilities is good for business. New York Fashion Week had excellent reviews when they started showing models who use wheelchairs, in 2014. A reality show with people with Down syndrome just earned an Emmy Award. A TV series with a young man with cerebral palsy was well received by the critics. These are just some of many examples.
In developing countries, the private and public media can be a cost-effective way of promoting inclusion. Governments, companies and the media outlets should start casting persons with disabilities in their productions. Images help change old pre-conceptions and contribute to build an inclusive culture much faster.
For all this purposes, the creation of a disability [alliance with] media that includes private and public media and persons with disabilities both as communicators and target audience, would be a great contribution for the rights of persons with disabilities.
In summary, the realisation of the human rights of persons with disabilities depends on ensuring that cultural change occurs at the broadest level for the impact to be seen at the level of individuals and their lives.
We can choose now to call for State Party action on the basis of Article 8 to support the social change that is the aspiration of the Convention or we can do nothing and allow the media to continue as a passive but damaging agent of friction to that social change – to the detriment of many more generations of people with disability.
Patricia Almeida – Founder of the Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment.