Media organisations must be pressured to stop discriminating against disabled people and turning them into objects of pity, derision or “inspiration porn”, a national conference has heard.
The theme of this week’s annual conference of the disabled people’s organisation Disability Wales* was how to change society by challenging stereotypes in the media.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales*, told the conference that the media often turned disabled people into “objects of pity or derision or as inspirational porn”, which robbed them of control over their lives and overlooked the barriers they face in society.
She also said the media had been “complicit” in accepting the UK government’s narrative that the deaths of disabled people during the Covid pandemic were “inevitable, unavoidable, expendable”.
Even though nearly 60 per cent of Covid-related deaths across the UK were of disabled people – with this reaching 68 per cent in Wales – Davies said there had been “no sense of national scandal” and few questions asked by the media, with “zero coverage” of the high death rate so far during the Covid public inquiry.
She said the challenge in Wales was that so much media content was driven by a UK-wide agenda, although Disability Wales had been involved in initiatives such as the ITV Wales equality and diversity panel and the BBC Cymru Wales Talk Disability initiative, which “are an important starting point but on a much longer journey to ensure a more inclusive society”.
Disabled journalist Rachel Charlton-Dailey, a Daily Mirror columnist, editor of the Mirror’s Disabled Britain series, and founder of The Unwritten, said the Conservative government still had a “hold” over the majority of the media, particularly the print media.
She said this means “they are being spurred on to be as hateful as ever towards disabled people”, particularly with stories suggesting they are “work shy or faking it”.
Charlton-Dailey tried earlier this year to convince the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which regulates most of the UK’s newspapers and magazines, to introduce guidelines on reporting disability, which she described as “the most frustrating time of my life”.
She was told that IPSO’s editor’s code only applied when a media organisation discriminates against an individual, but not when it attacks a group such as disabled people.
If that changed, she said, “it would absolutely flatten the print media industry because it means they wouldn’t be able to be ableist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic… they would be shut down”.
She told the conference: “Working in an industry that actively endangers the lives of my community is exhausting.”
The conference also heard from photo-journalist Natasha Hirst, the first disabled president of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)**, and a member of the Welsh government’s Disability Rights Taskforce.
She said IPSO was “very, very weak” and “doesn’t want to improve or put greater requirements on publications to make sure that they are reporting fairly and not discriminating against [groups such as] disabled people”.
She told the conference: “When we do our jobs well, journalists can help change society for the better, but when we fail we reinforce inequality and discrimination.
“We need more pressure on media organisations to work in a way that is fair and ethical.”
Hirst said part of the problem was the lack of disabled journalists in senior leadership roles.
She said: “Disabled journalists experience many barriers in their careers, and although there are schemes to get disabled people into journalism, there’s very little support for them to progress their careers in getting to those senior roles where they are able to influence change.
“There are not enough disabled role models, workplaces are not accessible enough, and many disabled journalists tell the union that they experience terrible discrimination at work.”
Dawn Bowden, deputy minister for arts, sport and tourism in the Welsh government, told the conference: “While the media has the power to bring about positive change, it can also perpetuate stereotypes and biases if it’s not handled responsibly.
“It’s crucial for media professionals to approach disability representation with care, accuracy and respect in order to contribute to the building of a more inclusive and equitable society.”
She said the Welsh government recognised the “challenges facing the sector regarding a lack of diversity and inclusion”.
She said one of the priorities of the three-year creative skills action plan drawn up by the Welsh government agency Creative Wales was to improve diverse and inclusive recruitment “with an aim to develop a creative workforce which reflects everyone”.
*Disability Wales is a Disability News Service subscriber
**John Pring, editor of Disability News Service, is an NUJ member
Picture: (From left to right): Natasha Hirst, Rhian Davies and Rachel Charlton-Dailey
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