Research and history
Media representation of people with disabilities has been largely stereotypical (Norden, 1994; Darke, 2004; Bogdan, 2012) patronising (Riley, 2005) or based on pity and shaming of people with disabilities. The relationship between the media and disabilities has generated a lot of interest since the 1900s with earlier studies on media and people with disabilities identifying various limiting frames through which the media portray people with disabilities such as better off dead (Nelson, 2003; Black & Pretes, 2007), the invalid (Bogdan, 2012) supercrip (Kama, 2004) and the inspiration (Young, 2014). Consequently, these portrayals influence public perception about disabilities and people with disabilities. Thus, the media are very influential and the way they construct minority groups such as people with disabilities has far reaching consequences for the attainment of rights and positive identity.
Many studies continue to investigate the impact of media portrayal on the self-identity, collective identity and integration of people with disabilities in society (e.g, Zhang & Haller, 2013). In 2019, Disability and media studies scholar Ngozi Marion Emmanuel, began researching the media of films and people with disabilities. Studies in this regard have established that films continue to negatively portray people with disabilities through maintaining stereotypes and producing new ones (Safran, 1998; Botha & Harvey, 2022). However, Ngozi wanted to find out in what ways films can contribute to the positive identity and inclusion of people with disabilities. To identity the ways films can be utilised as advocacy tool to promote positive disability identity and make disabilities an integrable difference in society, Ngozi decided to find out how films portray people with disabilities in other to identity the gaps that need to be filled in filmic representation of the last minority. To do this, she zeroed in on an industry that has not been well studied in terms of disability portrayal – Nollywood.
Ngozi found that, just like other world cinemas such as Hollywood and Bollywood, Nollywood films portray disabilities in stereotypical ways, patronising and sentimentalising disabilities in a way that misrecognises the identity of people with disabilities. Her findings motivated her to seek for funding to understand the experiences of people with disabilities in the UK with relation to media portrayal. In 2021, she got an ESRC/IAA grant at the University of Leicester to hold a workshop entitled “Films and the Rest of Us” as part of the Festival of Social Sciences for that year. Through this workshop, participants were able to share their experiences of films portraying disabled characters and how that made them feel. Initial recommendations to filmmakers were made upon a screening of some select films on disabilities such as The Theory of Everything (2014) and Crip Camp (2020).
In 2023, Ngozi received a post-doctoral innovation fellowship from the ESRC/IAA at Leicester to disseminate the impact of her PhD research to a wider audience. During the period of this post-doc, a workshop to co-produce a toolkit for portraying disabilities in films was organised. At the workshop, people with disabilities from both the UK and diaspora and filmmakers came together to outline guidelines for portraying disabilities in films in a way that promotes positive disability identity and inclusion for people with disabilities. This toolkit is a first draft of its kind and Ngozi hopes to continue her work in disabilities and media giving space for more voices to contribute to improving the toolkit and disseminating this to relevant stakeholders. Part of the funding for the post-doc was used to create this website to enable the continuous dissemination of research around disabilities and media.
Black, R. S., & Pretes, L. (2007). Victims and victors: Representation of physical disability on the silver screen. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(1), 66-83. Accessed from
Bogdan, R. (2012). Picturing disability: Beggar, freak, citizen and other photographic rhetoric. Syracuse University Press.
Botha, S., & Harvey, C. (2022). Disabling discourses: contemporary cinematic representations of acquired physical disability. Disability & Society, 1-23.
Darke, P. (2004). The changing face of representations of disability in the media. In Swain, J et al (Eds), Disabling barriers-enabling environments, (2nd edition, pp. 100 – 105). Sage. London.
Kama, A. (2004). Supercrips versus the pitiful handicapped: Reception of disabling images by disabled audience members. Accessed from https://doi.org/10.1515/comm.2004.29.4.447
Riley, C. A. (2005). Disability and the media: Prescriptions for change. University Press of New England. Hanover and London.
Nelson, J. (2003). The invisible cultural group: Images of disability. In Lester, P. M & Ross, S. D (Eds), Images that injure: Pictorial stereotypes in the media, (2nd edition, pp. 175-184). Praeger. USA
Norden, M. F. (1994). The cinema of isolation: A history of physical disability in the movies. Rutgers University Press.
Safran, S. P. (1998). The first century of disability portrayal in film: An analysis of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 31(4), 467-479.
Young, S. (2014). Inspiration porn and the objectification of disability. TedX, Sydney, http://tedxsydney. com/site/item. cfm.
Zhang, L., & Haller, B. (2013). Consuming image: How mass media impact the identity of people with disabilities. Communication Quarterly, 61(3), 319-334.