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Visibly Invisible: We are not all the same

Engender has been working with University of Stirling student Caroline Darke on a project exploring some of the issues around the representation (or rather, lack) of women with disabilities within the mainstream Scottish and UK media. This project connects with Engender’s on-going commitment to achieving gender parity within the Scottish media, and our Disabled Women: Our Bodies, Our Rights project, which examines the rights of disabled women and their reproductive journeys within current social care practices and government policy.

This is Caroline's third blog as part of this series. Read blogs one and two here.

Disability is indiscriminate. It exists across every continent and affects every population, regardless of race, gender, class, age, sexuality, religion or geographic location. It is also becoming an increasingly complicated concept, for what exactly constitutes a disability? Is it always visible - what of Deafness, Visual Impairment or Learning Disability? (Mintz, 2008, Kafer, 2013, Wendell 1996) Does it have to be permanent and of a fixed state - what about conditions like ME, MS or Lupus? (Wendell, 1996) If it is about being physically debilitated and losing the ‘ability’ to do things, then does being obese or having terminal cancer make you ‘dis’abled? (Herndon, 2008) Does it mean the same in every culture and language? Age is also a factor, for with global increases in life expectancy it is likely that at some point we will all experience disability, even if we have lived most of our lives as ‘healthy’ individuals (Morris, 1993, Wendell, 1996). Yet, despite this breadth and variety of form, the representations of disability we see presented in the mainstream UK media and press still conform to a very narrow perception of what it means (and looks like) to be disabled, particularly if you are a woman.

Dove's 'Real Beauty' campaign

That is, if we are represented at all…

Although ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ may be the buzzwords of our generation, disabled women remain conspicuously absent from most major advertising campaigns that are (supposedly) designed to celebrate how different we all are: think Dove, Benetton and Marks and Spencers, or Vogue’s New Suffragettes. On the rare occasions we do appear, women with disabilities are invariably depicted according to socially prescribed and pre-conceived notions of ‘acceptable’ disability (Garland Thomas, 2002, Hall, 2011): think young, white, healthy-looking, conventionally pretty and preferably blonde.

Cerrie Burnell, CBeebies

Rarely will you see a woman of colour with a disability represented in the national papers or on TV. (I found two examples out of the 67 articles mentioned in my last blog[1]). In my Nexis search there were no images or stories in the UK press over the last 12 months of disabled women who identify as gay, queer, or trans, and the only time that age was mentioned in relation to disability was when the story described vulnerable older women being robbed, abused, neglected or attacked[2].Most public media images of women with disabilities still conform to healthy ‘beauty myth’(Wolf, 1990) body-types (think Paralympian superhuman or BBC3’s Missing Top Model), or the glossy, young (white) ‘girl next door’ (think CBeebies’s Cerrie Burnell).

Clarissa Mullery, Silent Witness

This is beginning to improve, with characters such as Clarissa Mullery (the forensic scientist in Silent Witness) not only challenging stereotypes of ‘acceptable’ disabled imagery, but also positioning a woman - who happens to have a disability - as a key player in the on-going narrative structure of the series: an expert and a figure of authority, rather than just a vehicle for the usual disability plotline. Oh, and the character is also played by an actual disabled person!

But, whilst there is a great deal of positivity to be found in these increasingly visible acknowledgements of women with disabilities as having an active role to play in our society, there is rarely, if ever, talk about how other markers such as race, class or creed might accentuate the oppression faced by disabled women throughout the world. And this despite the fact that the relationship between poverty, disability, gender, culture and an increased risk of violence, exploitation and/or neglect, is widely demonstrated by organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sightsavers and Leonard Cheshire.

So what can we do about this? Well, we need to put pressure on the media to keep upping their game in terms of the diversity of representation we see on our screens and in UK print and advertising, and we need disabled women from every background and circumstance to come forward to tell their stories, and express their opinions, through the platforms available to them: be that social media, public art, broadcast or print. We also need to push for recognition of the fact that disabled women all have a unique voice, perspective and experience to contribute. I cannot speak for, or be expected to represent every woman living with a disability, and neither would I expect others to speak for me, for if diversity is to really mean something in our modern day culture, then it needs to recognise all of us and not just those who conveniently fit the chosen narrative.


[1] See the feature by Anne Walufa Strike – interestingly with no image of the author in the by-line –and quote by MP Marsha de Cordova within Helen Saul’s Our part in the equality battle(March 8, 2018) The Independent, News, p11

[2] Riches, C (March 3, 2018) Jail for the boss who stole from the elderly, The Express, News, p19, Bartlett, N (February 20, 2018) A disabled women who died alone, The Mirror, News

Further Reading:

FAWCETT, B. (2000) Feminist Perspectives on Disability, Pearson Education, Harlow UK

GARLAND-THOMSON, R (2002) Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography, in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. by Snyder, S., Bruggemann, B., Garland-Thomas, R., Modern Language Association of America, New York

HALL, K.Q. (2011), An Introduction, Feminist Disability Studies, Indiana University Press

HERNDON, A (2008) Disparate but Disabled: Fat Embodiment and Disability Studies, in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Hall, K, Indiana University Press, p245-262

KAFER, A (2013) Feminist, Queer, Crip, Indiana University Press

MINTZ, S (2008) Invisible Disability: Georgia Klegge’s Sight Unseen, in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Hall, K, Indiana University Press, p69-90

MORRIS, J (1993) Pride Against Prejudice, London: Women’s Press

VERNON, A (1998) Multiple Oppression and the Disabled People’s Movement in The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Shakespeare, T, Continuum, UK

WENDELL, S (1996) The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability, Routledge, UK

WOLF, N (1990) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Vintage, UK

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