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Visibly Invisible: Where are we at now?

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 second blog as part of this series. Read the first one here.

In my last blog, I outlined some of the key issues surrounding disabled women’s cultural representations within contemporary Scottish/UK media. I’d like now to explore this further through a specific examination of the Scottish and UK published press over the last 12 months, as catalogued in the NEXIS news archiving system.

The Stats

Emily Rose Yates

In 2011, the UK Census registered over 1,040,000 people living in Scotland with a “long-term activity-limiting health problem or disability” [1]. This equates to nearly 20% of the overall population. 52% of those registered disabled were defined as female, with a higher proportion of women than men listed as physically disabled (55% to 45%) and a lower proportion of women to men listed as having a learning disability (43% to 57%). Yet, in the last 12 months there have been a total of 5 articles published in the Scottish press that feature, or even allude to, disabled women or women with disabilities. Of these, only one was written by a woman with a disability (Emily Rose Yates, pictured) and addresses disability or disabled experience in anything other than the most cursory terms, or as part of a wider statistical or social analysis. One other names a “very able disabled woman” in a paid public role as the lead subject of the story[2].

The UK press fairs somewhat better, recording 62 articles in the last year that address issues such as: disability and abortion; all-women shortlists[3]; the beauty myth and sexuality; pregnancy and motherhood; female disabled political candidates[4]; sexual harassment ; and the lack of representation of women with disabilities in the media, as well as the more predictable stories about disabled women as helpless victims of sexual violence, crime and austerity cuts[5].

Frances Ryan, Kath Duncan, Anne Walufa Strike

However, the vast majority of these articles come from the same publication – The Guardian – a paper that regularly commissions contributions from female writers with a disability, including Frances Ryan, Kath Duncan, Ally Castle and Anne Wafula Strike.

Other publishers, such as The Independent and The Times, occasionally post comments and opinions by women with disabilities[6], but outside of this, national, and particularly tabloid, commentary remains largely focussed on the medical ‘triumph over adversity’ model (think Paralympic coverage or stories of individual heroism[7]), or the social model of disability, with articles continually describing the fate of “the disabled”, as well as focussing on disability rights, access and, of course, benefits (351, 943 and 777 articles, respectively, over the past 12 months). Whilst these issues obviously remain hugely important in our day to day lives, I would argue that it is time for the mainstream press to follow The Guardian’s lead and begin to recognise women with disabilities as actual people: as valid and diverse individuals capable of having multiple experiences, ideas, opinions, thoughts and with a myriad of skills to offer. We are not just a statistic. We are not all the same.

[2] Merson, A (19 March 2018) International Women’s Day rally event deemed a resounding success, Aberdeen Evening Express, News p7

[3] Jones A, Quotas are the smartest way to ensure equality, (10 March 2018) The Independent, Features, p55

[4] Saul, H (8 March 2018) Our part in the equality battle, The Independent, News, p11

[5] 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

[6] See footnote 4, plus column articles by Melanie Reid, The Times, I would hate to be groped, but I’d still like to feel fancied (3 February 2018) and People like me have all had the conversation with our partners: ‘Leave me alone and go get a life’(14 October 2018)

[7] Redfern, C (25 April 2018) Nepal earthquake three years on: ’I was a deaf girl in great danger – but I stayed to set up a school’, The Telegraph, Women and Duncan, S (8 July 2017) Meet the blind keeper, 17, who saves goals by listening to ground vibrations of the ball – and is named most valuable player for her extraordinary talent, MailOnline, News

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