Hiram College

How does the media stereotype people with disabilities?  Maggie Worth, a writer for Romance Writers Report (RWR), explored the topic in an interview with Hiram psychology professor Michelle Nario-Redmond, Ph.D.  Worth came to the right source. Dr. Nario-Redmond is one of the few researchers who studies disability stereotyping.

“Stereotyping is pervasive. We’ve been talking about it since the 80s, but nobody had quantified stereotypes people hold about disabled men and women. That’s where I came in,” says Dr. Nario-Redmond, whose research interests include stereotyping, prejudice, and disability.

Writers like Worth are taking note of Dr. Nario-Redmond’s expertise.

Following the RWR piece, Writing real characters: Disability and mental illness, Lorna Collier, a writer for the American Psychological Association’s Monitor of Psychology, cited a 2010 study on disability stereotyping by Dr. Nario-Redmond in her article “Seeking Intimacy: People with physical disabilities fight hurtful stereotypes when looking for relationship partners.”

Dr. Nario-Redmond urges scriptwriters, novelists, journalists, and social media content producers to portray disabled people as the autonomous, fully human, complex, and sexual people whom they are.

“There are official guidelines on how to communicate [about disability], but even those are out of date. We still see a lot of writing referring to people as wheelchair-bound or –confined. It reaffirms stereotypes of dependency and helplessness and that has real implications, like unwanted assistance,” says Dr. Nario-Redmond. She points out that well-meaning people often and unknowingly extend help where it isn’t always needed or desired.

In what Dr. Nario-Redmond calls “inspiration porn” in the media, disability stereotyping runs rampant. Consider a common meme: a man in a wheelchair making his way up a hill with a headline that reads, “So what’s your excuse?” These types of exploitive characterizations objectify disabled people to make others feel better about themselves, says Dr. Nario-Redmond.

“These feel-good features and posts often show disabled people doing ordinary things, going to work or to college, with messages designed to motivate the nondisabled by comparison. They aren’t brave and heroic just for getting up in the morning. Disabled people are just trying to live their lives and be taken seriously,” Dr. Nario-Redmond says.

Media stereotypes characterize disabled women and men as dependent, incompetent, asexual, weak, passive, unattractive, and heroic, according to Dr. Nario-Redmond. How can these stereotypes be curtailed?

“I think we need to speak up. Being silent is being complacent, and [it] communicates agreement. Another strategy is to put out more realistic disabled characters to curate roles that show disabled people as successful parents, partners, and professionals,” she says.

Films such as “Me Before You” feed disability stereotypes and reinforce the notion that people are better dead than disabled, Dr. Nario-Redmond adds.

In her upcoming book, Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice, published by Wiley-Blackwell, Dr. Nario-Redmond hopes to bring the topics of disability stereotyping and prejudice to family conversations at the kitchen table, to college classroom discussions, and to the forefront of society.

“The book is designed for undergraduates, professional educators, and advocates. It ends with a chapter on prejudice reduction that will inform activists and their allies about which interventions work to reduce both hostile and benevolent forms of ableism, and what can be done to increase contemporary representations, equal rights, and disability justice,” she says.