The media have a major role to play in breaking down the stigma surrounding disability.
The training of journalists is crucial. It is important to work with academia and with journalism departments to teach about inclusive journalism.
An EESC hearing points to the need to embrace a human rights-based approach to disability in news and entertainment programs, to build a more inclusive society that sees the person, and not the disability.
With their often one-dimensional and pity-inducing portrayal of persons with disabilities, wrought with myths and misconceptions, and a still insufficient range of news and entertainment programs that meet the criteria of full accessibility, the European media still have a long way to go before they can be considered to communicate about disability in an accurate and inclusive way.
The pivotal role played by the media in raising awareness on disability rights and in combating the stigma and prejudice surrounding persons with disabilities, which still permeate all aspects of European society, topped the agenda at the hearing on "Communicating Disability Rights" held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels.
"The communication of disability rights should be considered an important part of a broader issue of how we portray diversity in our society in its totality. This stands at the epicentre of our democratic values," said the EESC Member Ioannis Vardakastanis, opening the event.
The hearing brought together EESC members and representatives from different non-governmental organizations that support persons with disabilities. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Media Diversity Institute (MDI), a media watchdog that encourages responsible media coverage of diversity, were also represented.
One of the major criticisms leveled at the media by the panelists was their insufficient commitment to meaningfully and accurately report about issues that matter to persons with disabilities and that directly affect them or their families.
Instead, the media usually take a "charity approach" to disability, meant to evoke pity. There is also a tendency to depict these persons in an infantilised or stereotypical way, or even as superheroes struggling with everyday life, making the audience feel inspired by their achievements.
"When we have a vacuum of information about something in the public discourse, it is very easy for inaccuracies, stereotypes and generalizations to stick and to do significant damage," said Adam Harris from AsIAm.ie Association, a national charity from Ireland that supports people with autism.
"For example, when somebody hears that you are autistic, they either immediately put a glass ceiling over your head and presume you can't do things or presume you have some sort of super-power and that it is likely you will win a Nobel prize," Mr Harris said.
"The overly inspirational stories are only used to make persons with no disability feel better about themselves. This is discriminatory, but it is happening a lot and it is taking attention away from the real issues," said EDF's Andre Felix.
He pointed to the importance of entertainment programs, as TV stories can influence the way people shape their views of the world. In Mr Felix's view, employing more persons with disabilities in the media, both on and off-screen, could help to make their voices louder and depict their reality more accurately.
One good example of showing the reality of persons with disabilities is a multi-media project called "Heartbreakers", run by the Czech foundation providing support for employment of persons with disabilities, and presented at the hearing by Zdena Štěpánková. "Heartbreakers" are short videos telling a story about a person with a disability from both his or her perspective, but also from that of their employer.
Persons with disabilities are also discriminated against when it comes to the right to access to information, as many media are still not accessible to persons with many types of impairments. However, the number of media offering accessible services are on the rise, at least when it comes to public broadcasters in the Member States.
A 2016 survey that included half of all EBU members revealed that 80% of their programs came with subtitles, and that many were committed to reaching 100% in the near future, EBU's Wouter Gekiere said.
Thirty out of 36 broadcasters polled said they offered audio description for 13% of their programs on average, and 32 indicated that 4% of their programs can be viewed with a sign language. Twelve EBU members reported on the coverage of disability and on accessibility in their annual reports.
Mr Gekiere pointed to the importance of EU funding such as Horizon Europe, which should be used to push innovation in the field of accessibility.
With the BBC setting the benchmark for other broadcasters in terms of offering accessible services and increasing the rate of employees with an impairment, other public broadcasters can also boast of having not only accessible but also high-quality programs that combat stigma and create positive narratives with the aim of fostering inclusiveness. These include a Belgian TV comedy programs called "Taboo" or the Irish RTE's documentary "What makes my day".
The panelists agreed that much still needs to be done at the regulatory and political level with regard to communicating disability rights, which includes adopting a code of conduct on reporting about disability and regulating social media at both the EU and national levels.
"The training of journalists is crucial. It is important to work with academia and with journalism departments to teach about inclusive journalism," said MDI's Milica Pešić.
Journalists should also be taught how to use appropriate language and correct terminology when reporting about disability.
At the EU level, all institutions should have a specific policy on how to communicate disability rights, in full compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There should be EU initiatives to educate journalists on how to report on disability.
Equally, organizations fighting to promote the voices of persons with disabilities have to adapt to the constraints of modern-day journalism, with fewer journalists struggling to cover ever more news and meet more deadlines for less pay.
For this reason, information provided to journalists should be clear and interesting, and as much as possible stripped of complicated jargon.
"We have a serious problem when presenting our material to news organizations, as it is often seen as too complicated or boring," said Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch. "The issues we talk about are too important for us to sell them short. It is possible to offer interesting news stories that will break the mold and stop the media from reporting about disability in clichés", he concluded.
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