Family discourses on screened disability - A qualitative textual analysis and audience research on television representations of people with disabilities
Almost ten percent of the population in Flanders has a disability, but this is not reflected in the mainstream mass media. People with disabilities are rarely seen on screen, and if they are represented, it is often in a stereotypical way. They are either victims in need of care, or superheroes who are able to ‘overcome’ their disability and live full, happy, goal-oriented lives. The idea that these biased representations (and symbolic annihilation) not only affect society’s image of disabled people, but also have implications for the self-concept of people with disabilities and the way their immediate entourage looks at them, is the basis of this research. Inspired by a theoretical framework that draws on representation (Hall, 1997), identity construction and stereotyping (Pickering, 2001), this study aims to obtain a better insight into the role of (non-) representations of handicaps for children with disabilities and their immediate entourage. How do these children and their families make use of the current media content? Do they actively look for representations of disability? How do they give meaning to these representations in relation to their own identities and/or the identities of their child, brother, sister, et cetera?
To answer these questions, an ethnographic study of twenty* families with a child that has a disability will be conducted. By combining participant observation with in-depth interviews over a period of two years, I hope to achieve more insights into the roles played by television texts - and the family discourses about these texts - in the social construction of identities of disability. In order to explore the current hegemonic discourses on disability in society, this ethnographic study will be combined with a textual analysis of television content pointed out by the research population. The content will be evaluated in relation to a human rights perspective, which focusses on the person, not the disability; equal rights for all and the structural limitations of society disabled people have to encounter. Hereby I distance myself from the medical perspective which addresses disability merely as a medical problem residing within the individual. With this research I hope to stimulate a more fair and inclusive treatment of people with disabilities on and off screen.
*Twenty is the target number, but it can be less. The number will depend on the willingness of the target group.