The media must stop devaluing disabled crime victims

By Catia Malaquias

Starting With Julius is a project built around the idea that access and participation – full inclusion – on an equal basis is a fundamental right.  We strive for the inclusion of disabled people in every area of life.

But inclusion depends on broader society respecting and valuing people with disability, as  individuals with equal rights. 

We believe that the mass media, like the general education system, has a key role to play in achieving this outcome and that its portrayal of people with disability has a real impact – both for better and for worse. 

The reality is that in our culture, disabled people remain devalued in every way.  Crimes against people with disability … murders, rapes and violent assaults are under-reported, under-investigated, disbelieved and when acknowledged often downgraded to “abuse”.  Effectively, reduced to a perceived outcome of the interaction of opportunity with vulnerability or undue burden with worthlessness. 

Representing people with disability fairly and authentically in mainstream advertising and media can help to reshape cultural perspectives and is a powerful tool for change.  But equally, the media can be a powerful means of entrenching prejudice and the status quo – the media reinforcing stereotypes in the way it tells (or fails to tell) stories relating to people with disability; this reinforcement being compounded by governments failing to give prominence to addressing prejudice in legislating to better protect disabled people. 

In the last few weeks two shocking stories have given cause to reflect on how our society and media respond to crimes against people with disability. 

First there was the story from Moe, Victoria, about three teenage girls who lured and videoed their shocking, depraved and sustained attack on a girl with an intellectual disability.  An act that should meet the definition of “hate crime” against a person with disability in every way – except that Australia unlike many other countries, has not established such an offence with the specific purpose of better protecting people against crimes driven by hostility and prejudice towards disabled people.  It was more than opportunistic – it was calculated.  It was more than devaluing – it denied the victim any value.  The media coverage – although existent – did not seem commensurate with expected coverage of a crime of that nature if perpetrated against a non-disabled girl.   

This week another story surfaced – that of a Queensland mother charged with the murder of two of her adult children and the torture of her third.  The fact the story broke with reports that the murdered children were “severely disabled”, but developed to acknowledge that the murdered children were not disabled in the way that it was originally reported – provided a comparative case-study of the media’s (and social media’s) treatment of filicide of disabled victims on the one hand, and non-disabled victims on the other.  The story morphed from suggestions of a maternal compassionate killing – a “mercy killing” as many suggested or even more shockingly, as one person suggested, a “very late stage abortion” of disabled adult children – to recognition of the deeds of an evil, motivated and calculated murderer.  Motherhood went from an explanatory factor – specifically the “martyr parent” trope so favoured by media – to an aggravating factor in the crimes.  The murdered children went from devalued to valued.  The media coverage increased, as did sympathy towards the victims and public outrage towards the accused. 

The media is organically infected by society’s broader prejudice, implicit bias and limiting stereotypes.  At the end of the day, journalists, writers, producers etc. take their formative experience and inherent values from that same society.  However,  for people with disability to be respected, valued and included in society, the mainstream media must come to recognise the societal impact of its role and its duty to report on crimes against people with disability fairly, objectively, responsibly and conscious of its own devaluing assumptions, implied bias and ableist perspectives. 

To quote disability and human rights activist Samantha Connor in her recent post following the Queensland story:

“Those narratives inform the way we are treated, not just when we die as a result of murder but every day.  If you don’t regard us as having a life that’s worth living, what will that mean when you treat us in hospitals or draft euthanasia laws?  Would you have a relationship with us, or give us a job?  Will you miss us when we die, or will you consider our deaths a merciful release?”

You can read the full post here: “Murder Apologist Bingo – A Game for Disabled People“.

Until the mainstream media and its agents acknowledge the harm that these narratives cause, and commit to improving the portrayal of disability, they will remain complicit in the entrenchment of disability prejudice that leads to the denial of justice and basic rights for disabled people.

[Cover photo © Stephanie McCabe]

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