Representation will be used in this paper are

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Representation of disabled
(differently abled)
in mainstream media
Muhammad Nialish bin Alam
Theories of Visual Culture
Mr. Taimur Suri
Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute
of Science and Technology



M. Nialish B. Alam, Department of
Media Studies, SZABIST, Karachi.

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paper aims at finding out how media represents the differently abled group
through different mediums, and if the media is desensitizing the viewers to act
inhumanly against the immobilized. Many theorists have talked about this issue,
but this paper will use various mediums such as tv shows, films, novels, news,
etc. to argue whether the representation of the disabled in mainstream media is
creating a bias and stereotype, or ending it.

Different theories and theorists
will be used to delve deeper into the topic. This social issues will be
comprehended through Nicholas’s the Industrial Military complex (Visual
Culture). Some of the theories that will be used in this paper are are hypodermic
needle, culture industry, Jean Baudrillard’s view of media and communication,
Mcluhan’s medium is the message, Cedric C. Clark’s catchall model, dependency
theory by Ball Roakech and DeFluer, encode-decode-mode-audience theory,
and/or Hall’s circuit mode. Theorists whose references will be used are
Marshal Mcluhan, Jean Baudrillard, Ball Roakech & DeFluer, Theodore Adorno,
Cumberbatch and Negrine.

            Keywords: media text, hypodermic
needle, culture industry, dependency theory, encoding-decoding model, mainstream
media, disabled (differently abled)







Representation of Disabled
(Differently Abled)
in Mainstream Media

There has been several media text
used to portray the social issue of “disability”. Movies, songs, paintings,
literature and several other platforms have talked about this issue and have
given their point of views on it. Many condemn it and call it an orthodox
mindset. On the other hand, there are several who still practice it. These few
people believe that this is just a conventional way of thinking and that the
new generation is comparatively, more open minded and accepting. However, they
will be fascinated by the results presented in this paper. We, being a third
world country, often feel targeted and oppressed by global north countries on the
basis of caste, color, culture, religion, and/or even something as sensitive as
a disability. Ironically, we are unable to realize the extent to which we
practice the same act of discrimination in our society as well.


            David Giles in his book, Psychology
of the Media, has talked in length about the representation of minorities,
different social and ethnic groups and also the disabled. Apart from these, his
book discovers various aspects of media text and uses various theorists and theories
to explore different perspectives. For instance, while talking about the
‘audience’ he used Stuart Hall’s circuit model also called the encoding –
decoding theory, Henry Jenkins approach to media audience, Frankfurt School’s
Theodore Adorno’s perspective…so on and so forth, in order to fully understand
and grasp the idea of what audience is and how they perceive the media text.
The chapters that have been selected from the book mentioned above are; chapter
1 ‘what is media psychology’, chapter 2 ‘Theoretical Issues in Media Research’,
chapter 4 ‘The effects of Media’ and chapter 10 Representation of Social
Groups. (David Giles, 2010)

            Culture and Identity by Alison
Teagle and Warren Kid covers all aspects regarding culture, media and identity.
From Ideology and Hegemony to Mass culture and popular culture this work by
Teagle and Kid provides another fresh perspective along with the weaknesses and
strengths of each and every theory discussed in the book. The chapters used
from the book Culture and Identity were ‘Key Issues in the Culture’ chapter 2,
‘Classical Views’, chapter 3 and, ‘Mass & Pop Culture’, chapter 7.

Mainstream Media Helpful for the disabled?

            The operational definition of
disability (different ability) for this paper would be,

mental, psychological, physical or formative condition that weakens, meddles
with, or limits an individual’s capability to take part in positive actions or
activities or engage in regular day by day interactions and activities.
Mainstream media is any form of media text that masses of our society consume.
In the year 1980 the term differently abled was first proposed as a substitute
of disabled or crippled etc. on account that it gave more effective message
thus averted discrimination towards individuals with disabilities.  Films, TV shows (soap operas), web series,
novels, News shows, etc comes under media text and masses are the subaltern populace
or the proletariats of the society. According to World Health Origination,
Disability is the world’s largest minority group. More than 15% of the world’s
population is disabled that is roughly one billion people in this world are
suffering from some form of disability. (World Bank)

            Astonishing alot of research has
been done on the representation of the minorities and especially on the basis
of color or ethnicity but very minimal research is available on the disability.
Since the early days of traditional media, some form of disability have been
shown sometimes covertly and sometimes explicitly. Charlie Chaplin is considered
to be one of the most famous comic characters in the world, his portrayals in
the movies have always been considered funny and entertaining but people ignore
the fact that the expense at which we laughed is in real life considered a
mental illness. As discussed earlier, this paper will primarily talk about the
global south hence the media text that was chosen is from Pakistan and India.

            Cedric. C. Clark through his
catchall/stage model devised a way to understand and comprehend the ways in
which the disabled have been portrayed in the media over time. Clark’s model
start with the exclusion stage also
called the non-recognition stage in
which the group is either intentionally suppressed or is not even recognized.
The example of this stage would be the early days of media in which there were
literally no depiction of the people with disabilities. The theorist proposed
that the early stages of representation often contain ridicule. In the movie Koye Mil Gaya, the protagonist is mentally
challenged and the antagonists and other people made fun of him and only when
he was transformed into a stud through supernatural powers, people started to
accept him and respect him, this movie is one of the example of ridicule stage.
The next one according to Clark is the regulation stage, wherein the stressed
groups demand on minority depictions in a number of characterizations. The
(mostly) representation of differently abled in current media text comes under
the regulation stage since now
various stories revolve around the disabled and most of the times they are
shown either in power or even if not in power than at the very least there
character is shown somehow in a positive manner. The last stage in the Clark’s
stage model is the respect. This is
the part where the character is shown as it is, like for example the disabled
character is played by the disabled or that they are portrayed in wide range of
roles. This stage has yet not been shown in the media text of Global south,
although the hints and indications are visible specially in the Pakistani TV
shows and Indian Films and web series but it will take few years before this
form stage fully kicks in. (Clark, 1969)


            Clark’s model works fine within the infotainment
areas but stumbles when the stages are used for the entertainment sector. The
differentiation between respect-regulation with time is becoming blurry; it is
quite difficult to spot a point when any group can be completely free of regulated
depiction. There are certain disabilities that are shown in the films and shows
more than others: for instance if they want to make fun than they will use
stammer or speech impairment of some sort…if they want to show a beggar or a
poor person, or in some case an old man or an abandoned parent then probably
they will some form locomotors problems (cruch, wheelchair or stick etc). According
to John Tulloch, the only way the minority groups can achieve full respect and
to go even further than Clark’s respect stage, is by seizing the role of power inside media, because there is no
other way that the respect can be gained until and unless you are the one in
command. (Tulloch, 1990)

(especially morning show) is the form of media text that represents the most
amount of differently abed in mainstream media, but the ways in which they are
represented creates a bias within itself. There are primarily two reasons
because of which they are portrayed, either some welfare or hospital or trust
is asking for the funding or they are just focusing on the bad side of Pakistan
by blaming the politicians. Media texts specially entertaining visuals create
the most enforcing stereotypes…for example in My Name is Khan, Shahrukh Khan
was an autistic child, although in the movie Shahrukh is the protaginst and his
disability is shown in the positive manner but after the movie, several
parodies have been made which makes fun of the autism because of the
protagonist’s acting.



and Analysis of Media Text

Different Theories

As discussed earlier in the
paper, the theories that will be used to deconstruct and analyze the media text
(to prove whether or not media desensitizing the masses into acting inhumanly)
are the hypodermic needle, encoding-decoding theory, dependency theory and,
culture industry. The media text include films like, Phir Hera Pheri, Golmaal,
Karachi say Lahore and Barfi, The web series would be the turning wheels…Nazo
and Baa Bahu aur Baby are the TV shows and Muniba Mazari will be used as the
representative of media text.


            The Indian film, Phir Hera Pheri was released in
2006 as a sequel of Hera Pheri, the film was a huge success because of its
comic characters and punch lines. The antagonist of the film was a person named
Tiwari, who was suffering from a disability commonly known as Lisping. Various
punch lines were used at the expense of his disability and since he was shown
as the villain (bad guy); the jokes were considered funny and taken in a light
way by the audience.

            According to Adorno and Horkheimer’s
culture industry, mass media is leading us to mass culture which is reducing our
intellectual level and critical thinking so that we without questioning follow
the capitalist ideology. Magazines, news, radio, films, etc…They are being
used to control the masses into passivity. Although many theorists believe the
culture industry to be the thing of 20th century but the way, for
instance, this film used the disability and turned it into a funny thing
without people even realizing it raises the question of audience being active
or passive. (Adorno, 1944)

            Karachi say Lahore is Pakistani film that was
released in 2015. The film was a blockbuster and is the only Pakistani film
that was launched in Hollywood. In the world of slap stick comedy, the jokes
are usually made at the expense of someone else and people tends to enjoy it,
but, over time that slapstick comedy has been turned into mean comedy that uses
other person’s disability to make others laugh. In this film, there was a
character named Moti played by Yasir Hussain who had a stammering problem. Most
of the jokes in the film are used through his disability.

disabilities are not bound to be minor or major, mental or physical, the movies
since ages have been targeting various forms of disabilities. In Golmaal, a
2006 bollywood major hit they made fun of the blind person. In Salman Khan’s
and Akshay Kumar’s 2004 film, Mujh say Shadi Karogi they made fun of the
character Mr.Duggal, played by Late Kadir Khan who had a brain injury and
because of the blood clot he could either be muted or deaf anyday.

Syringe model argues that mass media infuses messages and data directly and
consistently into the minds of audiences who are instantly affected. When the
media communicates any message, we the masses without thinking tend to embrace
it and accept it to be only the entire and total truth. Indian movies are
considered to be the most watched movies in Pakistan. Since decades, bollywood
has been injecting this mean comedy behavior into the masses and now it has
been infused so much that it feels like a normal thing to do. Critiques claim that
Pakistani cinema is still reviving, hence the fact that lollywood is still
producing tons of content even more than bollywood that uses the disabilities
to make people laugh and earn profits out of it (Lazarsfelf 1940)

cinema has evolved over time. They have now started making films that are
somewhat intellectually mature compared to the previous movies. For instance,
the movie Black, Iqbal, Barfi they all have one thing in common; disability.
Their major characters (protagonists) faced some form of disability but that
impairment did not stopped them from doing wonders in their lives. These movies
came up with a message that impairment is not a disability but different
ability. But sometimes while breaking one stereotype we create another stereotype,
Ranbir Kapoor played the role of Barfi, in the movie Barfi. The character was
unable to talk and hear (muted and deaf), although his character was a
protagonist and showed in a positive way but that good characteristics were
achieved through wrong means. For examples, he was shown kidnapping, planning
for extortion, ridiculing people and also being ridiculed.



Shows and Theatre

            Baa Bahu aur Baby was an Indian TV show that
aired from 2005 until 2010. The Indian soap opera consists of many characters
but there were two characters that had disabilities, Gattu and Baby the brother
and sister. In this case we will discuss the character of Gattu played by Deven
Bhojani. The character was the heart and soul of the show because of his funny
acting and peculiar behavior. Gattu was an adult with a mind of a 11 year old.
He was suffering from a mental illness in which physically he was growing but
mentally stopped after a certain age. 
The show writers used this disability and took full advantage of it.
Since the character is actually mentally ill thus whatever he says will not
make sense to anyone so why not make that funny, hence the character was used
to make everyone laugh.

Pakistani movies are way behind Indian movies in every aspect, the quality of
Indian soap operas in comparison to Pakistani shows are considered to be very
inferior. Nazo is a Pakistani television show in which one of the central
characters to the plot is facing cognitive impairment and society is also
treating her ill but her sister does not lose hope in her. The show is trying
to depict the harsh reality of society and the issues that a differently abled
person has to face in our society.

Hall’s encoding-decoding model suggests that the TV and other various forms of
media audiences are given messages that are decoded, or translated in various
courses relying upon a person’s cultural heritage, financial standing, and
first hand encounters. He argued that the audiences are no more passive like
Frankfurt School proposed. He also rejected the S-M-C-R (Sender Message Channel
and Receiver) model on the basis that each individual has a different way of
perceiving things, media encodes a message but everyone decodes it like they
want to. Decoding a message depends upon one’s social construct and personal
relevant experiences. According to Hall, media is not making the audience
passive, for example there were various people who considered Omar Sharif’s
slap stick comedy theatre/stage shows offensive in which he used to make fun of
the short heighted character played by Late Maqsood Hasan. Most of the jokes
while Umar Shareef and Maqsood Hasan’s encounter used to be solely based on the
fact that the guy had a short height. Some people used to laugh on it while
others used to feel bad for the character. This is what Stuart Hall said, that,
the audiences are active and we should not underestimate the capabilities of
them. (Hall, 1973)


            Website series is currently a new phenomenon.
India is producing a number of great website series. The reason why the web
series are more popular and high ranked than television shows is that the
producers and writers of this media text are the people who have learned
consumer behavior and have undergone the process of media studies. A web series
named ‘turning wheels’ was recently made in which they used real impaired
people and used them as the protagonists, the series is one of its kind in
which the story revolves around the disability of those individuals. According
to the makers of the series, the purpose of turning wheels is to break the
stereotypes and prejudices that we have made in our minds against the
differently abled people that these are the things that they can or cannot do. The
six part web series is an adventurous series where people share their stories
and explore various tourist spots.


Mazari is an ambassador of the media text. She is a motivational/inspirational
speaker, television host, a model and a philanthropist, even though she has
been on wheel chair because of a spinal cord injury since 2007. According to
Ball Roakech and Defluer (1976), we
depend heavily on media and the more the person depends on media the more he
gets influenced by it. It does not necessarily have to be a bad thing for
instance, if a person is dependent on the media text like the movies mentioned
above that use disability and make fun of it he will probably not consider
disability to be a serious factor whereas if an individual gets influenced by
someone like Muniba Mazari, his perspective will be different than the former. The
more an individual relies upon media to address issues, the more imperative
media will be in a man’s life, and in this manner the more impacts media can
have on the individual.



 Giles, D. (2010). Psychology
of the media. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

HALL, S., & Whannel, P.
(1965). The POPULAR ARTS.

Mcluhan, M. (n.d.).
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Kidd, W., & Teagle, A.
(2012). Culture and identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Julier, G. (2000). The culture
of design. London: SAGE.

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