The Mental Health Foundation has urged supporters to sign an online petition calling on industry regulator Ofcom to change the way people with learning disabilities are represented on television and radio.
Launched earlier this month by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities as part of a larger campaign on hate crime, the petition aims to gather 5,000 signatures and persuade Ofcom to take their concerns “seriously”.
Characters with learning disabilities in soap operas, radio and television programmes are often “small and tokenistic”, says Jill Davies, research programme manager at the foundation, who has played a pivotal role in the campaign. She argues that characters with learning disabilities are often depicted as being “vulnerable” and “disadvantaged”, with programme creators all too often focusing primarily on the character’s disability.
A guide encouraging broadcasters to make five key changes to address these issues was also published alongside the petition.
A reference group, made up of people with learning disabilities, most of which had experienced hate crime, harassment or bullying helped compile the list of tips for the media. It encourages television and radio shows to include a variety of different types of learning disabilities along with suggestions to include people with learning disabilities on a range of programmes such The One Show and Newsnight. It also asks the media to “mind its language”, stressing that words such as “moron”, “retard” and “spastic” are often used on television programmes. The guide also stipulates that the media should not refer to someone with a disability as “suffering”; “We do not suffer from anything – we are not objects of pity. We are just like everyone else but happen to take a little bit longer to learn things.”
“They are like you and I,” stresses Davies. “It can be really oppressive when people look down on them.” She says the reference group are keen to change the way the general public view people with learning disabilities and identify the media’s role as key in this.
“We believe the way people with learning disabilities are portrayed in the media has a huge impact on how the public view them,” the petition declares. So far more than 700 people have pledged their support but Davies urges more to join the petition. “We’d like Ofcom to take us seriously,” she says.
Those signing the petition write messages of support and agreement along with sharing personal experiences. One commenter wrote: “media portrayal can make a huge difference to public perceptions – and improvement of public perception is badly needed for those with learning disabilities.”
The BBC announced plans earlier this month to quadruple the number of disabled people it puts on TV by 2017 – the corporation stated at the time that only 1.2% of people it portrays or represents on TV are disabled.
In the past, Channel 4 has been considered as leading the way with the success of its coverage of the Paralympics at the London 2012 Games, but the channel’s efforts haven’t come without controversy. In 2013, as Channel 4’s chief creative officer, Jay Hunt, announced the return of shows The Undateables, I’m Spazticus and Adam Hills’ acclaimed The Last Leg, she was also keen to dismiss any notion that the channel’s commitment to disability programming was “tokenism”.