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Media Misrepresentations of Women & Girls With Disabilities

July 21, 2015
Black woman dressed in black with sunglasses walks outside

Justice Shorter

By Justice Shorter

We are leaders. We are mothers. We are scientists. We are doctors. We are lawyers. We are entrepreneurs/businesswomen. We are veterans. We are your classmates. We are your colleagues We live in your communities. Our thoughts are credible. Our contributions are undeniable. There are millions of us. Can you see us? Do you hear our diverse voices? Not on mainstream media.

This summer I interned with Women Enabled International where much of my work centered on examining the misrepresentations of women and girls with disabilities in mainstream media. Unfortunately, women and girls with disabilities (WGWDs) are not equitably reflected in mainstream media which culminates in the perpetuation of distorted, stereotyped or diluted images, voices and narratives. The prevalence of these misleading perspectives can normalize the mistreatment or exclusion of women and girls with disabilities which is manifested in an atmosphere of ableism.

Ableist attitudes are often associated with the perceived inability of people with disabilities to be high functioning contributors to society. These attitudinal biases can result in political, economic, educational, social, professional and legal disenfranchisement/discrimination.

Misrepresentations or overall lack of notable inclusion can also affect the psyche and personal esteem of women and girls with disabilities who find few to no reflections of themselves in mainstream media. Dehumanizing and disrespectful images and attitudes can lead to objectification, abuse and violence against women and girls with disabilities.

Although none of these problems can be solely attributable to one source, the stereotypes and negative narratives perpetuated by media corporations do exacerbate many of the problems faced amongst those in the disability population. Media can be a powerful influencer of societal norms and an establisher of precedents concerning what matters within a society.

For example, advocates have long fought for more diverse images and stories about LGBT groups which have helped to humanize the population and legitimize their issues. In contrast, despite the tireless efforts of disability advocates, PWDs in general and WGWD in particular are largely absent in mainstream media both behind and in front of the camera/microphone which invariably signifies that our presence is not paramount or valued and our issues are insignificant.

I believe that the issue of media misrepresentations of women and girls with disabilities can be remedied via a twin track approach. The tracks seek to simultaneously address problems with daily programming in addition to delving into deeper institutional standards. Correspondingly, track one calls for more diverse disability on-air programming while track two advocates for the implementation of more in depth internal disability inclusion policies/practices within media corporations. To be clear, there is no one solution to these multidimensional problems. Nevertheless, I will always gravitate toward plausible pathways that lead to progress, accessibility and equity.

Check out some of the most commonly used myths and misconceptions concerning people with disabilities in the media below:

  • Superhuman abilities
  • Infinite source of inspiration
  • Asexual
  • Sinister or evil (deformed)
  • Temporary or medical miracle
  • Object of pity
  • Eternal innocence (associated with intellectual disabilities)
  • The perpetual victim of violence
  • Incapable mother/father
  • Burdensome to society
  • Must be supervised
  • One disability = all (i.e. confusing deafness with an intellectual or learning disability etc.)
  • Incapable of working or being productive in a competitive environment

Justice Shorter is one of the participants in the 2015 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  She and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Justice Shorter is completing her internship at Women Enabled International.  Learn more about the internship program at  Read Justice Shorter’s, and the biographies of other interns in the summer 2015 program, at  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or Women Enabled International.


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