First and foremost, this textual analysis is a gem of clarity. Although many disability studies books published in the last two decades include single chapters on disability and the media, Haller's text focuses exclusively on ways in which disability is represented in all of the various media. As such, it is a welcome addition to disability studies literature in general, and in particular, to those who feel strongly about the necessity of educating students about responsible consuming, reporting and reviewing of disability issues in the news, and in culture at large. As Haller explains, "Media depictions help us understand the media's role in 'constructing' people with disabilities as different and their role in framing many types of people who may not fit with 'mainstream' constructions. These media images affect society as a whole, but they also have implications for the self-concept of people with disabilities themselves" (41). Although certainly not a "how-to" text, one strength of Haller's study is its provision of methodologies for assessing media images. In addition, her text instructs by demonstrating insightful coverage of disability issues, as well as highlighting less astute coverage. The result is a rendition of disability studies exemplary both to the producers of media, and to its consumers.
Haller's thorough and data-laden work is an effective counterpart to Charles Riley's 2005 text, Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change. Although I find Riley's text provocative, and enjoy its focus on print media, particularly on the life of the magazine WE, many of my students have asked me, "Why is he so angry?" Riley's anger may well be justified, but the tone is a bit off-putting for first-year-students, new to disability studies, many of whom still struggle with their preconceived notion that "all people with disabilities are angry people." Haller's text conveys concern rather than anger, as when she provides this helpful signpost to her readers, "This chapter looks at one small, but powerful, element of media framing of people with disabilities—how they are referred to as a social group." It is typical of Haller to provide multiple cues to her readers to indicate how she has drawn her conclusions, and from what databases.
Haller's text covers several topics that have received attention from disability rights activists, including the Jerry Lewis Telethon, assisted suicide, and the ubiquitous Christopher Reeve Superbowl 2000 ad. Both Riley, and the 2009 edited collection, Disability: The Social, Political and Ethical Debate, cover Reeve in depth. This is not to say that Haller's work is repetitive; indeed, she does not dwell on Reeve the way the other texts do, which I found somewhat of a relief. And despite the fact that I have read much material on assisted suicide, I found her discussion of it, and of Jack Kevorkian, to shed new light on how and why the media coverage of this phenomenon has been so upsetting to the disability community. Her chapter, especially when read in context with "No Less Worthy a Life" from No Pity, is a stark illustration of how culture has written the narrative of assisted suicide for people with disabilities. Briefly, "This ideology that disabled people are 'less than' can become a dominant cultural belief that imbeds news narratives in assisted suicide coverage" (Haller 69).
In another example of how print media shapes narrative, Haller devotes a chapter to the Hartmann case, and examines the language used by both supporters and opponents of inclusionary education. She explicates the narrative themes that appear in the case she summarizes below:
After moving from a suburb of Chicago in 1994, Roxana and Joseph Hartmann enrolled their 9-year-old son in second grade at Ashburn Elementary School in Loudon County, Virginia. Officials of the northern Virginia school district reported that Mark hit, pinched, screeched, and threw tantrums when placed in a standard classroom. Although the school reduced the class size and assigned an aide to work individually with Mark, his behavior made learning and classroom management problematic, according to school authorities. By the year's end, officials concluded that the autistic youngster should be removed from a regular class and placed in a Leesburg school with four other autistic students in a "mainstream" program. In this type of "mainstream" program, the Leesburg school placed students with autism in regular classes only for music, art, and gym classes. (89)
What I appreciate about her explication of this case and its coverage is her focus on methodology (specifically, Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm), as well as her explanation of narrative analysis and why it is appropriate to what she is examining. One of the great strengths of Haller's text is that it not only informs, but also provides templates for engaging in disability studies research and discourse analysis.
Refreshingly, Haller includes a chapter on disability humor, titled "The New Phase of Disability Humor on TV." In this chapter, Haller critiques the humor of John Callahan, both as a print cartoonist, and as a creator of a children's cartoon for the Nickelodeon TV network featuring the character "Pelswick," a 13-year-old boy who uses a power wheelchair. Haller notes that Pelswick "is quadriplegic and paralyzed below the armpits due to a car injury," like his creator, and that Pelswick "has moved past overt protest humor toward a humor of equality—the disabled character is equal in status and humor to all the other characters. 'Pelswick' both normalizes and demystifies the disability experience for its youthful audience" (164).
Haller also writes about South Park, and the contemporary Family Guy, featuring a main character in a wheelchair, whom she describes as "a macho and fit wheel-chair user [who] contrasts to the doughy family guy, Peter Griffin." When my first-year Disability Studies class viewed an episode of Family Guy in which Chris dates a young lady with Down Syndrome, they were greatly divided over whether the portrayal was offensive, even when told that an actress who actually had Down Syndrome did the voiceover. Haller's text provides those teaching disability studies with a guide for explaining to students what is valuable about disability humor (like Family Guy), and it is her discussion of the "humor of equality" which is especially important in providing those new to the field of disability studies with a vocabulary for discussing comedy.
Both Riley and Haller observe the ways in which advertising uses disability. While both find much to celebrate in the advertising field, both also deplore the "telethon tragedies," though Haller is somewhat optimistic about the future of disability in advertising:
Hopefully, the more enlightened of the ad campaigns illustrate an ongoing trend that the pity-filled, sentimental images represented by telethons and charities and the exotic images of disabled people as freaks are no longer appropriate in 21st-century societies that are trying to restructure themselves so disabled people can compete equally in all facets of life. (204)
Riley comments more bleakly and darkly, noting that "the paternalism streak hangs in there, even as it denies common humanity to individuals with disability, because the drama and the comfortable redemptive message have their role in keeping the most familiar disability narrative alive" (129). I suppose both are right: certainly only the crudest contemporary advertising would take the "disabled people as freaks" approach; on the other hand, paternalism is long-lived. I was at my doctor's office the other day when a woman in a wheelchair, accompanied by her husband, was called for her turn by the nurse. The woman smiled up at the nurse and said, "I'm in a wheelchair today." The nurse replied, "I see," then promptly turned to the husband and asked, "Can she stand to get on the scale?" There it was — the tacit assumption that a person using a wheelchair cannot speak for herself. If a nurse makes such an assumption, how can we expect advertising executives to be bias-free?
While Haller feels there is much to be hopeful about in the portrayal of people with physical disabilities in advertising, my one disappointment is that she does not discuss the culture's near exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injury, mental health issues or Autism Spectrum Disorders in advertising. Years ago, I remember a frustrated father of a teen-ager saying, "With all the teen magazines my daughter reads, she never gets to see herself. There is never a Down Syndrome face in these young girls' magazines." This omission remains a huge lacuna in mainstream advertising, excluding those magazines dedicated to special needs populations and their families. Put simply in economic terms, advertisers are missing a sizable market by not including the above-mentioned groups in those who portray their product lines. Haller is not the only author who excludes mention of these groups in advertising; however, because her work is so thorough in other respects, the omission is all the more apparent.
Haller includes an upbeat chapter called "Disability media tell their own stories" which examines the proliferation of disability publications. This is an especially important chapter, because as Haller states, "Few scholars have analyzed disability media in any systematic way at all." Focusing mainly on magazines, Haller describes that disability media, "like other types of alternative or dissident media in U.S. society, advocate on behalf of a distinctive U.S. group that has come together to form a political and social community" (115). In this sense, disability media takes its place with the media generated by the various civil rights movements that characterize American culture, such as African-Americans, feminists, and gay rights activists. All of these groups have produced their own distinctive publications, as well as other forms of media.
Additional chapters include the following emphases: the place of social media in disability news, changing disability terminology, and media advocacy and films. I like this book enormously, and would recommend it especially to those teaching in the fields of Disability or Media Studies. Its clarity makes it an ideal text for newcomers to the field, and the richness of its samples and methodologies render it equally valuable to those who have been in either field over many years, and who may be looking for a new way to think about the issues Haller examines with thoroughness and perspicacity.
- Baird, Robert M, Stuart E. Rosenbaum, and S K. Toombs. Disability: The Social, Political, and Ethical Debate. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2009.
- Riley, Charles A. Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005.