How mediated disabled sport unintentionally reinforces the distance between ‘them and us’
Start date: 11 January 2012
…’My God, you know, if the guy had two arms what would he be like? You know, and it’s funny coz, in a way, if he had two arms he may not have been as good, I don’t know, you know […] and I find it fascinating and interesting, and I don’t mean that in a discriminatory sort of way. I mean that in a positive sort of way, you know.’
This quote illustrates the overwhelming sense of awkwardness that pervades discussions about people with disabilities.
In this paper we draw from over 80 hours of phenomenological interview data from 50 individuals that focuses on experiences of disability and disabled sport. We focus on two themes pertinent to the media’s coverage of disability sport: language and distancing.
Prior literature has criticised the media for the lack of visibility of people with disabilities, and for its role in reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions about disability by linguistically positioning disabled athletes as ‘victims’ or ‘heroic’ people who ‘overcome’ the ‘painful’ experience of disability in order to participate in sport, thus evoking pity from the audience (Barnes & Mercer, 2003; Schell & Duncan, 1999). However research has tended to examine how audiences engage with disability in TV drama or documentaries (Wardle and Boyce, 2009; Wilde, 2010), rather than, as this paper aims to do, explore how audiences (both able-bodied and disabled) identify with mediated disabled sports as a way of generating greater empathy.
Findings indicate that, for a number of inter-related reasons the limited viewing of disabled sport that did occur, insufficiently addressed anxieties about having an ‘acceptable’ vocabulary to comfortably engage in discussion. Thus participants showed general feelings of inadequacy in talking about disability/disabled sports even though they were often keen to demonstrate that they didn’t discriminate. Further, participants maintained a ‘sympathetic distance’ from disability, preferring not to think about the possibility that they themselves could become disabled. This recognition served to fuel existing feelings of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and therefore also resulted in a reluctance to watch disabled sports.
The final part of the paper discusses the implications of our findings in terms of the practical dilemmas faced by broadcasters in covering disability sport that must overcome these twin discomforts in viewers.