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Disabled Representation in the Media is Lacking in Europe and China

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

© Gauthier Delecroix / CC BY 2.0 / FlickR

How and what broadcasters communicate about relies on the existing culture of how cultures talk about disability.

In the modern world, it is easier than ever for governments to connect with citizens through the internet, most notably through social media. Government agencies around the world are increasingly turning to social media to relate messages they deem important to the masses. This can range from public safety announcements – from reminding citizens to wash their hands, to highlighting the political priorities of the government of the day.

As social media communication becomes a vital part of a government’s and a politician’s output, many interesting questions are raised, often pertaining to the role of traditional media. News organisations are now often overlooked for friendly media types, and are bypassed. Social media has become the ‘go-to’ place for international political discourse, with politicians using their own accounts as the first port of call for statements, interviews, and content.

Disability issues are an important part of government policymaking. As nations say they support the weakest and most vulnerable in society, disabled people often continue to be marginalised and impoverished.

Social media often enables a wider conversation about a wide variety of issues that cannot fit into a 30-minute news show. Disability issues can be included in this list. Research has found that new media can foster public opinion exchanges and ultimately promote positive citizenship.

There has been limited academic study on disability issues being present on social media. However, in traditional media disability representation has traditionally been lacking globally. In China, there has been evidence of disability organisations using social media to advance the social rights of people with disability. This is in line with the emerging disability rights movement in China. Although Chinese representations are not identical to those in Europe, as it in many ways remains a developing country, representation on traditional and new media is increasing. In Europe there are already long-time coordinated disability rights organisations, as well as academic studies on social media through the eyes of disability representation.


As a result of a series of positive legislative and administrative actions and the work of disability organisations, the general living conditions and overall social status of people with disabilities in China has improved remarkably. This transition to a modern critical way of thinking about disability does not happen overnight. However, the goal of Equality, Participation and Sharing remains an achievable and positive goal, that is promoted almost everywhere in China through advertising.

Chinese media is often about showing the ‘perfect’ idea of China. Unfortunately, this often leads to many marginalised groups such as the disabled not appearing on screen. However, in recent years that has begun to change. In 2014, Liang Yi became the first ever television news anchor in China to use a wheelchair. She has subsequently written a book about her life and appears regularly on regional television. This can improve the lives of Chinese disabled people, as representation matters in order to make marginalised communities be part of China as well as in bringing the Chinese dream into reach for all.

In China, study findings suggest that the internet significantly reduced existing social barriers in the physical and social environment for disabled people. However, it must be said that some disabled people are still lacking in terms of internet access.

A news story about a disabled man brought about a raucous social media debate in 2016. Chen Bin, a blind masseur in Beijing sued the state-owned rail corporation after finding it impossible to pass through the CAPTCHA system of their ticket buying website. Subsequently, the People’s Daily wrote an opinion piece that defended the China Railway corporation: ‘Blind or visually impaired passengers, without help from other people, can hardly use the internet independently’.

This statement caused thousands of blind people to speak up on social media, helping to counteract myths perpetuated by the traditional media, with real personal stories from blind people who use the internet regularly. This discussion on new media would never have happened without the outcry from the disabled community. To bring attention to real world scenarios of discrimination and/or difficulty was made possible through new media and key personalities online. Social media has contributed much to our understanding of disability as a social phenomenon as much as it is a bodily, material, economic, technological, spiritual, and philosophical matter. More importantly this message is brought out to the masses quickly and freely with unique perspectives.


In Europe, governments have seen increased trust in their functioning thanks to increased social media use. However, many have looked at the European Union’s communication strategy and found that many demographics are lacking in priority and content for them. This is particularly the case for young people and is similar in the case of disabled people.

In traditional media, disabled people are playing an increasing role, such as in television dramas. In Europe, public government owned broadcasters have a legal duty to represent and cater for all demographics. A European television crime drama on the British public broadcaster (BBC) called Silent Witness now has a disabled lead character, who plays a forensic examiner. She has had many storylines focusing on her everyday life as a disabled person, one of which details the systemic care home abuse carried out against people with learning disabilities. This story perfectly portrays the divide amongst the disabled community. There are haves and have-nots, one a successful woman, the other, subject to abuse while others turn a blind eye. The storyline divided viewers and became a talking point on social media. This hard-hitting drama was unique because of its demolition of stereotypes and portrayal of the slow unravelling of the systemic abuse from the viewpoint of a disabled person.

Most of the public broadcaster’s disability content before this, was based primarily on the success of British Paralympians. The sports-based content is often portrayed as heroic or ‘superhuman’, from overcoming challenges to being successful. This can lead to other disabled people, who are not Paralympians, being treated as they are not good enough. The storyline from Silent Witness showed disabled people and disability issues in a new light on prime-time television.

The UK government has been active in trying to find people deceiving the state by claiming to be disabled or out of work in order to claim benefits. This included a media campaign, and in particular a social media advertising campaign to raise awareness of how to contact the government to raise awareness of people committing such illegal acts. This almost coincided with the Paralympics, and led to an increase of disability hate crime. Studies have shown that the Paralympics in London did not change general attitudes towards disabled people.

This has transitioned into a culture of demonising disabled people, and the increase in hostile language of ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’ has led to some disabled people being targeted online by people trying to obtain medical information to “prove” that the disabled person in question is committing benefit fraud. As with many arguments on social media, the often nameless questioner concluded that not providing medical evidence was proof of fraud and therefore the person was seen as deserving of abuse and harassment.

The government report on Online Abuse and The Experience of Disabled People found that people with invisible disabilities are particularly likely to be targeted as “scroungers”, but even people with visible disabilities, such as wheelchair users, are subject to accusations of malingering for benefits or other “privileges”. An organisation supporting disabled people’s rights found that there are multiple examples of links to Facebook pages dedicated to exposing benefit fraud that target disabled people.

Traditional media used to be the gatekeepers of political systems and airtime, but that is not the case anymore. In the West, traditional media is often owned by a few oligarchs with their own interests at heart. China is not alone in facing major challenges to disability representation. The global challenges to equal representation highlighted in this essay are global problems, and can often be solved with more shared policymaking on a global level. Many of these challenges are new territory for modern China. They have the ability to change the global order and have serious knock-on effects in the international political arena. Fundamental philosophical questions need to be asked as to the future direction of China’s role as an egalitarian force in the world. In essence, the world is changing and so is China.

Disability representation varies worldwide. In Europe, many countries have progressive policies towards disabled people, with rights enshrined in law, as well as excellent healthcare systems. Despite this, media representation is often limited to stereotypes, the hero Paralympian, or the poor destitute charity case, or even the deceitful. Governments and politicians’ communications often reinforce this stereotype. China on the other hand also has various policies to protect disabled people’s rights but lacks the universalism and public spotlight of the West. Although China has committed to various UN resolutions of the rights of disabled people, it has a long way to go. Its representation of disability in public life is different. Chinese media and government communication present disability rights and protections as part of a wider communist egalitarian society. It is a key factor in creating and upholding the harmonious society that China aspires to. This is not to say that stereotypes do not exist in China, but the government and thereby politician’s communication strategies function with a common idea and principled structure.

Media representation (new and traditional) of disabled people is vital to influencing and creating a more egalitarian society for people with disabilities. Representation can also be an antidote and driving force to counteract slow inclusive policy making. Media can choose to reinforce or counterbalance existing cultural viewpoints. European culture and Chinese culture have very different fundamental viewpoints on disability. Media bases these discussions of representation on existing cultural backgrounds, and progresses from there on. China and Europe have good reasons to continue to represent marginalised groups in the media, to ensure communities feel listened to and included. This feeling of being acknowledged brings stability, and cohesion to societies, which is what governments need to further their cause.

Walker Darke, Head of EG UK

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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