What Australian Media Forgot In The Diversity Debate

This was originally published in The Huffington Post on – 11 December, 2017. It was republished in The Sydney Morning Herald on January 1, 2018.

 

The senior journalist scanned me with scepticism and momentarily dropped her professional poker-face.

With raised eyebrows and poorly concealed disbelief, she ushered me into the studio for filming.

That was some years ago and I’ve had many similar experiences since. All sorts of people, places and events.

Recently I filmed a segment in one of Australia’s largest commercial television networks and it was broadcast to millions.

But my excitement was dulled somewhat by the fact that the studio in which we were filming had no wheelchair accessible toilet.

While I’m used to such inconveniences, upon reflection of this seemingly trivial matter, I later realised that this was a glaring metaphor for how the greater Australian media industry consider the wider disability community.

They don’t.

Disabled people simply aren’t a part of the Australian media landscape.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been involved with facets of the advertising and media industry for many years and for approximately half of that time I’ve been disabled.

I’ve personally viewed things from ‘both sides’ (with and without disability) and from various perspectives (as both the creator of content and the subject of content).

The experiences have been educational, informative, amusing, insightful and even infuriating.

In recent times, I’ve been intrigued with the commentary around “diversity” – either relating to or made by two of Australia’s biggest names in television.

Lisa Wilkinson (left) and Waleed Aly (right) but if we don’t have visual representations of disability in mainstream media th

Lisa Wilkinson (left) and Waleed Aly (right) but if we don’t have visual representations of disability in mainstream media then we can conveniently pretend that it doesn’t actually exist.

Following Lisa Wilkinson’s exit from Channel 9’s Today program, issues such as gender inequality and equal pay for woman have rightfully been thrust into the spotlight.

Waleed Aly (co-host of Channel Ten’s The Project) also recently addressed a Sydney media event calling for greater cultural diversity on Australian television.

In his presentation to media industry professionals, Aly noted that the popularity of reality television was due to the fact that Australians wanted to see faces on their screens that better reflected the society in which they lived.

While we absolutely need gender and cultural diversity in media and advertising, it seems that so much talk about these important issues has made us forget about another important issue that also needs greater diversity.

Disability simply isn’t represented in Australian media and advertising. Yet disabled people make up 20% of the Australian community.

With occasional exceptions, unless the Paralympics are being broadcast or politicians are discussing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Australians rarely hear about disability in mainstream media.

If we are to go on Waleed Aly’s theory that people watch reality television to see the sorts of people on their screens that they would in their local community then where are the approximate 1 in 5 Aussies with a disability on television?

Or anywhere in media and advertising for that matter.

I am certainly not suggesting that filling reality television sets with disabled people will magically fix social perception of disability. Nor will it eradicate discrimination. But there’s absolutely no doubt that we do need a greater visual representation of disability in media and advertising.

Importantly, there are no simple solutions when it comes to disability. There’s no single person, campaign or article that can be everything for everyone and solely represent the complexity of disability. But it has to start somewhere.

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Since 2013, that’s just what people like ‘Starting With Julius’ Founder and Director Catia Malaquias have been doing. Starting With Julius is a non-profit organisation to promote the inclusion of people with disability in Australian adverting, media and beyond.

Importantly, Starting With Julius recognises the powerful role that advertising and media plays in shaping community attitudes and looks to ‘recast’ those misconceptions.

It’s this seamless and sustainable integration of disability into mainstream media that we absolutely need more of. Because without that consistency we also run the risk of disability being a ‘token’ addition and I assure you disabilities are not accessories.

Admittedly, the media and advertising industry is failing me and at least 20% of Australians with a disability who aren’t currently being represented – accurately or at all.

This figure doesn’t begin to include the millions more Australians who are directly or indirectly affected by someone with a disability.

No doubt they would also like their sibling, cousin, parent friend, colleague, partner or whoever better represented by mainstream Australian media.

And need I mention that all of those people are consumers with spending power!

So let’s not forget that there’s more to diversity and equality than gender and culture. Please don’t forget to accurately represent 20% of Australians.

Let’s make the Australian advertising and media landscape better represent the incredibly diverse country in which we live – be it gender, diversity, ability or something else.

Are you connected to some area of the media or advertising industry?

Then I’m looking at you! The journo, the art director, photographer, casting agent… there are so many job titles to list here. You’re the people who can make a difference in how disability is represented in mainstream media, advertising and beyond.

Even those of you who teach our up and coming industry professionals, may I strongly suggest you remind them of their responsibility.

This incredible TEDx talk by the late Stella Young wasn’t around when I studied my degrees at university but I wish it was mandatory viewing for every media or communications student who will one day need to consider how they represent disability to a mainstream audience.

Now, back to you. I really do need your help and I have a fair idea who you are… I’ve worked alongside some of you – shared an office, studio, coffee machine… whatever. And now as individuals who have some level of influence, large or small, you should realise that what you do at your work desk today can impact the life of a disabled person in the future.

Why?

Because what you do by working in this industry (I’m speaking very broadly about media and advertising now) shapes social and cultural perceptions and attitudes.

What you do matters.

So write that script, take that photo, include that different guy, take out that bullsh*t headline about ‘inspiration’ or edit the copy that objectifies disabled people as helpless victims.

If you’d like some more information about how disability is underrepresented or misrepresented in media and advertising, I highly recommend you take a look at Attitude Foundation‘s website. It offers an excellent collection of information and resources

For examples of how disability is currently misrepresented (and to make sure you don’t accidentally make the same mistakes), please go here.

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