Is the media guilty of making assumptions about the disabled?

By Shruti Pushkarna

Last Thursday I attended an online session (thanks to Covid, we are all high on Zoom) where a renowned journalist and television news anchor was in conversation with a group of around eighty visually impaired people. It was a heterogeneous mix with regards to the participants’ geography and demography.

And no the talk was not about blindness. Or Disability. Or any of the safely assumed stereotypes that are fluttering in your mind as you imagine a person with dark glasses and a white cane.

Us humans, we love to ‘assume’. If our neighbours are not chatty, we assume they are antisocial or just weird. The guy drinking a little too much in an office party is an assumed alcoholic (maybe even a wife-beater, if he has a grouchy face). Similarly, a blind person is often assumed to be uneducated, unemployed and uninterested in the happenings around.

These assumptions are derived from personal biases, misconceptions, limited imagination and a compulsive urge to judge another.

The society tends to see a disabled person not as an individual with unique characteristics and varied interests but as part of a ‘collective’ grappling with challenges of daily existence.  Their curiosities in politics, news, films, music, art, sport, et cetera are often overlooked.

I must confess, even after having worked with visually impaired people for four years now, I logged into that Zoom session with my own set of ‘assumptions’. I wasn’t sure of how this audience would respond to a discussion on the ‘Changing Face of Journalism in India’.

But except for a comment or two on the meagre news coverage of issues facing the disabled population, there was no mention of blindness or any impairment throughout.

Listening intently to the speaker unfold three decades of journalism, inquisitive minds jumped up with a flurry of questions about present day media ownership, state of governance, future of news, journalistic values (or the lack of it) in the age of fake news, sensational vs. empathetic reporting, overly-opinionated prime time debates and so on.

A few aspiring journalists in the audience asked about the possibility of independent reporting in a world where business owners seemingly rule the roost.

The discussions were gripping and surprisingly similar to any living room chatter on the state of affairs vis-à-vis media and politics. It was a refreshing exchange of views between several informed citizens. Amid talk of right-wingers, left-liberals, cricket and politics, disability was pushed to the background. Blindness became irrelevant to the discourse.

24×7 news television has created an army of experts who debate endlessly on almost anything under the sun. Social media has empowered people with opinions, turning them into influencers.

But why aren’t persons with disabilities invited for discussions and debates on issues of national interest or problems that affect an average Indian?

Do we think the disabled are unconcerned with anything outside of their personal environment? Do we presume that it doesn’t impact their lives? Do we deem them incapable of comprehending such issues?

There seems to be a line separating what concerns ‘us’ versus ‘them’. While the able-bodied are fortunate to be born with the ‘mainstream’ tag, the dis-abled not only battle with their confines but also for an equal opportunity to engage on matters beyond ‘special needs’.

The strong influence of media shapes the minds of people irrespective of their disability. And yet the industry adheres to stereotypes, clueless of the realities and transformations on ground.

One wonders if the media is genuinely ignorant or brutally indifferent towards this section of the population?