Disability And Media In India

Dr. Atanu Mohapatra*
Santosh Kumar Biswal**


India, the largest democracy in the world, has the largest population of disabled people in the world.  Despite their increasing numbers, they have remained mis-represented and under-represented in the country. A World Bank report says that several people with disabilities do not have equal access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities; do not receive the disability-related services that they require, and experience exclusion from everyday life activities. Media, the fourth pillar of the state, has been mis-representing and under-representing the disability issues, resulting in social discrimination. The representations of disability in various media forms like newspapers, magazines, TV serials and films have been absurd. There is an urgent need for a change in the editorial policy of all media houses to minimize the lapses in reporting on the disabled and their representation in the media.


Media is the custodian of human rights of minority, socio-economic backward and down-trodden people in society (Ganesh, 1995). Disability has proved to be responsible for social and economic backwardness. It has not been dealt with the right sensitivity in the media in India. The deliberate, dilly-dallying attitude of media has resulted in mis-representation of disability. Even though the media attempts to address the issue of differently-abled people are growing, there is a lack of interest and initiatives on the part of the media towards the people with disability in India.

Understanding Disability

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines disability as an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Impairment is a problem in body function or structure; activity limitation is the difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus, disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives (WHO, 2011).

According to the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) or Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation Act, 1995, ‘disability’ includes blindness, low vision, leprosy, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation, and mental illness. The Act further defines a ‘person with disability’ as suffering from not less than forty per cent of any disability as certified by a medical authority. Under PWD Act 1995, the disabilities mentioned above have been included in order to enable the persons suffering from disabilities to derive certain benefits/ concessions provided by the State Govt. / U.T. Administration/ Central Ministries/ Department and Local Authorities. The new definition of disability includes persons with any impairment that has a ‘substantial and long-term adverse effect’ on the ability of a person to carry out normal day-to-day activities (National Human Right Commission, 2005).

India has the largest population of disabled people in the world. The disabled are being subjugated and have been unable to form themselves as a special group to take part in politics either at the state or national level.

The World Bank further reports that several people with disabilities do not have equal access to health care, education, and employment opportunities, do not receive the disability-related services that they require, and experience exclusion from everyday life activities (World Report on Disability, 2011).

The Persons with Disabilities Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation Act, (PWD Act) of 1995 came into existence to safeguard the rights of persons with disability. Nevertheless, the PWD Act adopts a narrow definition of disability and confines it to ‘blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation and mental illness.’

Media’s Role

Needless to say, mass media, including newspapers, magazines, television, radio, films and Internet, plays a wider role in forming and moulding public opinion on various issues. Various media channels do have impacts on beliefs, values, and traditions on a certain section of the society (Lorimer and Scannell, 1994; & Webb, 2008).

Media has the responsibility of performing various duties towards society. Media is socially responsible to a greater extent. Media needs to be conscious of social welfare activities launched by the government and non-governmental bodies. It should give due priority to the issues pertaining to primary healthcare, family planning, adult education and eradication of illiteracy, abolition of social evils like dowry, communalism, poverty alleviation programmes and rural development schemes.

However, in India various newspapers and news channels are found biased and corrupt, resulting in faulty dissemination of facts to the public. In crticising the Indian media, Justice (retd) Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, said, ‘The media is not justified in giving 90 per cent of its coverage to entertainment, leaving only 10 per cent to real issues which are basically socio-economic in nature. Doubtless, the media should provide some entertainment. But, the thrust of its coverage should be in public interest. You have lost your sense of proportion. India is passing through a transitional period of her history from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial one – a painful and agonising period in history. In this transitional period, ideas become very important. You have to promote rational ideas, scientific ideas, and modern ideas, in order to help society get over this transitional period faster and with minimum pain.’ (The Hindu, 2011)

Human Rights and Disability

So far as the legal rights of the disabled in India are concerned, it is protected by the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. The act promises several rights to the disabled. However, PWDs are suffering on several fronts.

Despite several awareness campaigns, doctors in India are still adopting the medical model of disability and sidelining social model of disability (Singhi, Goyal, Pershad, Singhi & Walia, 1990). Doctors are not keen on helping the parents understand the social context of disability. Parents face economic hardship and poor transport facilities, which prove to be hurdles to educate their disabled children. Therefore, education for them has become a fiasco in the name of inclusive education.

Indian cities are not disabled-friendly. Persons with disability find it hard to use the government offices, parks, hospitals etc. For instance, in Bangalore out of 710 parks, only three parks are wheelchair-friendly (Francis, 2011). Disabled face the problem of using public transport as the state governments and central government are least bothered about this. So, accessibility for this minority class has been gone for a toss.

The National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People finds that Disability Act 1995 is being violated by 100 top companies as there is no reservation for them in the Indian corporate sector. Despite stringent rules and regulations, there is a low percentage of disabled employees in the multinational companies (rediff.com, 2000). This shows dismal employment opportunities for them in the private sector. In addition, there is no significant record of disabled employment in public sector.

We cannot attain overall development of a society without development of the disabled persons. We have to take the right approach for developmental perspectives. If disabled persons are sidelined in the process of social and economic development, then it can be called as unjustified or imbalanced development. Amartya Sen says (2004), ‘Overlooking or ignoring the plight of disabled people is not an option than an acceptable theory of justice can have’.

Persons with disability suffer from lack of basic educational facilities even though education is a fundamental right. Lack of awareness in educational organizations and teachers, infrastructure resources and training for the teachers are contributing to the problems of education for the disabled. Mere access to educational institutions – be it primary or higher education does not prove beneficial for disabled students who need special care. Teachers and infrastructure of the educational institutions are not suitable, resulting in discouragement among disabled students (Prasad, 2011). It sounds strange but true. Children with disabilities in India rarely progress beyond primary education, with the school enrolment less than 10 per cent in many areas. This results in social alienation and leads to very limited employment opportunities, causing more poverty (Chambers, 2010). Therefore, various schemes meant for this purpose are not functioning, causing a knowledge gap between the disabled and non-disabled societies.

If we critically analyse disability rights, we can find that there is a gap between the policy formation and policy implementation. Policy paralysis is quite apparent on this ground.  The disabled have low social status and poor educational and employment opportunities, which induce poverty. In addition, the movement for the rights of disabled at the grassroots and policy-making level has been weak. Therefore, inclusive development has been an eyewash and needs overhaul from top to bottom.

Media Approach Towards Disability

The media portrayal of disability is inadequate and misleading, resulting in socio-economic and political discrimination and deprivations.

Ammu Joseph (2005) claims that media coverage of disability is more noticeable on days like the International Day of Disabled Persons. For the rest of the year it gets less media attention. Again, the coverage is skewed in nature. Media focuses on individuals who are physically or mentally challenged and portrays some of them as either heroes or victims. Joseph also says that the presentation of disability in the print media is derogatory in tone.

Ashish Sen (2004) asserts that the mainstream media have their limitations to cover issues like HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, poor farmers, child labour, tribals and minorities. He accuses the media for being mad about coverage of politics, business, sports and regular events, sidelining issues like disability. Unveiling the poor portrayal of disability, Sen points out that newspapers like the Times of India, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald devote only around four per cent of a total of 24 pages to developmental issues. No disability news appears on the front page. Hence, he favours community media which can be participatory and alternative media to the mainstream media.

Dhruv Lakra (2009) regrets the lack of awareness level on disability. Lakra suggests expanded resource-base for the disabled and improving their access to these resources. Disability issues need to be in the public domain. Media have a greater role for sensitization the society. However, media is lethargic towards covering developments related to disabilities in India.

Madhu Kishwar (2004) argues, ‘Bollywood is much more complex and a far greater agent for positive social change than is commonly acknowledged by those who claim to represent the high culture of India. Reviews of Hindi cinema in avant-garde intellectual journals like the Economic and Political Weekly accuse our filmmakers of spreading religious obscurantism, Hindu fundamentalism, anti-women attitudes and animosity towards minorities. They are attacked as conservative defenders of an anachronistic status quo. I myself belonged to this category in some measure, as several of my early film reviews testify.’ Therefore, Hindi films are not doing well to address the issues pertaining to disability.

Shampa Sengupta (2008) underlines the media’s negligence towards disability. He points out that the media’s role is not confined to bring the issues to limelight but also attempt to build public support to sort out the issues. Sengupta refers to a section of the media that includes the Statesman, Telegraph, Anandabazar Patrika, Aajkaal, Times of India, Asian Age, Hindustan Times, Bartoman and Ganashakti.

The above literature reveals that there has been significant lack of coverage of disability in various forms of media, be it newspapers, television news channels or films. In addition, whenever the subject is covered it is stereotyped, resulting in social exclusion. Media has been found to be callous, biased and manipulative in addressing the issue of disability.

Disability Coverage

The representations of disability in various media forms like newspapers, magazines, TV serials and films have found absurd. The Hindu, New Indian Express and Times of India are among the popular English dailies of India. However, their coverage of disability issues is biased and event-based. The contents of the newspaper are apparently not disability-friendly. The coverage of disability issues is skewed in terms of geography – urban and rural– and so is the editorial priority of the media.  However, it is true that these newspapers are slowly paying more attention to issues like disability. But the pace is sluggish. The contents on these issues in the editorial and opinion pages are scant and rarely look to provide amicable solutions. Moreover, the published contents do not mobilize public opinion for disability rights movement for their proper rehabilitation.

Similarly, the cinema in India on disability issues is less and not well-depicted. The Bollywood movie My Name is Khan (2010) examines various discourses, writings, conversations and communicative events connected to disability representation. Shahrukh Khan as Rizwan Khan, the character with disability, is the protagonist in the film.

The film suffers from many shortcomings. The Bollywood films based on religion, caste and violence do well at the box office. Without exception, the theme of religion leads the race while disability takes a back seat. The use of songs is pleasant but it is not practically possible to depict a song sequence on someone who suffers disability problems, not autism alone. The romance between Rizwan and Mandira (Kajol), the actress of the film, is found fabricated and over-sentimental.

Some of the scenes on Rizwan and her mother indicate that disabled can do wonders if they are properly guided. The film asserts that they can take care of themselves though differently-abled. It is seen that there is a change in depicting the disability issue in relation to tone, voice and theme, from the film Koshish (1972) directed by Gulzar to My Name Is Khan (2010) directed by Karan Johar. The perspective has transformed from sympathetic to empathetic. The media approach to disability is criticized in various quarters of the society. In the Bollywood cinema, the charity approach has transformed to rights approach towards disability and attempting to ensure human rights for the differently-abled persons.

New Paradigm

The media makes us aware of various social, political and economical activities happening around the world. Media is the custodian of human rights. The media should not only disseminate information to the public, rather it should critically analyze issues. The various forms of media should focus on issues like inclusive development, accessibility, issues with ICT and social security. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) should chalk out the modalities of coverage of disability in consultation with social activists and organizations working for the disabled.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) should support proper disability representation in cinema and newspapers respectively. The coverage should be practical and inspire the differently-abled persons. The CBFC should properly review, rate and censor motion pictures, television shows, television advertisements, and other promotional materials, keeping the sense and spirit of disability in mind. There should be a uniform editorial policy for all English and regional newspapers in India in order to avoid the lapses in reporting and their representation as well. If media critically covers the issue, it can build people’s movement for the cause of the disabled. If everything goes hand in hand, it can usher in a period of inclusive development of the disabled.


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