How the media chooses to depict older disabled people matters. The pictures we see tell us a story; not just of how society sees us but, how we should see ourselves.

Disabled people of all ages are no strangers to inaccurate depictions. For years we’ve been battling stereotypes and lazy representations that fail to recognise our basic humanity. As disabled people get older, they have to face ageism as well as disablism.

We need to see a change in how we are pictured. It is the least we deserve. Our new Picture Yourself Active project, a collection of free-to-use photographs of older disabled people getting active, is helping address this.

An all too common issue

Even a glance at academic research shows that older disabled people's lives are not depicted accurately. We're so often shown to be deviating from the norm. Not just in how we look, but how we act and what we enjoy.

 

 

At Get Yourself Active, we know how much of a barrier to participation misconceptions and myths can be for disabled people. In a recent survey, just one in seven (14%) non-disabled people were aware that they had taken part in sport or physical activity with disabled people and only half (48%) said they knew a disabled person. (Activity Alliance, Taking part with disabled people 2019).

Research conducted by the Centre for Ageing Better shows that public attitudes towards ageing are similarly negative. Less than half (46%) of adults express a positive view of ageing and two in five 18-34 year olds see older age as characterised by frailty, vulnerability and dependency.

This feeling isn't limited to the general public either. One of the most common barriers disabled people report is a lack of confidence amongst sport and leisure facilities staff, feeling that they don't know how to work with disabled people or how to support them, making it appear for many disabled people like they don't belong.

This experience is also common amongst older people, with expectations of their lifestyle dictating what they’re given a chance to participate in.

Barriers created through images.

These barriers don't come out of anywhere. The visual media and the images we see of ourselves and others make a big difference to how we feel about them. They enshrine an often unconscious opinion on what it means to be older and disabled.

We want to help to change this narrative through the Picture Yourself Active project. Typically, disabled people are shown only as two things: superhuman parathletes or objects of pity.

 

 

Photos of disabled people also often rely on negative stereotypes. From the classic "hand on the shoulder” photo to only focusing on those whose impairments are easily seen, these stereotypes aren't just offensive, but indicate that Disabled people are a sad spectacle. There are also several commonly used negative and stereotypical depictions of getting older, such as the pictures of ‘wrinkly hands’ or the dominance of walking sticks.  

Not every older disabled person has to be a Paralympian to deserve praise, just as they shouldn't have to be seen as helpless to merit attention from the media.

These stereotypes convey the idea that we should feel grateful to get any chance to be active, rather than be people who are in control and able to direct our own lives. This only gets worse as we get older, with ageism combining with disableism.

 

If providers can't picture us correctly, how will they offer us the right services? And if we don't see ourselves accurately, how will we know what we deserve to enjoy?

Our right to enjoy sport and physical exercise shouldn't be an afterthought or treated as a "bonus" to the battles for equality we are fighting in other areas. If we change the world of sport and physical activity, we change lives for the better. And imagery and media play a hugely important part in this.

Change is coming

So what does that mean for older disabled people who want to get out and enjoy themselves? How can they be confident that there will be a member of staff to help them or that a non-disabled person won't question their right to get active?

We think that the Picture Yourself Active campaign is a really strong starting point. Together with the Centre for Ageing Better, we are taking big steps to address the imbalance of imagery for both by publishing over 300 photos of older disabled people getting active. In making them free and publicly available, we hope that everyone takes a minute, pause and reflect on their choice of images that depict disabled people in later life.

 

Get yourself active

 

It's vital that this library exists to challenge stereotypes and communicate a more diverse representation of what it means to be both older and disabled.

To ensure the project was reflective of our community, we worked with disabled people to design the brief, and state the dos and don'ts for photographers or anyone looking to capture images of disabled or older people, to follow so they can be confident that their work is an honest reflection. 

We wanted these images to capture the reality of getting active and leave disabled people finally feeling empowered and happy about how they're represented.

This is just the start. We want to see organisations take on the learning and advice that our project provides to ensure that the lives of disabled people in later life are no longer reduced to lazy stereotypes. We have seen positive change happen in and around us over the last few years, we want our project to push this forward.

 

You can access the picture library here.

 


Mikey Erhardt, Get Yourself Active Communications Officer.