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Disability and Popular Culture

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It should come as no surprise that disability in popular culture has traditionally favored stereotypes. Images of fear, of pity, of overcoming some tragedy, usually sell better than reality. During his annual Muscular Dystrophy telethon, fundraiser and comedian Jerry Lewis raises millions of dollars for medical research by parading children with disabilities before a national TV audience. Television, and much of the mainstream media, prefers the tragic or tormented image of disability to that of disability as natural and part of the human condition. Beneath the uncomfortable feeling we get in seeing lives distorted through the popular media is the very real discrimination toward persons with disabilities. Historian Paul Longmore has said "Prejudice is a far greater problem than any impairment; discrimination is a bigger obstacle to overcome than any disability." Numerous surveys, including the Louis Harris Poll on People with Disabilities, have supported this assertion. Attitudes towards persons with disabilities, running the gamut from the "Supercrip" to the menace to society, are formed more often from popular portrayals in the media than first-hand experience. But this is changing. Increasingly, people with disabilities are the authors of their own stories, the creators of new media. This is consistent with creating and honoring person-centered services and supports. As the Self-Advocacy movement has shown, people with disabilities can speak for themselves, and no one else can do as well. Stereotypes of disability may never go away, but their power to influence social behavior is sure to decrease as people continue to create and define their own culture and experiences.

This web site is maintained by the Research and Training Center on Community Living with support from the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, the Human Services Research Institute and the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. E-mail weste050@umn.edu.
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