Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities Critique and Take Control of their Media Images

From the perspective of people with intellectual disabilities, the media inappropriately portrays them in public photographic imaging by conveying them as ‘other’, and as incompetent and lacking power. This project gave people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to discuss these images with one another and to create new and transformed images they believed were better representations.

What is this research about?

Photography has enormous power to shape our understandings of and behaviour towards others. Visual representations of disability, which are commonly produced by non-disabled individuals, typically rely on undesirable stereotypes that foster prejudice and discrimination. Since people with intellectual disabilities are experts of their lived experience and many are capable of interpreting and sharing their experiences and knowledge, they should have greater control over how they are represented and take on more active roles in shaping and conducting research about ‘intellectual disability’ and the lives of people so labeled. The purpose of this research is to examine:

  1. How people labeled with intellectual disabilities look at, interpret, and respond to public visual representations of intellectual disability
  2. How they might take new photographic images or use Photoshop to alter existing images of people labeled intellectual disabled to express their disapproval with the original pictures and put forth alternative images

What did the researchers do?

The researcher at McMaster University worked with four individuals from a large group of self-advocates with intellectual disabilities. They studied 11 public photographic images from newspapers, charity advertising, medical journals, service agencies, social documentary, and photographic art. Over the course of several weeks, they engaged in critical discussions about these images. The discussions were guided by the researcher's questions about what they saw in the images, the messages about intellectual disability they believed the images conveyed to non-disabled people, the possible consequences of such, and how images could or should be changed to communicate alternative messages. The four individuals also took new photographs and/or used Photoshop to transform original images to visually realize their critiques.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that:

  • Participants identified strongly with the individuals portrayed in the images, and were both saddened and angered by how labeled people were being represented. The participants spoke often of their feelings of being dismissed by society; of being perceived as without the ability to have or share an opinion on how they were represented; of being understood to be unable to care for others or for themselves, or to change their situation. They were angry about being denied the right to have power and control over public representations and over their lives.
  • This project provided the participants with an opportunity to critically engage with the images, the messages inscribed within them, and the effects of those messages on their own lives in order to find means to challenge the dominant views.
  • As the project progressed, the group members came to realize that the act of taking control over how they are represented, such as in the images they changed and the new photographs they took, is a powerful move towards challenging their ongoing devaluation and dehumanization.


How can you use this research?

This research emphasizes the importance of giving individuals with intellectual disabilities a more active role in research in this field. The findings from this endeavor can also help non-disabled members of society better understand the experiences of disabled people. Furthermore, policymakers can use this research as a guide to develop more suitable guidelines and policies to more appropriately represent intellectually disabled citizens in the media.

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