Ouch!: An Examination of the Self-Representation of Disabled People on the Internet

Authors

  • Estelle Thoreau

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      Estelle Thoreau was a postgraduate student in journalism at Cardiff University in Wales while undertaking the research on which this study is based. She has since completed an MA in Journalism Studies. With more than seven years experience as a journalist both in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand, her interest in the representation of disability in the media is both personal and professional and stretches back 15 years. She is currently working in the media in the UK.


Abstract

This article is based on a qualitative study of representations of disability by disabled people on Ouch, a BBC-owned web magazine produced largely by disabled people. Analysis was conducted of a sample of articles from the website in order to examine how the medium of the Internet influenced the content of the website, how disabled people were represented in the articles on the website, and how ideology and power were expressed through the discourse on Ouch. The findings reveal a different type of representation from that offered by the mainstream traditional media, which is argued to result from properties of the medium and the staffing of the site by disabled people. The findings add weight to current critiques of disability theory, in particular that the current social model of disability does not adequately explain the reality of living with impairment and disability.

Introduction

This article examines the representation of disabled people on the BBC website Ouch, a magazine website largely written and produced by disabled people. The study was undertaken during a time when societal attitudes in the UK towards disabled people were in a state of change. Since 1988 there have been an increasing number of high profile campaigns by disabled people and their supporters against a range of issues (Barnes & Oliver, 1993). The rollout of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 boosted legal rights for disabled people. Alongside this, there is increasing awareness among nondisabled people that disabled people have been represented incorrectly by the mainstream media. In the British press, language used to refer to disabled people is beginning to change. Terms such as handicapped, mong, and cripple are now generally accepted as being offensive and are not often used.

The decision to analyze Ouch was made because the website offers something different with regards to the representation of disabled people on the Internet. In Britain there are a number of disability-focused websites, the majority of which tend to be information-centered and either charity- or advocacy-based. Ouch is different because not only is it a website funded by a major media organization, but its content has been structured in a nonpolitical web-magazine style. In addition, the BBC’s decision to staff Ouch with disabled people and maintain a largely hands-off policy in regard to the management of content (Matheson, 2003) allows disabled people further opportunity to represent themselves in ways different from those of most mainstream media.

The fact that Ouch’s content is distributed through the medium of the Internet puts a further twist on its representation of disability since, with regards to disabled people, the Internet is increasingly being touted as a technology that will contribute towards the removal of social inequalities (Trend, 2001). Therefore, in analyzing articles from the website, the study aimed to address three main questions:

  • • How does Internet mediation influence the content of Ouch?
  • • How are disabled people represented on the BBC website Ouch?
  • • What type of ideology and power structure is evident in the discourse used in articles on Ouch?

The answers to these questions shed light on the broader question of how the Internet influences the representation of disability.

Disabled people and the internet

The Internet is often lauded as a development that has positive spin-offs with regard to disabled people. One of the Web’s supposedly revolutionary attributes is the opportunity it provides disabled people to communicate online and be viewed in the same way as nondisabled Internet users (Bowker & Tuffin, 2003). Huffaker and Calvert’s (2001) study of teenage weblogs argued that online environments are places where physical constraints become more flexible and users can create and build their own identities. This claim has important implications when applied to disabled people, a sector of society that is often judged and stereotyped according to physical characteristics.

The Internet is also promoted as a medium that increases access to information (Williamson, Wright, Schauder, & Bow, 2001). This is vital for many disabled people as mobility restrictions and lack of accessible public spaces means they are often also denied access to information. Furthermore, the ease of publishing on the Internet is seen as allowing disability culture to flourish online (Goggin & Newell, 2003; Sourbati, 2004) through the ability of disabled individuals to connect with one another irrespective of their location and mobility or impairment levels.

At the same time, the reality of the Internet may not be as emancipatory for disabled people as has been claimed. One negative aspect is that while the Internet allows disabled people to create their own identity, it also allows the people they interact with to do the same. Bowker and Tuffin’s (2003) study of disabled people’s use of the Internet examines their risk of “harm and deception” as a result of their activities online.

Goggin and Newell (2003) argue that many digital technological systems can be seen as serving the predominantly non-disabled status quo in ways that maintain and legitimize the oppression of disabled people. Abbott’s (2001) study of the democratic possibilities of the Internet in Asia concluded that while the Internet may provide space for activists to air their views, their message may be drowned out by mainstream voices and the commercialization of the Internet. Certainly this has been the case so far for disabled people on the Internet in the UK. While the media offers positive possibilities for their representation, the coverage of disability on UK-based Internet websites is dominated by major media organizations and disability charities. Even the authentic perspective offered by Ouch has been tempered somewhat by its ownership by the BBC.

The Internet’s capacity for text, graphics, animation, video, and audio could also potentially exclude disabled people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments (Goggin & Newell, 2003; Williamson et al., 2001). Goggin and Newell further state that the lack of disabled people in positions of authority or power on information super-highway policy boards means that the digital gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to widen.

Shaping content

Throughout history, journalism has been influenced by technology. Marshall McLuhan argues that the form of a medium influences the content that it produces (McLuhan, 1995). Although he was writing in 1964, and thus in the pre-Internet world, McLuhan’s theory could be applied to mean that the Internet could result in the strengthening of disability culture as a result of its ability to link people with common interests and experiences irrespective of time and space. Costigan and Barnes see the Internet as helping to create a sense of community among people who would not have otherwise met (S. Barnes, 2001; Costigan, 1999). Christine Hine (2000) argues that the Internet plays a role in the formation and maintenance of culture. The only drawback in applying these theories in regard to disability is that disabled people are a largely unemployed and mainly unskilled sector of society. The Summer 2002 Labour Force Survey (Disability Rights Commission, 2003) found that of the 6.9 million disabled people of working age in Great Britain, almost half are out of work. Disabled people are also twice as likely as nondisabled people to have no educational qualifications. For these reasons, many disabled people may not have access to the Internet or possess the skills needed to use it.

McLuhan also argues that the content of new forms of media often draw on styles from previous media (McLuhan, 1995). While the content of Ouch is based on a print magazine-style format, the website includes a message board that is used in a way that recalls a discussion style similar to oral cultures in the past. The Ouch website could also be considered a departure from print-centered disability media produced by disabled people in that, instead of focusing on advocacy or adopting a political stance, the site aims to promote a people-focused forum for discussion and ideas, not unlike Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere (Calhoun, 1999).

In a similar vein, Poster (1995) and Pavlik (2000) argue that the rise of the Internet has resulted in a proliferation of narrative and storytelling online. Certainly, in examining the content and language used in the website Ouch, it could be argued that its content would not exist if it were not for the technology it uses. Poster attributes this to the fact that, unlike previous media technologies, the Internet is cheap, flexible, readily available, and quick. As the BBC’s remit is for audience sharing and not commercial success, providing a website on disability is an inexpensive way of producing content for a sector of society not seen as a particularly cash-rich market for advertisers.

Pavlik (2000) writes that the Internet has reshaped the relationship among news organizations, journalists, and their publics. This altered relationship provides opportunities for disabled people who, both in the past and today, have their views ignored and are negatively stereotyped by the mainstream media. It gives them the opportunity both to offer feedback or criticism of articles in the media, and to influence future coverage.

However, while there is an increasing body of knowledge about how disabled people access online technologies, few studies address how disabled people are represented in online journalism. Examinations of the discourse of disability on the Internet are also rare (Goggin & Newell, 2003). Moreover, while there are numerous UK studies that critique how the mainstream media represent disability, few studies examine media produced by disabled people. The present study of Ouch attempts to redress this gap by investigating the representation of disability from a more positive, disability-centered standpoint. The goal of the study is to analyze how disabled people are represented on the Internet when they are given the chance to represent themselves.

Debates about language

The Internet can be considered both an engine of social change that influences societal beliefs and behaviors (Hine, 2000; Jones, 1999b; Kopper, Kolthoff, & Czepek, 2000), and a product of culture that reflects societal beliefs and behaviors (Hine). However, it is more than just technology or societal attitudes that influence people’s perception of disability. Language is another medium through which a culture represents thoughts, ideas, and feelings (Hall, 1997), and which in turn shapes culture.

Fairclough (2001) linked language use with power and ideology, seeing language as both a social artifact and social process (Fairclough, 2001). Language plays a significant role in the production, maintenance, and negotiation of social relations of power. This is because contained within language are supposed common-sense assumptions and ideologies relating to the dominant groups in society (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, stereotypical beliefs about disabled people are encoded in our culture through language as well as images. These assumptions are also reproduced through the communications media (C. Barnes, 1992). Barnes argues that labels for groups of people tend to be imposed, not chosen (C. Barnes, 2003). In contrast, when appropriate terminology is used it can provide disabled people with a sense of individual and collective identity, while reminding nondisabled people of society’s continuing oppression of people with disabilities (C. Barnes, 1993). Language usage is also related to how language is processed through a communications medium, a point made by both Sweeney (2003) and Sancho (2003).

At the same time, how audiences take information from language may subvert the author’s intended meaning of a text. Society, language, and interpretation do not exist independently of each other; meaning is constructed through all three (Hall, 1997). The decision to concentrate on discourse analysis in this study means that it was not possible to do more than simply touch on the role of the audience in the construction of meaning from text on Ouch.

Theories of disability

Within the UK there are two main approaches to the study of disability: the medical model and the sociopolitical model. C. Barnes (1997) defines the medical model as the idea of disability as sickness, impairment, or deviation from normality. Within this, disability is viewed both as a medical issue and also a personal one (Abberley, 1997b; C. Barnes, 2003; Campbell, 1990; Johnston, 1997; Shakespeare, 1996). Impairment is seen as something that needs to be fixed, with the responsibility for this resting on the individual who is impaired. However, the medical model has been criticized because of its assumption that impairment equals an individual’s loss. This approach is seen to depoliticize disability (Goggin & Newell, 2003) as it apportions responsibility for disability on to the affected individual.

Today, the most widely accepted approach to disability among theorists of disability is the social model. This model defines disability in terms of the environmental and social barriers imposed on disabled people by nondisabled society which limit or remove altogether opportunities to take part in community life (Altman, 2001; Williams, 2001). This approach is reflected in the subsequent politicization of disability by disabled people (Abberley, 1997b; C. Barnes, 1997, 2003; British Council of Disabled People, 2002; Liggett, 1997; Shakespeare, 1996).

It had been expected that the analysis of articles on Ouch would produce results consistent with the social perspective on disability. However, as the results presented later in this article indicate, this was not the case. Instead, a third approach to disability was identified, one that while largely adhering to the tenets of the social model, also had some notable departures.

Key terms

In this article, the terms impairment and disability are used according to the definitions given by the Disabled People’s International. These are as follows:

Impairment is the functional limitation with the individual caused by physical, mental, or sensory impairment; and

Disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (Fougeyrollas & Beauregard, 2001, p. 177)

Albrecht, Seelman, and Bury (2001) identify two main ways of referring to disability that have been put forward by the disability movement. Both labels reflect western cultural perceptions of disability. The first, “person with a disability,” puts the person first in order to emphasize the importance of the individual. This definition is mostly used in the USA. The second, “disabled person”—i.e., society disables the person—emphasizes disabled persons as a minority group and thus their oppression by mainstream society. Within the United Kingdom, this second term is most often used (Albrecht et al., 2001). Because this study involves media in the UK, every effort has been made to use the second term throughout this paper.

Method

In examining how disabled people chose to represent themselves on the website Ouch, text and images from the website were analyzed to provide answers to the research questions presented earlier. As the aim was to study content accessible to as many readers as possible, only text was analyzed in depth.

Sample

A sample of 48 articles was selected from Ouch on June 1, 2004. An article was defined as a news story or feature commissioned by the website or written by website staff. It also included weblog entries, which were written by the website’s staff. Within this sample, each article was analyzed as a stand-alone piece of text to avoid making assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of the website. In addition to the textual analysis, pictures included in the articles were analyzed. These images were briefly examined for evidence of representation of visible ethnicity. The selection criteria were intended to gather a sample as representative as possible of the text across the entire website. Articles were chosen from six sections on the website: Features, Columnists, Close Up, Weblog (an online diary), TV & Radio, and Life Files. The sections Play, News, and About were excluded, either because they did not contain news or feature articles, or they had not been written by Ouch writers. Eight articles were taken from each section in order to provide a balanced sample. Video content on Ouch was not examined in any depth, nor was the home page, the contents page, audio descriptions, or the website’s design and structure.

Content analysis

This method was used to identify the type of coverage given to disabled people and disability in the articles published on Ouch. In order to find out what subjects were written about on Ouch, how the website ordered these topics, what the gender and disability type of the writers was, and the incidence of visible ethnicity in pictures, the articles were coded for the following:

  • • Topic of article (e.g., sports, travel, arts, media, entertainment)
  • • Section of the site in which the article was located (e.g., life files, columns, features)
  • • Gender of author
  • • Impairment of author
  • • Impairment of subject
  • • Mention of ethnicity in an article and if so, which ethnicity (articles were examined for mention of ethnicity in relation to people)
  • • Visible non-European, nonwhite ethnicity in pictures compared to the total number of pictures present (images were examined for visible nonwhite minority ethnic diversity in facial characteristics and skin tone)
  • • Article structure (news, opinion, nonpersonal feature, review, question and answer interview, personal anecdote)

All articles were also examined to see whether they were personality or issue driven (Clogston, 1990). John Clogston’s 1990 study Disability Coverage in 16 Newspapers coded for, among a number of factors, how issue-oriented an article was. Within the study of Ouch, this was used to determine whether an article focused solely on an issue or individuals, or a mixture of both. Articles that focused only on individuals can be seen as personalizing disability, while issue-focused articles treat the issue as the focus of the story.

Categories were chosen to be as unambiguous as possible. While there was only one coder, articles were coded twice, the second time after period of time and without reference to previous coding, in order to reduce errors and decrease reliance on the coder’s previous knowledge of the articles. Furthermore, this method was used in conjunction with discourse analysis so as provide an analysis of the text beyond that of simply “counting words.”

Critical discourse analysis

Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 2003; Fowler, 1991; Wodak, 2001) was used to examine how authors use language to represent disabled people and nondisabled people on Ouch. The study also aimed to see what styles of writing were popular on Ouch. Therefore, in addition to the variables analyzed using in content analysis, the sample of articles was also examined for:

  • • Labels referring to disabled people
  • • Labels referring to nondisabled people
  • • Labels used to refer to or describe relationships between disabled and nondisabled people
  • • Descriptions of disability
  • • Treatment of disabled people as active or passive agents (Fowler, 1991). Articles were analyzed for transitivity of verbs in sentences relating to disabled peoples’ actions. Verb groups were categorized into four main groups: material (physical activity–based), mental (thought based), verbal (speech based), and relational (action dependent on something or someone else). Articles were also examined for use of modality (modal auxiliary verb expressing necessity or possibility, e.g., must, should, will), and reportage of speech. Reportage of speech was split into three categories: direct quotations, summaries (the gist of what was said), and interpretation (how the writer interpreted what was said).
  • • The use of persuasive rhetoric

The general examination of the 48 articles from the sample was followed by an analysis of one article in depth. This article was selected because it reflected well the overall aims of the website (it was written by a disabled person in a humorous and ironic manner, detailing his experiences and the reality of living with a disability).

Findings

Content analysis findings

Author’s gender and impairment

Gender of author was coded to discover if there was an imbalance in the gender of writers on Ouch. Within the sample, 42% of the authors were specified as male, compared to 35% who were female. Therefore, it was concluded there was not a significant difference in gender of authors. It should be noted that of the authors coded as “Not specified,” eight were from the weblog section, which appears to have been written by more than one person. If the gender of the writers of this section were known, this could significantly change the result.

By counting the types of impairments that authors had and what impairment they wrote about, it was hoped that it would be discovered whether any type of impairment dominates the sample, how the authors label themselves, and how they label other disabled people.

The impairment of authors that dominates the sample was “none given:” those authors who do not mention if they had an impairment or who do not refer to themselves as a disabled person. The category of “none given” should not be confused with the “able-bodied” category, which contains writers who said they did not have a disability. Authors coded as having a “nonspecific impairment” account for 22% of the sample. This supports theories of personal representation on the Internet as discussed earlier. It should be noted, however, that while the Internet allows disabled people to choose how they are represented, many of the authors still identified themselves as disabled. Despite—or perhaps because—they were writing in the “safe” and sympathetic online environment of Ouch, they choose to portray themselves either as just “people” or as “disabled people.” They also chose to describe themselves in nonmedical terms.

The fact that the weblog has no identifiable author, and thus no mention of the author’s impairment, may have skewed the results. The intermittent references to the author as “I”“we,” and “us” indicate that the weblog may have been written by more than one person.

Impairment of subject

The range of impairments written about was far greater than the range of impairments of the authors in the sample (in so far as it was possible to judge). This was because while the authors drew on personal experiences in articles, they did not always limit themselves to writing about their own disability.

The most frequent disability referred to in the articles is “nonspecific impairment” in 27% of the sample. This could indicate that a sense of community is being forged through the creation of a catch-all “disabled” identity. Visual impairment makes up 13% of subject impairments. This is an unsurprising occurrence, as the website’s editor, Damon Rose, is visually impaired. Learning disabilities accounted for 9% of subject impairments, despite the fact that there did not appear to be any articles written by learning disabled people in the sample. These results are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.  Impairment of subjects
Category labelCountPercentage of responses
Nonspecific impairment2127
Visual impairment1013
Learning disabled79
Limb amputation68
Restricted growth45
Multiple sclerosis34
Cerebral palsy34
Autism34
Manic depression34
Shortened limbs34
Wheelchair user34
Mental illness23
Mobility restriction23
Hearing impairment23
Partial paralysis11
ADD/ADHD11
Facial disfigurement11
Spinal injury11
Down syndrome11
Albinism11
Total78100

Ethnic diversity

Mention of ethnic diversity within text and evidence of visible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity in pictures were coded to see how diversity was represented on Ouch (see Tables 2 and 3).

Table 2.  Mentions of ethnic diversity in text
 FrequencyPercent
No mention4185
North American24
Asian24
African12
Australian/Pacific12
South American12
Total48100
Table 3.  Visible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity in pictures
Total picturesVisible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity in picturesPercent of sample pictures with visible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity
11997

The authors and subjects within the sample presented a predominantly western and white perspective of disability. Within the sample, 85% of the articles contained no reference to ethnic diversity. Articles coded as either “no mention of ethnicity” or “white ethnicity” made up 92% of the sample. Given that government statistics in 2001 found that the UK has a minority ethnic population of 7.9% (National Statistics website1), it might be assumed that representation of ethnicity in Ouch accurately reflects British society. However, this is not quite the case. Across the sample, ethnic diversity and ethnicity was presented as something foreign. With one exception, Britishness was represented as being white and nondiverse ethnically. Otherwise, articles focus on topics such as traveling in India, the contents of a Brazilian website, and a disabled Australian’s comedy routine. Within these texts, disabled people with nonwhite ethnic backgrounds are represented as “other.”

With regard to the amount of visible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity in pictures, the result was similar to that of mentions of diversity within text. Images were examined for visible minority ethnic diversity in facial characteristics and skin tone. Only one picture in the sample, found in the article “Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability,” showed a nonwhite person. The rest of the photographs containing visible ethnicity were of people not from or located in Britain.

With regard to Tables 2 and 3, it should be noted that coding for visible nonwhite, non-European ethnicity in pictures only picks up obvious forms of ethnicity. People who would class themselves as white but not British were not counted under the coding parameters.

Article topics

The topics of articles could contribute toward the representation of disabled people on Ouch. Each article was coded as having one primary topic.

Overall, the sample contained a large variety of topics, the most popular being entertainment—leisure-based media and articles about film, television fiction, books, live comedy, music, and gaming—with 29% of the sample. This is unsurprising given that the website is run by the BBC. The next most popular topics were health (15% of the sample), travel (8%), and society (8% of the sample).

The findings from this study of the website were in contrast to findings from studies of the UK mainstream press such as Stop Press! undertaken by the author in 1999, and also a study of the representation of disabled people in The Guardian and The Sun newspapers during March 2004 (Thoreau, 2004). The first two studies found that health-related articles tended to concentrate on subjects such as the search for cures for disability and/or individual cases of illness (Cooke, Daone, & Morris, 2000; Thoreau, 2004). Ouch articles on health focused on different angles such as complementary diets, sexuality, and people’s experience of being diagnosed with an impairment and living with disability.

Article emphasis

Emphasis was coded to understand how content from the sample was presented (see Table 5). Within the sample, 76% of articles contained personality-driven content. A total of 60% of the articles in the sample featured disabled people as the main topic. Only 23% of the articles were solely issue-driven. However, this could be taken as a reflection of the mission of the website to reflect “experiences, thoughts and give alternative slants on all things big and small” (www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/about).

Table 5.  Whether an article is issue or personality driven
 FrequencyPercent
Personality driven2960
Issue driven1123
Personality/issue driven816
Total48100

Article structure

This was coded to find out what article types dominated the sample (see Table 6). Articles based on personal anecdotes were by far the most popular, accounting for 48% of the sample. Nonpersonal feature (a feature article not based on the author’s personal experience) was the second most popular, at 21%. The high number of articles based on personal anecdotes could be attributed to many of the website’s authors choosing to write about personal experiences.

Table 6.  Article structure
 FrequencyPercent
Personal anecdote2348
Non-personal feature1021
Opinion919
Question and answer36
Review24
Q&A/personal anecdote12
Total48100

Critical discourse analysis findings

The aim here was to gain a deeper understanding of how language used on Ouch represented disabled people and to see how power and ideology were portrayed on the website.

Labels

Labels were examined to provide a basic understanding of how disabled people represent themselves and how they see the audience of Ouch.

Throughout the sample, labels referring to disabled people tended to be largely informal. Six articles were found that contained formal titles when referring to disabled people. These articles included two references to people’s doctorates, one reference to the chairman of a disabled students’ association in Uganda, one reference to a UK television producer, three references to representatives of disability activist organizations, and one reference to a city council’s equality officer.

As the majority of articles in the Ouch sample were first person narratives written by disabled people, it was unsurprising that disabled people were often referred to in the first person. The website style was to write about authors using both their first and surnames on first mention, and then to drop to mention by first name only. Disabled people were rarely given job titles, and when they were, these tended to be nonspecific.

When descriptions of impairments were given, it was most often using casual, nonmedical terms. For example, Lucy Sholl referred to her date as “[a man] who just happened to have one leg” in the article “Going Out on a Limb,” while Liz Main referred to herself as a “novelty mad person” in the article “Pyjama Girl is not Brave” (here the author writes about nondisabled people’s reaction to her when she talks about mental health to a political party conference). Within the sample, only six articles were found that used only medical terms to describe disabled people. Moreover, three of these articles were written by one writer, Andy Behrman. Within these, he referred to himself as “a manic depressive.” Another two articles were written by nondisabled people. Jacqui Jackson refers to “children with autistic spectrum differences” in her article “Do I Have to Go to School Today?,” while Steve Palmer noted that “our son has Down Syndrome” in his article “Stan’s Guide to Ligging It.” The sixth article, “What Are You Staring At?–Iain Hutchison: Q&A,” contains quotes from Hutchison, a surgeon, in which he repeatedly described disabled people as patients or people “with facial disfigurement.”

Throughout the sample, language was used in ways that promoted a sense of community among disabled people. For example, the authors described groups of disabled people as “us” or “we” and often referred to the “disabled community,” the “VI community,” and the “blind community.”

Impairment

Impairment was described in a variety of ways, but was most often referred to using generic terms. For example, medical terms such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy were less likely to be used than the more generic “disabled” and “disability.” Authors often referred to their impairments using informal language containing humor, irony, and the reclamation of previously offensive language. For example, author Lucy Sholl noted that she and her date were sitting at “the Cripples’ table,” Liz Main described what happened after she had “come out as crazy,” and Francesca Martinez wrote about how she “was walking a bit funny” and that she had done some of her “best pavement-hogging work” in London.

When specific medical terms were used, they were often written in the introduction to the article, and then abridged further on. For example, in the article “Luke on Being Filmed” the author introduces his impairment by writing “I have Asperger’s Syndrome [sic], a ‘milder’ form of Autism (yeah right!).” He then described in lay terms how this influenced his life: “This means that I have difficulties with social interaction, communication and imagination.” Throughout the rest of the article, Asperger Syndrome was written about using slang-like references such as “life is hard for AS kids” and “life as an AS teenager.” A similar form of language use was found in the article “Desirability: Veracam.” The exception to this type of abridgment was the article ‘What are you staring at?’ which did not separate disabled people from their impairments and viewed them totally from a medical point of view.

Six texts referred to disability by using language in ways that connoted struggle and difficulty. Two of these were by Andy Behrman. His article “Electroboy Escapes Death and Deals With a New Type of Disability” included the following descriptions and statements: “my battle with manic depression;”“his [Andy’s] mental condition;”“Any type of disability is a challenge;”“learning to cope with my mental illness is my greatest achievement ever;”“[people] challenged by mental or physical disabilities;” and “an entirely different aspect of ‘dysfunction.’” In the article “Electroboy: You’re a Lunatic, a Freak, a Psycho, a Crack-Up and a Mental Case!” he describes himself as having “suffered with a mental disability.” He referred to his disability as “this invisible illness” and “my ‘death sentence’” and noted that “my manic depression was ravaging my life.” Lucy Sholl referred to herself as “someone with stamina and pain problems,” while Liz Main wrote about her “mental health problem” and being “in the depths of depression.” Christine Papamichael’s article “Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability” included quotes from a fan fiction author who put a character “into a situation where he suffers a disabling injury.” Papamichael then noted that said author “inflicts debilitating disability on Rowling’s characters.” Liz Ball’s article “GPS to Guide? Or Guide to GPS” referred to “the challenge of getting around as a blind person.”

Nondisabled people

The representation of nondisabled people was examined because this could provide information not only as to how disabled people saw themselves but also how they viewed society. Would nondisabled people on Ouch be portrayed the same way by disabled people as they were by the mainstream media? Or would the articles represent them in ways similar to the “other” ways in which disabled people have often been represented? Analysis revealed the latter to be the case.

Within the sample, nondisabled people were defined by what they were not. This resulted in them becoming the “other” (Derrida, Laclau, & Butler in Hall, 1996; Woodward, 1997) in opposition to disabled people’s majority. This is in direct contradiction to the representation by many mainstream media, in which the inverse is often true (Thoreau, 2004).

Nondisabled people were also represented in ways that signalled their relationship to disabled people. For example, author Andy Behrman labeled able-bodied people according to how they related to his life. In his article “Electroboy Escapes Death and Deals with a New Type of Disability” he referred to people overseeing his treatment as “my psychiatrist,”“my psychotherapist,”“my parents,”“my therapist,” and “my doctor.”

Throughout the sample, nondisabled people were often referred to as nameless and untitled individuals. For example, Francesca Martinez’s article “Mean Streets” used the following labels to refer to nondisabled people:

he (3 instances), woman (2 instances), you (2 instances), other people, this bloke, driver, irate taxi driver, old man, her, kind considerate traffic wardens, traffic warden, able-bodied drivers.

The same type of labels were also found in Mat Fraser’s article “Mat’s Evil Twin vs. the Journalists,” where he labeled able-bodied people as:

I (9 instances), journalists (3 instances), she (3 instances), general public, various different journalists, people in the TV business, they, you, my betters, women, prostitutes, girlfriends, them, people, your Mum.

Nondisabled people were given less opportunity to voice their opinion than disabled people were. Furthermore, when nondisabled people were directly quoted, it tended to be in regard to their negative attitudes towards disabled people. In the 48 articles analyzed, 13 contained reportage of speech by people identified as able-bodied. Seven of these involved the authors writing about occasions when able-bodied people were either patronizing them or berating them. A further four instances were from the weblog and involved quotes from statements about disability issued by able-bodied people. “Inclusion in Care” by Ian Cook contained quotes from a manager in Barnardo’s, a charity for underprivileged children. The article “What Are You Staring At?” interviewed facial surgeon Iain Hutchison. While the article contained extensive quotes by Hutchison, it concluded by recounting a tale about him leaving a patient during surgery in order to give a lecture at the National Portrait gallery. This had the result of undermining his status that had been established in the rest of the article.

Power and its agents were represented fairly anonymously throughout the sample. There were 11 exceptions to this. Anna Rosevear’s article “How to Bypass Your Brain and Get Motivated” contained numerous references to able-bodied people with military titles. While this could be interpreted as her giving more weight to these people’s position and opinions, the opposite was true; Anna represented them as unimportant except with regard to their role to motivate her to undertake exercise. Liz Main’s article contained three references to people with job titles. The first two—Health Minister Rosie Winterton and Paul Farmer, the Chair of the Mental Health Fringe Alliance—were mentioned in passing, and were not quoted in the article. The third person, a police officer, was quoted directly. However, to negate this, Main gives him the title “PC Plod of the Bournemouth Constabulary.” In “Being Different,” Geoff Adams-Spink wrote about “The chairman of the disabled students’ association, Henry.” While the article contained references to Ugandan MP James Mwandha, a disabled politician who was elected to represent disabled people’s interests, at no point does the author quote Mwandha or give him a full job title.

The use of job titles and quotes from the Crippled Monkey weblog was expected because the weblog’s brief was to report on disability gossip and the coverage of disability within the media. Within the eight Crippled Monkey articles, job titles were usually mentioned when the weblog was commenting on disability-related gaffs by nondisabled people. For example, in the June 18, 2003, entry there was a quote from “Irish pop impresario Louis Walsh—one of the judges in ITV1’s Popstars: The Rivals” on how he considered the Special Olympics “a big ego trip” for some of the people who organized the event. The weblog gave Walsh an ironic job title in order to diminish the impact his comments would have. Many of his comments were also paraphrased.

Many of the articles were written in an oral style. The weblog entry for February 10, 2004, began with the statement “This is where Crippled Monkey tries to sound like a pretentious music journalist.” A later entry on that date ended with “Go on, my son!” Francesca Martinez noted in “Mean Streets,”“No, I’m talking about the problems other people give me!” She ended the article with the statement: “What I’m trying to say is: Can we please have some more disabled parking spaces.” In the article “My Family and Autism—Luke on Being Filmed,” the entire article was in speech quotes.

In addition to obvious references to speech, the writers have also used a number of more subtle methods to convey orality. A large number of articles contained short informal verbal asides directed at the reader. “My Family and Autism” began with a short introduction from the author. Throughout the rest of the text, there were numerous asides to readers. In his article “Stan’s Guide to Ligging It,” Steve Palmer queried why people give up their place in queues to disabled people with the comment “Pity, perhaps? Sorry, I’ve done that one.” The second to last paragraph of Caroline O’Neill’s article “Just the Job?” began with the statement “I would love to tell you that I then embarked on a verbal sparring match with this advisor.” Ian Cook ended his article “The Best Bet Diet” by taking leave of the reader with the statement “‘Tara a bit,’ as they say in Brum.”

This oral style also frequently included questions addressed at the reader. Paul Green’s article “Moses Was Disabled” contained the aside “So what do you make of that?” after a quote from the Bible. The weblog entry for October 20, 2003, ended with the appeal: “Monkey wasn’t quite sure what to make of it—but what do you think?” Luke Jackson’s article “Back to School” finished with an appeal: “If there are any teachers out there reading this, PLEASE try my experiment.” The article “GPS to Guide? Or Guide to GPS” by Liz Ball was written in questions put forward on behalf of a hypothetical visually impaired reader.

In-Depth analysis of one article

The article, “Holiday Diary: A White Man Abroad,” was written by Kevin McLaughlin, a disabled man. It is an account of what happened when the author went on a lads’ holiday to Tenerife. The overall tone of the article was intended to convey that, while the author had doubts about his ability to attract the attention of women in comparison to his nondisabled friends, by the end of the holiday he had managed to “pull with the best of ’em.” Kevin was the only disabled person referred to in the article.

Albinism was described as something “less than” in comparison to nondisabled people. Kevin described how he worries he would not be able to compete in his friends’ snogging competition: “will I end up coming last . . . because of . . . because of . . . stuff.” He also pondered whether to dye his hair for the trip: “will it increase my pulling power if I look that wee bit more ‘normal’?” At one point he referred to his friends as “my perfectly normal mates.”

The physical impairments resulting from albinism were referred to using language that often contained elements of uncertainty or defensiveness, and Kevin’s feelings about his impairment were presented as something he wanted kept hidden. He noted he has “fair skin, fair hair and fair to middling paranoia that I largely keep under wraps.” These sentences often contained either slang or irony. His concerns about burning in the sun were vocalized by his comment: “but I’m a white cap for crissakes, and I’m gonna fry like a sausage in all that sun, surely?” In the twenty-fourth paragraph he noted he would be unable to recognize most of the people he was traveling with if they approached him. He then commented: “Sight problems? Me? No way!”

Throughout the article Kevin represented himself as an active individual. He largely wrote about himself in the first person and in relation to either action or mental based states. The few instances of relational verbs were largely written in the first person and were mostly concerned with the influence of albinism.

Kevin’s feelings about his impairment were largely kept to himself throughout the article. Although he does mention getting advice from a colleague at work, at no other point was there any mention of him discussing his concerns with anyone else. There was one mention that “the lads seem to think that I will be topping the score chart by the end of the week.” However, this worried him and he writes: “So I can’t let them down. The weight lies heavy on my shoulders.”

Aside from his experience of life as a disabled person, Kevin did not represent himself as an expert or a representative of authority. The website gave no background details about him, and he gave little information about his life within the article. His lack of “traditional” authority was reinforced by his tendency to refer to his impairment in casual lay terms, as “one of those so-called ‘albino’ types” and “a white cap.” Throughout Kevin’s article, while he represented himself actively, he viewed his overall situation in isolation. Kevin also tried to keep his concerns about his impairment to himself.

Summary

Disabled people were represented in the sample from Ouch in ways distinctly different from the ways in which they are often represented in the mainstream traditional forms of media. Because disabled people were both the producers and writers of Ouch, they held much of the balance of power and control with regard to how they were represented. Despite this, the authors in the sample chose to represent themselves in an informal manner. Their authority and status was established both through their personal experience of disability and through their control over how nondisabled people were represented.

In regard to the overall analysis of the sample, disabled people were represented using humor and often irony. When impairment and disability were described, it tended to be through the use of generic and nonmedical terms. While individual experience was seen as vital, authors often wrote about more disabilities than they had personally experienced.

Disabled people were presented as multidimensional people with varied interests. Yet despite this variety of topics, the sample was found to represent a rather selective picture of disability. Issues of class, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality were rarely mentioned within the sample.

Discussion

The aim of the study was to analyze the self-representation of disabled people on the Internet by examining the content of www.bbc.co.uk/ouch, a BBC website about disability produced largely by disabled people.

How does the medium of the internet influence the content of Ouch?

Internet mediation appears to have had a significant impact on the style and content of the sample from Ouch. In comparison to other media—radio, press, and television—the Internet offered the BBC a cheap, responsive, nonlinear, and flexible medium which is often seen as being “owned” by the people who write and read it. A sense of community was found in many of the articles in the sample; authors referred to “us,”“we,” and the “disabled community” and also wrote directly to that audience.

McLuhan’s claim that new forms of media often draw on styles from previous media (McLuhan, 1995) held true when examining articles from Ouch—the use of orality is widespread across the sample. However, it should be noted that this could be because the website’s authors had written with the knowledge that some of their audience would use assistive technologies to access articles, for example, articles may be read through screen reading technology.

Poster’s argument that the medium of the Internet encourages the publication of personal narrative and storytelling (Poster, 1995) was borne out in the sample from Ouch. Personal narrative and personal experience dominate the articles analyzed. All the articles were written by people with a disability or with experience of disability in their family, and nearly all the articles contained personal narratives in the text. Author Kevin McLaughlin notes that he wrote his article “Holiday Diary: A White Man Abroad” because: “I wanted to write the piece to give people a perspective on how different an experience going on this type of holiday could be for someone with my disability.”

Publication of personal narrative is important for a sector of society that rarely has its stories told in the mainstream media. However, it should be noted that the high amount of personal narrative within the articles could also be a result of the website’s goal to “reflect experiences” (www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/about).

As discussed earlier, the Internet has been claimed to lead to both positive and negative experiences for disabled people. In this study, Internet mediation influenced the content of Ouch in a number of positive ways. It helped to create a sense of shared community and identity among a diverse group of people. It allowed disabled people to create a representation of disability based on their personal choice. While the visual anonymity of the Internet allowed individuals to play with their identity and adopt different personae (Hine, 2000), throughout the sample the authors chose to represent themselves most often as disabled people and not as people defined solely by their impairment. This was different from the representation of disabled people in the mainstream media that has often chosen to represent disabled people in relation to their impairment. The Internet also allowed for an element of flexibility in Ouch’s content. Unlike traditional media, websites can easily update, alter, and correct their content. Throughout Ouch, there were indications that the staff actively sought and responded to the views of its audience. As indicated by Ross (1997), this is especially important when dealing with a sector of society that does not often have its point of view solicited or represented in the mainstream media.

At the same time, Internet mediation also influenced the content of Ouch in a number of negative ways. Earlier, it was proposed that the Internet could be seen as serving the predominant status quo in a way that maintains and legitimizes the oppression of disabled people (Goggin & Newell, 2003). Within Ouch, control over production had a direct influence on content. This is reflected through the amount of entertainment-related content within the BBC-owned website, and the BBC’s decision to employ an editor who has substantial experience with disability arts and the media. Furthermore, the articles in the sample reflected experiences of disabled people in a nonpolitical way, and never directly criticized either the BBC or the government. There was also evidence of exclusivity on Ouch through the limited amount of diversity represented on the website, as well as the technology and skills needed to access the website content.

Therefore, it is concluded that the Internet is best regarded as a technology that offers up opportunity for disabled people to exercise greater control over their representation. As demonstrated through the analysis of articles from Ouch, this opportunity is dependent on how the technology is used and what influence disabled people have on the production of content.

How are disabled people represented on Ouch?

While there has been a change in mainstream attitudes towards the representation of disability and disabled people in the mainstream media, the situation is far from perfect. There is still a gap between how disabled people are represented in the media, and how they wish to be represented in the media. Ouch aimed to offer a nonprecious representation of disability that recorded life for people with a disability in a way that bridges this gap. This goal was assisted by the BBC’s largely hands-off management of content on the website (Matheson, 2003) and their decision to employ disabled people to produce the content.

The representation of disability by disabled people on Ouch was found to be substantially different from that offered by the mainstream media. This suggested that if disabled people were given the chance to represent themselves in the media, they would do so in a different manner than that of nondisabled society. Throughout the sample from Ouch, the (mostly) disabled authors and their disabled subjects were represented as a multidimensional and active group of people who had many different personal experiences.

However, it should be noted that even though the website aims to transcend stereotypical representations of disabled people, a number of articles have not managed to do so. While it could be argued that this could reflect a reality of life for some disabled people, this type of representation could also work to reinforce stereotypical notions of disability. Furthermore, within the sample, ethnic or cultural diversity was not represented as being part of life as a disabled person in Britain. The same could be said for the representation of gender, class, and sexual orientation within the sample. This was an omission in the representation of disabled people. Recognition of diversity is an important influence in how having a disability in Britain is both experienced and portrayed. Furthermore, the tendency of authors to refer to generic “disability” meant that diversity—through different impairments—was even further removed from the representation of disabled people.

Ideology and power in the discourse in Ouch

As stated earlier, control of language runs hand-in-hand with control of power and ideology (Fairclough, 2001). The BBC’s decision to staff Ouch with disabled people has given disabled people a large amount of control over how disability and disabled people are represented on the website. In the sample this was borne out by the largely active and positive representation of disabled people, and the use of irony, humor, and slang and the reclamation of previously negative words. Disabled people were also less likely than nondisabled people to use medical terminology to refer to impairment.

The representation of power was most evident when comparing the representation of nondisabled people to that of disabled people on Ouch. At the beginning of the study it was expected that having disabled people controlling the content of Ouch would result in disabled people being represented as experts. While this has been proven to be so, the manner of this representation was different from what was originally expected. As expected, the authors’ experiences of disability, and often their own personal stories, were given more status than opinions from official sources. Unexpectedly, however, nondisabled people were referred to in an anonymous and untitled way, and often were not quoted directly. When nondisabled people were given names, official titles, or quoted or titled this was often in order to represent them in a negative way.

The difficulty of escaping mainstream ideology was also evident within the discourse. Within the sample, there were several examples of stereotypical representations of disability. These included the use of verbs that connote passivity and struggle, the representation of British disabled people as largely white, ethnic diversity as largely foreign, and the exclusion of factors of class, gender, and sexual orientation.

A different approach to disability

A fourth, and somewhat unexpected, topic of interest arose during the analysis of the sample. As discussed earlier, the dominant model of disability among disabled people is the social model. At the beginning of the study it was expected that most of the articles would reflect the social model of disability. However, this turned out to be not quite the case. The website’s focus on personal experience resulted in 60% of articles in the sample presenting disability as an individual issue. Personal narrative predominated at the expense of the social model. In addition, while medical descriptions of impairment were rarely given within these articles, society was not attributed as being the cause behind disability. Instead, authors wrote about the reactions of individual non-disabled people to impairment more often than they did about politics or societal structures.

This raises the question of whether either model of disability was truly present in the content of articles on Ouch. Are the medical model and the social model the only viable options when theorizing about representations of disability? Does either of these models completely explain the reality of living with impairment and disability? It appears not.

The above points are similar to questions currently being asked by a number of scholars who have critiqued the social model (Dewsbury, Clarke, Randall, Rouncefield, & Sommerville, 2004; Gabel & Peters, 2004; Terzi, 2004; Thomas, 2004; Turner, 2001). They argue that the dialectical nature of the social model against the social ignores practical concerns of disabled people (Corker & Shakespeare in Gabel & Peters, 2004; Dewsbury et al., 2004), and as such does not offer a complete analytic tool in theorizing disability.

These shortcomings are also detailed by Sweeney (2003) in his study of disability programming on BBC Radio 4. He argued that the social model is being reassessed, and pointed to the biopsychosocial model, a new approach to disability identified by a World Health Organization proposal (ICIDH-2 in Sweeney, 2003). This model acknowledges that disability was dependent on both a person’s social environment and their experience of impairment (Sweeney, 2003). The sample of articles from Ouch largely adhered to this model. While the authors on Ouch viewed disability as a result of societal oppression on impairment, they instead choose to illustrate this oppression and disablement mainly through writing about personal experience.

Conclusion

The analysis of a sample of articles from Ouch offered up a significantly different representation of disability compared to that offered by the mainstream media. The fact the website was set up to entertain, rather than simply inform, set it apart immediately. It produces a disability-centered, experience-based, active, and positive picture of disabled people. Within this, disabled people are represented as the majority, while nondisabled people seen as an “other.” Articles are also written in an oral style so as to create a community identity for what can often be an isolated sector of society. Some of these influences are a result of Ouch’s production format and the rest from its staffing policy.

Earlier, it was noted that the representation of disability in the UK is currently undergoing a period of change. It was also noted that there are problems in the ways that the mainstream media currently represent disabled people. Some of these problems appeared in a few of the articles on Ouch. Overall, however, during this state of change the website Ouch aimed to present a positive representation of disabled people. It has largely done so.

Further research

The decision to construct this research as a study that provides a broad understanding of the representation of disability through language on the Internet suggests a number of opportunities for further research. Several of these are detailed below.

Language is only one way through which culture and representation can be analyzed. An examination of Ouch beyond that of simple textual analysis would provide a more complete understanding of how the website represents disability. This examination could include analysis of website design, structure, and the use of images. However, because of the complex, changing state of the Internet, careful thought would be needed to construct a study that was both manageable and representative of the website as a whole.

This research only examined the text on the Ouch site. Possibilities exist to examine the producers’ role in creating this text. For example, what meanings did Ouch writers want to impart in their writing? What work pressures impacted on their work? How did the editor influence and shape content on the website?

Finally, the Internet does not exist in isolation of other products of media and culture. Examining the role of the audience (both disabled and nondisabled) in making meaning from Ouch would provide results that deepen understanding of the representation of disability on the Internet.

Note

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    Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.

Appendix

Appendix: List of sample articles

Ouch sample as of June 1, 2004

  • 1Adams-Spink, G. Being different: Ugandan students on disability and relationships.
  • 2Ansell, K. Hitting home: Stories of disabled women.
  • 3Ball, L. Down with dogs and canes? A real-life guide to the new electronic mobility gizmos available for visually impaired people.
  • 4Ball, L. GPS to guide? Or guide to GPS?
  • 5Batchelor, P. A Brit in Boston.
  • 6Batchelor, P. I Moscow Again.
  • 7Batchelor, P. Station agent: A film from the right side of the tracks.
  • 8Beddard, J. Jamie Beddard is unwell . . . in India.
  • 9Beddard, J. The disability meal ticket.
  • 10Behrman, A. Electroboy escapes death and deals with a new type of disability.
  • 11Behrman, P. Electroboy goes on a decade-long spending spree.
  • 12Behrman, A. Electroboy: You’re a lunatic, a freak, a psycho, a crack-up and a mental case.
  • 13Bowler, E. Why climb every mountain?
  • 14Clark, L. The Jim’ll-fix-it survivors’ club.
  • 15Clark, L. Should we be laughing? Investigating disability and comedy.
  • 16Cook, I. Inclusion in care.
  • 17Cook, I. The best bet diet: Week 1.
  • 18Cook, I. Disability history week 9–14 June, 2003.
  • 19Cook, I. Viagra lovin’.
  • 20Fraser, M. Mat’s evil twin vs. the journalists.
  • 21Green, P. Moses was disabled.
  • 22Hills, A. The latest footwear craze?
  • 23Jackson, L. Back to school.
  • 24Jackson, J. Do I have to go to school today?
  • 25Lucas, V. Ouch at the movies: The saddest music in the world & radio.
  • 26Main, L. Pyjama Girl is not brave.
  • 27Martinez, F. Mean streets.
  • 28McLaughlin, K. Holiday diary: A white man abroad.
  • 29O’Modhrain, S. Accessible gaming.
  • 30O’Neill, C. Just the job?
  • 31Palmer, S. Stan’s guide to ligging it.
  • 32Papamichael, C. Harry Potter and the curse of disability.
  • 33Rose, D. Every time you look at me: Mat Fraser.
  • 34Rosevear, A. How to bypass your brain and get motivated.
  • 35Sholl, L. Going out on a limb.
  • 36(2002). Crippled Monkey weblog, December, third week.
  • 37(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, February, second week.
  • 38(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, April, second week.
  • 39(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, June, third week.
  • 40(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, August, second week.
  • 41(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, October, third week.
  • 42(2003). Crippled Monkey weblog, December, second week.
  • 43(2004). Crippled Monkey weblog, February, second week.
  • 44No author given. Binding love.
  • 45No author given. Desirability: Veracam.
  • 46No author given. My family and Autism—Luke on being filmed.
  • 47No author given. Student diaries.
  • 48No author given. What are you staring at? Iain Hutchison: Q&A.

About the Author

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    Estelle Thoreau was a postgraduate student in journalism at Cardiff University in Wales while undertaking the research on which this study is based. She has since completed an MA in Journalism Studies. With more than seven years experience as a journalist both in the United Kingdom and in New Zealand, her interest in the representation of disability in the media is both personal and professional and stretches back 15 years. She is currently working in the media in the UK.

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