Disability reporting: Do Ugandan media get it?

This article was first published here in 2013.

By Solomon Joojo Cobbinah

A journalist queried: “What is wrong with calling a person who cannot walk a lame person? Even the Bible calls people who cannot walk cripples. What is wrong with calling a person, who cannot talk dumb, a person who cannot hear deaf and a person who is not ‘correct’ a lunatic?” The question, although quite innocent, left me in shock and my response to the journalist was: “there is everything wrong with it”!

The question confirmed the hypothesis that many Ugandan journalists have little knowledge on accurate disability reporting. Having been exposed to knowledge on disability while studying international human rights law on how media reports dehumanise people with disabilities, I felt guilty as a journalist and decided to investigate media reporting on disability. I chose Uganda and not my home country Ghana because I wanted to stay clear from familiar territory and discover a country I had never visited.

My research, titled ‘Labelling and Framing Disability: A Content Analysis of the Ugandan Media’, concludes that journalists in Uganda need more education on how to accurately label and frame disability stories because many news reports on disability blatantly dehumanise people with disabilities.

Subsequent paragraphs will explain how I came to this conclusion and provide some recommendations on how to improve disability reporting.

Disability labels and frames used in Ugandan media

A cursory analysis of newspaper headlines about disability in Uganda in 2013 shows many news stories on disability used crude labels. Degrading labels such as deaf and dumb, lunatic, lame, mad man, dwarfs, retard were continuously tagged on persons with disabilities thereby entrenching negative cultural stereotypes.

These labels are unacceptable because of how the words have evolved over the years. I bet no one wants to be called a ‘lame duck’ because of the negativity it suggests, so why then should a person with physical disability be happy if he or she is labelled lame? The word lame sounds innocent because even the Bible states that ‘the lame shall walk’. ‘Lame’ was used in the 17th century to describe persons with physical impairment, but later it evolved to take on other hurtful meanings. For example, the Oxford dictionary defines the phrase ‘lame excuse’ as an excuse that is ‘uninspiring and weak’. With such negative associations over the years, lame does not only refer to people who have physical impairment, but is now considered an insult.

Another common word is ‘cripple’, which can be traced from the old English word ‘crypel’ meaning creep or crawl. The word was used to describe people with physical impairment, but has since taken a different twist, assuming a negative meaning. Expressions such as ‘a crippling economy’ and ‘crippling effect’, suggesting total breakdown, have made the word cripple insulting.

‘Retard’ in English means to delay, under-development or keep back and it originates from the Latin verb ‘retardo’ meaning, ‘to delay’, taken from the root word ‘tardus’, meaning ‘slow or late’. The word was used in the media to describe people who have intellectual disabilities.

‘Hard of hearing’ people have been labelled deaf and dumb – meaning people who cannot hear and speak. Disability rights movements, including the American National Association of the Deaf, disagree with such expressions arguing that the use of sign language is a form of communication hence cannot be equated with silence.

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is said to be the first person to put together ‘deaf with dumb’ and associated it with lack of intelligence when he stated that ‘of all persons who are poor from birth, the blind is more intelligent than the ‘deaf and dumb’. Deafness and dumbness have since then been associated with lack of intelligence and is regarded as insulting.

Continuously labelling persons with disabilities by pointing to their deficiencies perpetuates negative stigma, stereotyping and insults. I found that many journalists in Uganda have not taken the pain to understand labels they use on persons with disabilities.

The research, which focused on three newspapers in Uganda namely – New Vision, Daily Monitor and Observer – showed that all the papers need to re-assess how they label and frame disability stories.

The New Vision devoted a lot of coverage to disability issues in Uganda, which is commendable, but, sadly, the content of the reports is insulting and dehumanising. For example, the paper carried headlines such as: ‘Deaf and dumb Muslims to get aid’; ‘Deaf and dumb girl abandoned in hospital’; ‘Mad man drives taxi in the city’; ‘Lame defiler asks for lighter verdict’; ‘Amuru lunatic torches staff room;’ ‘Blind, deaf, dumb, but often raped’; KCCA to relocate lunatic people’.

Daily Monitor had these headlines: ‘Deaf and dumb but an efficient receptionist’; ‘Mulago’s complicated cases: Namulindwa, the deaf, mute mother’. Daily Monitor headlines on disability did not carry many insulting labels, which is commendable but the body of disability stories carried words like lame, retarded and so forth.

The Observer did not carry direct insulting labels in its headlines, but, just like the Daily Monitor, the disabling words were found in the body of stories.

What perhaps makes the issue more unfortunate is that the media have a responsibility under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to change how the society negatively treats people with disabilities. But it is obvious that the Ugandan media have failed to live up to their responsibilities and also contributed to entrenching stereotypes.

Aside from wrong labelling of persons with disabilities, the manner of framing disability stories is worrying. I realised that the Ugandan media framed people with disability as: pitiful charity cases, people who are ‘loveless and sexless’, and people who are less human.

A headline like ‘Soroti deaf and dumb couple to wed’ as reported in the New Vision is an example of a story that frames people with disability as “loveless and sexless.” Insulting labels aside, the intent behind the story is also of concern. Why should two people who are hard of hearing deciding to marry be newsworthy? It is true that unusual things make news, but what is so unusual about two people marrying for it to be sensationalised? For how long should journalists make two people with disability newsworthy and just when did marriage between two adults become so ‘special’? Bizarrely, the reporter said it would be a sight to see how the couple exchanged vows. What perhaps the reporter forgot is the fact that sign language is a universal language.

The New Vision carried a story on a “little man” marrying a tall, pretty woman and the headline was: ‘When true love happens’. The headline was a refreshing departure from insulting tags of disability stories, but framing of the story presented a picture of the “little man” not deserving to marry a pretty woman. The lead of the story gave away the intention of the journalist when he wrote that “for a long time this story will be told… the story of the two love birds is amazing and mind boggling for most”. Such a story frames the idea that the little man should not have found love but did and it leaves the audience with a response such as ‘wonders will never end!’ In fact, people marry everyday so why should it be newsworthy when people with disability decide to tie the knot?

Journalists sometimes carry stories that evoke emotion to attract benevolent hearts to donate money to people with disabilities. That is commendable. Unfortunately, such stories present disability as a charity case – hence society will always see people with disabilities as people who should be pitied.

It is important for journalists to familiarise themselves with international and domestic legal obligations on disability rights. If journalists focus on telling stories to attract help from the public, people with disability will always be seen as charity cases.

Stories of people with disabilities braving the odds and achieving something worthwhile also become newsworthy which is great. But when stories like a hard-of-hearing girl graduating from catering school is made a ‘big story’, then it does not empower persons with disabilities. It demeans them.

The media also frame disability as an unfortunate overcoming force. For example, ‘Eating right saved Zzalwango from the claws of disability’ is a headline that appeared in the New Vision newspaper – projecting a strong imagery of disability with claws, seizing and capturing an individual and overpowering him or her. The story’s focus was not on disability, but about how poor nutrition hampered the growth a young girl.

The main story said the baby’s inability to walk prompted the family to consult traditional healers because many said that the baby had been bewitched and cursed. This illustration shows that to some communities in Uganda, disability is still a curse from the gods. A headline like ‘Community blames disability on evil curse’ would provide a positive frame by urging people not to blame disability on external forces. Though society may have its negative attitudes towards disability, the media’s choice of the words, ‘saved from the claws of disability’ shows disability as a powerful force that preys on weak or passive individuals. The frame reflects negative societal views about disability and the media does not exonerate itself but gets caught up in the societal frame.

Is there a pressing need for change in terminologies?

Labelling is very powerful and has great effect and consequences. Labelling of Tutsi as Inyenzi’s, meaning cockroaches, contributed to the Rwandan genocide that saw close to a million people killed. Although the media did not directly carry weapons to exterminate Tutsi and moderate Hutu, reinforcing of the hurtful label significantly fuelled stereotypes.

If labelling is not powerful, why did African-Americans loathe the term Negro and change to ‘Blacks’ and finally African-Americans? Also, why would the World Health Organisation discourage the term HIV/AIDS victims and promote ‘People Living with HIV’ as an acceptable term? The point here is that there is a lot in a name? Words are not mere innocent labels but carry weight.

The National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) needs to consult with the media to draft acceptable labels for persons with disabilities. But before such a guideline is prepared it is important for the media to be proactive and refer to other international guidelines on disability labelling.

The Research and Training Center on Independent Living, Guideline on Disability Terminologies, adopted into the Associated Press Stylebook to aid disability reporting, is a resource that Ugandan journalists can also refer to.

The Guide states that it is wrong to call a person a retard, slow learner… rather the appropriate terminology is a ‘person with learning disability’. The guide also states that the word ‘deaf’ refers to degree of hearing loss, so it would be better to use appropriate terms like a ‘person who is deaf, boy who is hard of hearing, individuals with hearing loss, people who are deaf or hard of hearing’.

Using the word insane, lunatic, mad, crazy is unacceptable; rather, a person with mental disability is preferred.

This piece is not intended to provide an exhaustive list of correct and wrong disability terminologies, but rather to challenge journalists to find appropriate language, which is just a click away.

The media is a marketplace where journalists tell stories that inform, educate, entertain or influence the behaviour of society. It is true that the media represent values and beliefs of society, but it is also true that the media reflect their own thinking and ideology through various messages they carry. This means that the media can impose their views through continuous discussion of a particular issue to engage the attention of the public who are subtly influenced to open debates. Based on how issues are framed and discussed, opinions are formed leading to eventual manifestation in behaviour of society. Following the influence that the media have on society, knowledge and attitudes of journalists should not be taken for granted, but reshaped so they can also pass on the needed change to society. Disability scholar Higgins once wrote that society ‘makes disability’ through language, media and other visible ways. So, logically, to ‘unmake disability’ it should be done though reshaping language and attitudes of the media.

A short guideline on disability labelling

This guideline is meant to provide acceptable disability labels.

It is important to use ‘people first’ terminologies, which simply means putting people ahead of their disability.

  1. Don’t use ‘retard’ or ‘slow learner’. Use the term, ‘a person with learning disability’.
  2. Don’t use ‘mad’ or ‘lunatic’. Use ‘a person with mental disability’.
  3. Don’t use ‘lame’, ‘cripple’. Use ‘ a person with physically disability’.
  4. Never say ‘mentally challenged person’. Say ‘a person with mental disability’. ‘Visually challenged’ is unacceptable. Simply say ‘a person who is blind’.
  5. Don’t use ‘midget’ or ‘dwarf’. Use ‘little person’. Or you can say ‘a person of small stature’.
  6. Don’t use ‘mute’ or ‘dumb’. Use ‘a person without speech’.
  7. Don’t use ‘wheelchair-bound’. Say ‘wheelchair user’. A person who uses a wheelchair is not bound or restricted. Wheelchairs make them mobile.
  8. Don’t use ‘deaf’. Use ‘person who is deaf’ or ‘a person who is hard of hearing’.
  9. Do not say ‘autistic child’. Say ‘a person with autism’.


Solomon Joojo Cobbinah is a multiple award winning Ghanaian Journalist and a Human Right advocate. He currently serves as a Communications Associate with Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Kampala, Uganda.

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