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“Media should communicate what real lived experiences of autistic people are actually like”

Autism-Europe’s Council of Administration member Adam Harris from ‘AsIAm’ gave a speech about the role of the media in raising awareness of autism and combating stigma in a public hearing held at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels on June 28, 2019.

Representatives of the EESC Study Group on Disability Rights, disability platforms and NGOs,  self-advocates, communication professionals and other stakeholders discussed strategies on how disability rights can be better communicated so that people with disabilities can access quality information and enhance their voices in the media. Furthermore, they exchanged best practice and addressed the issue of how media portrays people with disability in a manner consistent with a human rights approach to disability.

Ionnis Vardakastanis, member of the EESC Study Group on Disability Rights, opened the hearing by highlighting the need for the European Commission to develop flagship initiatives to communicate disability rights in full compliance with Article 8 (on awareness raising) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Communicating autism

Adam Harris, CEO of the Irish NGO ‘AsIAm’ and autistic advocate, participated in the hearing, together with other representatives from Autism-Europe, and raised the concerns of the autistic community in relation to the media. In his intervention, Harris emphasized the need for a “collaborative and transnational strategy for autism to raise awareness and achieve genuine inclusion for our communities, right across Europe”.

He went on, “the main barrier for autistic people is the lack of understanding” and highlighted how this understanding could indeed be tackled. “The media should communicate what living with autism is actually like. (…) The vast majority of people want to be inclusive but they do not know how, including the media”, Harris said.

In addition, Harris addressed different issues that hinder the inclusive treatment of autism in the media:

  • the media should build confidence and empower autistic people to speak for themselves. They should shape the message to avoid stereotypes;
  • there is a need to shift the focus from a punctual charity approach to a rights-based one in the media treatment of disability;
  • the media should do an accurate portrayal of autism, and try to encompass the whole spectrum ;
  • the media must not cover myths and misconceptions, but topics that actually matters to autistic people and their families (like employment, education, poverty, etc.);
  • Currently, if there is an autistic character in a TV show or programme, the storyline focuses exclusively on the character being autistic, and not on other aspects, and this creates stigma;
  • Social media are not accessible for autistic people. When communicating on social media, some people on the autism spectrum are not able to understand the terms of use;
  • to promote media guidelines to correctly address autism and encourage media to work with people on the spectrum.

Best practice on communicating disability rights

As a result of the interventions of the other panellists (including André Felix from the European Disability Forum; Wouter Gekiere from the European Broadcasting Union; Jan Kooy from Human Rights Watch; Zdena Štěpánková from the Foundation for support of employment of people with disabilities; and Milica Pešić from the Media Diversity Institute), a number of strategies, instances of best practice and demands of the disability community were raised that can ensure full inclusion of people with disabilities in the media:

  • the media must communicate disability rights well, but must also be fully accessible to the public (by using subtitles and audio descriptions, releasing content in easy-to-read format, etc.);
  • People with disabilities must see themselves portrayed in the Media. Roles in entertainment media should be taken up by people with disabilities;
  • the media should hire people with disabilities and make them more visible, not only in relation to disability, as it is not the sole aspect of their personality, but to deal with any kind of topics.
  • inclusive journalism should be taught in communication and journalism faculties and schools. Press and disability organisations should be trained on this topic too;
  • the media must pay attention to acceptable language when talking about disability in order to combat discriminatory, infantilizing, pitying and patronizing tones.
  • Mass media companies should increase their budgets to improve accessibility;
  • cultural factors should be taken into account when communicating disability rights;
  • media should cooperate with the civil society and NGOs.