According to Internews Network, Africa’s media coverage of people living with disabilities (PwDs) has not been impressive and misrepresented this part of society. The US-based NGO made the remarks in Naivasha Kenya during the launch of its manual about reporting on PwDs.

The media has projected people living with disabilities (PwDs) as weaklings hence in need of sympathy, findings by Internews Network revealed.

The international non-governmental organization that supports media literacy said such portrayal was unfortunate and unfair since PwDs have similar potential as their non-disabled counterparts.

The report – Disability Reporting in the Media (2021) – lays bare some of the misreporting by Kenya’s legacy media regarding PwDs.

The 17-page report lists four key outcomes of the study and wants the media to address them to have proper coverage of the people with disabilities.

Righting the wrong on PwDs coverage

They include strengthening media capacity and empowering journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa to increase media coverage on disability issues. Journalists could achieve this by telling stories from a more humanising angle, ensuring they present disability issues in a way that promotes the dignity of PwDs, as well as amplifying their voices and perspectives in an accurate and balanced manner.

Other ways of promoting coverage on PwDs are: Transferring specialised skills to African journalists to enhance awareness by dispelling the negative stereotypes.

Such training could help counter stigma and misinformation against PwDs, change the narrative, and create disability reporting champions/ fellows who will identify and report on PwDs issues in a more impactful way.

Role of media in shaping opinion

According to the report, there is a need to improve media literacy on PwD issues since media images and stories influence public opinion and establish social norms.

“Media has contributed to the misrepresentation (of PwD issues). There is a lack of representation and reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Moreover, when PwDs appear in the media, they’re often portrayed in stigmatising ways, as objects of pity, as superheroes or as mere statistics,” a statement by the organisation said.

Stakeholders now want journalists and communicators to shape the public image of people with disabilities by eliminating insensitive portrayal that reinforces myths, which it argues is a form of discrimination.

“We’re looking at the training of journalists on in-depth reporting, offer grants( to journalists to do stories on PwDs) and connect them with organisations dealing with PwDs to help change the narrative in the country,” Jackline Lidubwi, Internews Project Lead, told the EAST site in an interview.

Focus on achievement, not disability

Lidubwi noted that the media does not focus on what the person with a disability has done. She said many reports hardly mention what PwDs have achieved for society, but rather their disabilities.

On his part, Dr John Ndavula, Senior Lecturer and Disability Researcher, noted that the media coverage of people with disabilities has been, in most cases, negative hence the need to change the narrative.

Participants at a workshop on reporting about people with disability


“This is a global problem but worse in developing countries. This is because it is tied with poverty. When you do a negative story, the impact is huge in Africa – it goes a long way. For instance, in Europe and the US, mainstreaming is prominent, so the impact won’t be much biased based on their laws,” Dr Ndavula said, adding that the ignorance towards issues of disability and even little interest from scholars and leaders compounds the problem.

Changing perceptions

“As a major player, the media needs to problematise how we treat people with disability to help change the perception,” he concluded.

Paul Mugambi, who is visually impaired and is the founder of Disability Sausage Media and Consultancy Think Tank, reckons that society needs to be just to all.

“There is a need for media houses to do a disability index assessment to help improve the situation. People with disabilities want to be part of society,” said Mugambi.

In summary, the following are issues to consider when covering people with disabilities:

  • Call them by their names – don’t say the disabled man or woman.
  • Avoid words like albino – instead, say someone living with albinism.
  • Story-telling: Focus more on their strengths and achievement than their disability.
  • Ask someone how they prefer to be called. This is due to cultural differences and barriers.
  • Address the person with disabilities and not the companion. They can communicate!

Millions living with disability in Africa

According to the World Health Organisation there are between 60-80million people with disabilities in Africa and over 1 billion in the world, many of whom live under deplorable conditions owing to societal myths.

In Tanzanian, for instance, people living albinism have been attacked on the pretext that their body parts can offer charm to witchdoctors.

“People with disabilities are rendered invisible in the media, and when they do, the media coverage of them is not favourable,” ILO said in its report.

Faith Oneya, an editor at the Nation Media Group, agrees with the findings. “We own up to the mistakes we’ve done in the past. But, unfortunately, even our journalists are ignorant, and it goes back to the training- the curriculum they’ve had,” Faith told the EAST site.

“When we launched DN2 Parenting in 2020, one of my goals was to bring back reporting on disabilities, and during my research phase, I asked a question on Facebook about People Living with Disabilities, and that’s when I was told how politically incorrect and insensitive the phrase was.”

About the Author

Author ProfileIsaac Swila
Swila is an editor and student at The Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications

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