Disability Issues in Media: a Comparison

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How People with Disabilities are Viewed in Society:
A Media Study

How are people with disabilities viewed through the media? Are they viewed positively or negatively? Are they shown having real, meaningful, reciprocal relationships? For this assignment, I have chosen three very different examples to examine using these questions. The first is a classic film set in a psychiatric institution in the late 1950s – One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). This film provides a realistic portrayal of institutional living during a time when the medical model of disability theory was the norm. The second film, Born on the Fourth of July, tells the story of a young man, Ron Kovic, and his struggle to make sense of his life after being paralyzed from the chest down while serving in the Vietnam War. This was a tumultuous time in American Society and one that led to a major shift in the lives of people with disabilities. My third example is a children's novel, Mine For Keeps, about a young girl with cerebral palsy returning to live with her family after spending a number of years at a boarding facility for children with disabilities. Although this story was written in 1962, it provides a great example of a current model of care – empowerment and self-determination.

These three examples are different in many ways but I believe they all demonstrate a positive view of people with disabilities. The reader/viewer is not left with any negative stereotypes. Instead they are shown a realistic, human portrayal of people who live with a disability. All of the characters in these examples are strong, independent people who are empowered to make their own choices about their lives.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Film, 1975)
The Academy Award winning film starring Jack Nicolson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is based upon a novel of the same name. The novel was written in 1962 by Ken Kesey. Kesey based many of the novel's secondary characters on real-life individuals he met while working at the Veterans' Administration Hospital (Whitely & Goodman, 2005). As research for the novel, he worked the graveyard shift in the psychiatric ward and actually subjected himself to a real-life shock treatment. (Whitely & Goodman, 2005). The film opens with the protagonist, Randall P. McMurphy (Mac), arriving at the ward of a mental institution. Mac has been convicted of statutory rape and instead of serving his time doing hard labour, he feigns mental illness and is committed to a mental hospital for evaluation. Upon arriving at the institution, he encounters the hospital's supervisory nurse and the film's antagonist, Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched runs the ward with a very strict routine and a firm set of rules. She holds all the power and faces no challenge to her authority – until Mac arrives. Mac quickly discovers that the patients on the ward are "cowed under [her] iron thumb."(Loftus,n.d.). With his rebellious nature and sense of fair play, Mac turns the ward upside down as he continually challenges Nurse Ratched's strict rules.

The relationship between Nurse Ratched and Mac is one of constant struggle. They both want to be in control of life on the ward. However, as neither Nurse Ratched nor Mac have a disability, for the purpose of this assignment, I will examine the relationships these two individuals have with the other patients on the ward. Nurse Ratched takes pride in running a very orderly, efficient ward. She presides over the unchanging routine of medication, group therapy, recreation time, and sedation with "military precision." She remains calm and in control at all times. She speaks with a soft voice and a quiet smile, almost like she is a kindergarten teacher and the patients' are her five-year-old students. However, unlike most teachers (I hope), she is condescending and controlling. She gives the patients no choices; instead she demands they stick to the schedule. She manipulates their...
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