Reactions to People with Disabilities: Personal Contact versus Viewing of Specific Media Portrayals

Article excerpt

The research presented in this paper explored the relationship between personal contact, viewing media portrayals of people with disabilities, and audience's reactions to them. Viewers of positive portrayals of the disabled on television programs and in the movies were more likely to perceive discrimination and less likely to say they had negative emotions when encountering people with disabilities, but more often said they were uncomfortable with them. Having a close friend or relative with a disability was generally unrelated to perceptions of discrimination, but was associated with less frequently having negative emotions and more often feeling uncomfortable with disabilities.

The research presented in this paper explores the relationship between viewing media portrayals of people with physical or mental disabilities, personal contact and people's reactions to them. Visibility of the estimated 51 million Americans with a disability has markedly increased since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled employees, mandates accessible public transportation, and bans discrimination on the job and in public places. People with disabilities are also more visible on television programs, in the movies, and in advertisements today.1 But to date no study has examined at the same time how this increased visibility of people with disabilities in people's day-to-day lives and in the media might be related to their reactions to them.

Media's Influence on Perceptions of Social Reality

A substantial body of research has indicated that both the entertainment and news media have considerable influence on both positive and negative stereotypes held by the public of minority group members.2 In particular, one body of social reality research has shown that stereotyping results from long-term cumulative exposure to portrayals of minority groups in the media.3 For example, research by Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorelli has shown that heavier compared to lighter television viewers have been found to underestimate the number of older people in the population, perceive that they have more health problems, and estimate their life spans as shorter.'4 Morgan showed that heavier television viewers among children were more likely to stereotype gender roles.5 However, two basic assumptions of this "cumulative effects" model have been challenged: that (1) portrayals of minority groups are uniform throughout the media; and (2) viewers tend to be strongly nonselective or "ritualistic" in their viewing habits. For example, Hawkins and Pingree found that watching crime-adventure, cartoons, and game programs was related to beliefs that society was violent and other types of content was not, among a sample of Australian children.6 Similarly, Armstrong, Neuendorf, and Brentar showed that higher exposure to TV entertainment and sports programs was associated with beliefs that African Americans have a higher economic status relative to European Americans, while the opposite was the case for TV new programs.7 In a rare study of media portrayals of those with disabilities by Elliot and Byrd, an informational film produced more positive attitudes among junior and senior high school students toward those who were blind than an entertainment program featuring a character who was blind.8

Consistent with this evidence, Greenberg has proposed the "drench hypothesis," which posits that stereotyped perceptions of groups can result from exposure to vivid portrayals of them in the media.'9 The drench hypothesis suggests that particularly strong and memorable portrayals of minority characters may create more lasting impressions on viewers than cumulative exposure to portrayals that are more frequent but less significant. As Greenberg puts it, "Some characters in some series, or miniseries, or single programs may be so forceful as to account for a significant portion of the role images we maintain. …