Caregiving, Seclusion, and Stereotypes in the Arab Press and Cinema
The institutional confinement and seclusion of people with disabilities is the inevitable outcome of stereotypes that foster ableist prejudice; in fact, the practice of secluding people with disabilities itself furthers these stereotypes. Efforts to institute a policy of secluding people with disabilities led to their removal from their natural surroundings, such as their families and local environments. Thus began a process whereby the original portrayal of people with disabilities eroded and was replaced by the current, stereotypical portrayal of people with disabilities that has taken root in the public imagination and in popular discourse. Residential care centers and institutions sought to promote these stereotypes widely. As a result, this stereotypical discourse about disability, as well as the absence of an active role for people with disabilities in society, became dominant in various domains, including the news media and other instruments of expression.
This chapter will examine the nature of this impact and its effects on these means, focusing on the portrayal of disability in the discourses of print journalism and cinematic production. Print journalism and cinema were and are active agents in portraying disability and people with disabilities. As is the case with all fields, print journalism and cinema are not immune to being affected by the public discourse on disability, which has been advanced as a result of the various stages of the movement to engage with related issues. Ever since the establishment of residential care centers for people with disabilities, which occurred with the arrival of foreign missionaries, after which local institutions began to provide services of care and accommodation to people with disabilities, print journalism has followed the activities of these centers and institutions. In the same vein, consistent with its role in representing the common cultural and social reality, the Arab cinema bases its portrayal of disability and people with disabilities only on examples found in these centers and institutions. Since both journalism and cinema are merely a means by which to convey a depiction of life, they were only able to present stereotypes and adopt the dominant, stereotypical discourse about disability that was imposed through the efforts of residential care centers for people with disabilities in the country. Considering the influential role of these means, print journalism and cinema have played a role in entrenching the stereotypical views held by audiences, whether readers of newspapers or moviegoers.
Disability in discourse and stereotypes: dimensions, background, and impact
There are numerous forms and types of discourse employed by print journalism and cinema to cover subjects and news stories related to disability issues and the activities of institutions that provide services to people with disabilities. By reviewing numerous journalistic articles, news reports, and Arab cinematic works from the last one hundred years, it is possible to identify the framework or background that undergirds depictions and discourse related to disability and people with disabilities. For each article, piece of news, or cinematic work that addresses a topic related to disability, people with disabilities, or their institutions, there are a number of elements that constitute this framework and attract the attention of the reader or viewer.
The first of these elements is the title, which reflects the topic of the article, piece of news, or film. The title is naturally followed by an opening image or an introductory scene; these elements depict the reality of the situation addressed by the news item, article, or film. After seeing the title and the opening image, the reader or viewer reaches the substance of the work, which exposes him/her to the language used and reveals the background and viewpoint of the author or director regarding their subject.
Disability in images and journalistic discourse
In general, the body of texts preserved in the Lebanese Newspapers’ Archives documents the long history of discourse and images that portray the reality of people with disabilities and their issues. Since its advent in the mid-nineteenth century, journalism in Lebanon has passed through numerous stages, producing many news items and articles about disability and people with disabilities. In this regard, journalism in Lebanon developed in conjunction with that of the care provided by disability centers and institutions in Lebanon. Inevitably, this interrelationship left a deep impact on journalism. It also spurred the interaction of journalistic texts with the image of disability imposed by the reality of social behavior and public awareness, both of which are products of the country’s social, economic, and political conditions.
Turning to the forms of these images, discourses, and their substance—which journalism has sought to highlight since the beginning of press coverage of disability and people with disabilities—a number of elements can be observed. With respect to form, the journalistic portrayal of disability in its various dimensions has long been fraught with contradictions. Sometimes, people with disabilities are shown as living in misery, while at other times, joy and happiness are depicted. The signs of misery are evident in the dark, oppressive colors used for the background of shots, as well as the color and style of clothing worn by people on camera. On the other hand, depictions of joy and happiness often involve people with disabilities grinning broadly, with bright colors in their attire or in the backgrounds of shots.
To examine the content of these depictions, we must examine which disability-related topics the press has covered. Through a review of newspaper archives, a number of recurring topics can be identified that appear to have dominated coverage for a long time, continuing to the present. These themes can be summarized as follows:
• The miserable reality and problems faced by people with disabilities;
• Care activities organized by residential care institutions and centers;
• The stories of certain individuals who are a phenomenon of creativity in the eyes of the press or society more broadly;
• Festivals of an exhibition-like and recreational nature
• Government initiatives within the realm of legislation and support for disability services;
• Pressure campaigns launched by disability groups.
If the portrayals that were and are found in the body of press coverage (or in the topics that it addresses) contain contradictions that reflect the social reality of people with disabilities, then these contradictions take on a more dangerous dimension when one considers the discourse and language used in these works. The following phrases are representative examples of language employed:
• “Light is my choice”
• “The wounded self”
• “The lame walk”
• “The tearful eye”
• “Blossoms, not waste”
• “The pure of heart”
• “Our livers, not our waste”
In an article that covered the opening of a center belonging to the Lebanese Institute for the Blind, such stereotypes are invoked repeatedly: “The blind see and the mute speak, and it is a supreme light that restores their tranquility, taking the hand of his deprived and miserable brother.... For that which most robs the heart of man is...blindness.... Blindness stands for the evocation of pity and mercy... The blind man is first and foremost among those who require the miracles of the Messiah.... The mother of the wretched does not wish for the blind of Lebanon to remain in eternal darkness.... May God allow their conjunctivitis-stricken eyes to see anew. Blessed be Your name on the tongues of those who in Your name do good for others.... They found mercy and self-sacrifice among the very noblest of their countrymen.”
On the one hand, the repetition of such rhetoric in many news stories and articles constitutes a body of terms and expressions used by a group of people in society, thus reflecting their understanding and perspective regarding disability and people with disabilities. On the other hand, the discourse that is used, as seen in the body of journalistic works, merely expresses the general framework of the approaches that were adopted by various associations working on disability issues and services for people with disabilities. This framework is exemplified by the system of policies and programs by which governments dealt with disability issues through various stages of the modern era, as well as by the efforts of various residential care centers and institutions, such as promotional campaigns in the media, fundraising initiatives, and even efforts to raise public awareness regarding disability and people with disabilities.
In light of the dominant discourse’s control, which, as was revealed previously, was imposed by the collusion of the government’s caregiving institutions with segregating welfare institutions, it became necessary for the print media and other news outlets, under the justification of conveying an unadulterated image of reality, to use and unconsciously adopt the main elements of the stereotypical rhetoric and discourse on disability and people with disabilities. In addition, for a long period of time, the print media in Lebanon came to play a role in strengthening the stereotypical approach to dealing with the concept of disability among different subgroups of the local community. To a great and dangerous extent, this helped strengthen the culture of negatively stereotyping people with disabilities. Through this, their social seclusion was reinforced, as was their absence from public life in local communities. At the very least, this complicity reproduced this stereotypical image of people with disabilities, which carries with it many negative contradictions about them.
By reviewing numerous articles and their engagement with issues of disability and people with disabilities, it is possible to make a number of observations about historical context and the development of the discourse that has been adopted and the language that is used. This discourse and rhetoric have no doubt passed through various stages, resulting in a series of changes with regard to the topics addressed and the terms and expressions used by the press. By examining this context and the change or development in expressions and other discursive content it produced, the following observations can be made:
I. The general framework of the discourse on disability in journalism:
There are very few articles preserved by the Lebanese Newspapers’ Archives that stray beyond the reportorial, informational framework regarding disability and people with disabilities. Over the past six or seven decades, most journalistic works have been prepared, written, and published for the purpose of announcing some event or activity, generally involving the celebration of the work done by a care institution or the visit of a political official to a center providing services to people with disabilities.
Articles that attempt to address the lived reality of people with disabilities using a somewhat analytical and critical eye are few and far between. Even those that do so stay within the reportorial, informational framework, such as covering the rights-oriented advocacy campaigns that some disability groups engage in. This form of activism did not enjoy a notable presence until the mid-1990s, when some disability groups launched a campaign to pressure the Lebanese government to pass and implement a law guaranteeing the rights of people with disabilities. This law was ratified by the Parliament in 2000.
Even though some newspapers have shown interest in this type of activism in recent years, the overwhelming presence of segregating welfare institutions—and the systematic manner in which they promote their activities to the media—still constitute the bedrock of a competition for coverage that prevents disability issues from being covered in an objective manner, whether through criticism or analysis. Additionally, some newspapers continue to employ the stereotypical discourse regarding disability and people with disabilities, despite the ever-increasing number of rights-oriented advocacy campaigns in this area. The persistence of the stereotypical discourse in the press must be attributed to the aforementioned dual rule of journalism: it is a medium that is influenced by prevailing views, which, in turn, leads it to promote said views, unintentionally or perhaps intentionally!
II. Between pity and admiration: news coverage of people with disabilities
People with disabilities have received a reasonable share of attention from the press in recent decades. However, the rhetoric used by most newspapers towards people with disabilities warrants scrutiny. Images and themes range from generalizations about the life and suffering of people with disabilities to the depiction of the disabled person as a supernatural phenomenon. In both cases, the depiction of people with disabilities inevitably falls into one of two narratives:
The first narrative depicts the person with a disability as miserable, evoking pity and sadness. This individual is isolated from his/her community, either behind the walls of a care institution or even within his/her own local environment, in which the marginalization of people with disabilities prevails and is a widespread feature of the custom and culture.
The second narrative involves someone transcending a disability by engaging in some artistic or athletic pastime. Such stories are generally presented with a tone of astonishment and admiration suggesting that an extraordinary feat has been achieved, implying that the activity in question is beyond what was ever expected of a person with a disability.
Each of these narratives reflects particular implications and motivations. The image of a person with a disability as miserable and alienated serves to evoke pity and reinforce the stereotypical attitude which remains widespread in society. Newspapers’ promotion of such a depiction of people with disabilities only further entrenches these impulses. While such impulses may seem benevolent at face value, they sow the seeds for more pity and stereotyping of people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the second narrative, that of the creative, supernaturally-capable disabled person, has many problematic aspects that are often overlooked or ignored.
First, the media, including the press, lauds the artistic or athletic accomplishments of people with disabilities in a way that goes beyond the response to similar achievements by non-people with disabilities. To be clear, we are not in any way against recognizing, appreciating, and lauding the achievements of people with disabilities. Rather, what is problematic has to do with the backdrop to this recognition, whereby the media and the press represent a reaction that is pervasive in society.
Through the terms that the media and journalism use in covering such stories, disability is depicted as a negative condition that a person can defy and overcome. This reinforces the image of disability as an undesirable condition that should be rejected and must be resisted. What may not occur to the reader or viewer is that an acclaimed person with a disability may have overcome environmental, cultural, and social barriers; instead, audiences will tend to misunderstand the challenges to be physical, emotional, or mental conditions that are part of who that person is.
Second, the media and the press have long depicted disabilities as abnormal. This is apparent, for instance, in their reporting on residential care centers and institutions that showcase the artistic or athletic achievements of children with disabilities. Many of the news items and articles about such topics are fraught with contradictions that warrant deep reflection.
The language used in such articles involves expressions of sadness and joy, misery and appreciation, encouragement and hope. The images, meanwhile, show people with looks of both joy and sadness. Likewise, children with disabilities are shown with a happy appearance that suggests they are trying to overcome or at least adapt to the limitations imposed by isolation and marginalization.
Such articles portray disability as a state of misery which must be resisted by maintaining an outward expression of joy, as exemplified by the artistic endeavors covered in news reports and articles. In the images and language in press coverage of disability-related issues, it is noticeable that the activities that receive coverage are organized by segregating welfare institutions. These activities are generally sponsored by an influential political official or the religious leadership of the sect to which a given organization belongs.
The dominant discourse about disability alternates between pity, sadness, teary eyes, displays of happiness, and messages of praise, encouragement, and hope. Up to the present day, this discourse, along with the strengthening of a network of segregating welfare institutions, has made people with disabilities the victims of the practices of a patriarchal society and rampant paternalistic behavior. The depiction of disability as a pitiful state of either misery or joy warrants the attention of all well-meaning actors. What people may not consider is that the source of disability is society itself, as well as the patriarchal, paternalistic mindset to which the public continues to cling due to ulterior motives.
Despite the increasing activism of disability groups and rights-oriented advocacy campaigns over the past three decades, stereotypes about people with disabilities remain pervasive in journalistic works. The custodians of segregating welfare institutions promote, and indeed benefit from, these stereotypes.
III. The discourse on disability: the blessing of conceptual progress and the curse of appeasement and surrender
Without a doubt, journalism is progressing in its level of engagement with issues surrounding disability and people with disabilities. Until the 1980s, the press mainly focused on documenting caregiving by institutions, political officials, and influential religious leaders, as well as their work on disability issues to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Thus, the press mainly covered visits by the First Ladies of Lebanon or top officials to care institutions or the segregating welfare institutions. The purpose of the visits was to examine conditions for people with disabilities who lived in these institutions or to learn about the activities undertaken by the institutions, after which a monetary donation would be made. Newspapers often assumed the role of covering a First Lady as she oversaw the opening of a wing of a care institution or an exhibit displaying handicrafts and artwork produced, of course, by the boys and girls of the institution.
In the 1980s, with the proclamation of the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons, the press began to change how it reported on people with disabilities, albeit in a gradual and rather timid way. The proclamation of the UN Decade of Disabled Persons coincided with the Lebanese Civil War and a state of regional division along sectarian lines in the country. However, despite these conditions, disability groups took the initiative to organize, forming the nucleus of the first effective disability movement in Lebanon. After a long time of being held hostage to segregating welfare institutions that made decisions on their behalf, people with disabilities founded organizations in which they had the power to make decisions for themselves.
With the establishment of these groups, the press began to take a new direction in its coverage of disability issues. Many of the newly-formed organizations took it upon themselves to launch rudimentary campaigns to pressure the government to improve essential services for people with disabilities. In addition to these campaigns, the organizations sought the backing and support of other civil society organizations and civic groups. Perhaps the most prominent of these endeavors was the peace march led by the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union, which organized marches from northern to southern Lebanon. By overcoming all the security constraints that were characteristic of the fractured state of the country, the march expressed opposition to the Lebanese Civil War and the sectarian divisions plaguing Lebanese society at the time. People with disabilities not only expressed their opposition to the divided reality of day-to-day life, but also spoke out to demand recognition as an integral part of society and respect for their rights. Such activism offered rich material for local newspapers to cover. People with disabilities were thus able to mark the start of a new era with a different discourse and portrayal of disability and people with disabilities.
With the arrival of the 1990s and the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, journalism began to employ discourse and images that differed from what had been dominant previously. With the continuing activity of the disability movement, along with the appearance of international organizations after the civil war to focus on rebuilding the country, the Lebanese press’s coverage of disability underwent a change. Newspapers began to report statements by politicians, postwar government ministers, and Lebanese state officials regarding the status of new programs and the development of policies related to services for people with disabilities and their right to work, health care, and education. Newspapers also covered events related to disability issues, such as cultural seminars that sought to raise awareness about disability and define the rights and needs of people with disabilities. This period also witnessed increased activity in the form of local and regional conferences held by disability groups in partnership with United Nations bodies and relevant international organizations.
Thanks to such activities, the discourse on disability began to adopt and emulate new subjects related to a range of human rights and development issues and standards. The subject of disability was no longer confined to the need to provide essential services in education, labor, health, and rehabilitation. Instead, the press began to report on events and activities that placed disability issues under the umbrella of fighting poverty and improving the prospects for human and social development. Furthermore, the adopted rhetoric began to reflect human rights principles such as equality, equal opportunity, equal access to information, and the need for an inclusive environment that enables people with disabilities to enjoy the rights of citizenship and effective societal participation.
As we have shown, the press has come to fulfill the role of conveying the news and capturing the lived reality of people with disabilities. Yet, by reviewing and presenting the history of press coverage of disability issues, we can conclude at the end of this section that the following areas remain problematic:
Journalism and the reinforcement of stereotypes about people with disabilities
Through its coverage of disability issues, the press aligns its discourse and images with the stages of development of various civil society and public sector bodies. However, this coverage stays within the bounds of an informative role—that is, the role of conveying news of the latest activities of these institutions. Even coverage that takes an analytical and investigative approach continues to show a certain timidity, and its presence relies on the individual initiatives of little-known or adventurous journalists, or disability groups. As we will show later, such organizations seek to establish a discourse and portrayal that are different from those that dominate Lebanon’s mainstream culture and are entrenched in their control over the country’s collective consciousness.
As mentioned previously, the role of the press, limited as it is to informing and reporting, consists of engaging with events without critique, analysis, or even a minimal degree of accountability-seeking. This reality is impacted by the powerful presence of segregating welfare institutions, which control policy, care, and services for people with disabilities in Lebanon today. Thus, when it comes to conveying the lived reality of people with disabilities, the position of the press is to be influenced rather than to exert influence. It can be said that the press is complicit with these segregating welfare institutions that define society’s attitude toward people with disabilities. Such complicity comes as little surprise given that most media outlets are affiliated with a political or religious entity that owns or sponsors the segregating welfare institutions. At the very least, there are links between the management of media outlets and segregating welfare institutions.
Even in the case of local, specialized newspapers and magazines whose approach involves a measure of analysis and critique, disability issues are generally absent from coverage. These media may attempt (or claim to attempt) to engage in critical analysis, but they are ultimately influenced by day-to-day realities, not to mention that their upper-class readership may disregard disability issues altogether. Such local press outlets, like their readers, consider it absurd to cover issues relating to a demographic that is essentially absent as a result of imposed isolation and age-old stereotypes.
Journalism and disability: between stereotypes and patriarchal power
Stereotypes in press coverage involve consistent elements: people with disabilities, segregating welfare institutions, and representatives of political, religious, or economic authorities. The news abounds with stories that announce or report on the activities of institutions for the disabled, which are generally sponsored by the representatives of one of these authorities.
On some level, it is understandable for caregiving institutions to seek financiers to fund their activities. The goal of acquiring sponsorship is for the institutions to secure the funding sources represented by such financiers. Sponsorship is viewed as a catalyst for attracting larger sources of donations. Furthermore, a donor’s support for the activities of a caregiving institution may enhance the public standing of the institution and its reputation for caring for people with disabilities, especially if the donations receive ample media attention.
But does the management of news outlets ever consider why the sponsorship of these activities features so many high-society women and representatives of the country’s political elite? Do they ever think to investigate the cultural and psychological dimensions of these caregiving activities? Of course not!
To understand why, we must examine the stereotypes reinforced by segregating welfare institutions and propagated by the local press and media. People with disabilities are generally portrayed as miserable, incapable, and in need of constant physical and psychological care, treatment, and support. In other cases, people with disabilities are depicted as creative, endowed with extraordinary abilities that none would ever expect a disabled person to possess, and thus worthy of care and support of some kind. If we believe that people with disabilities generally lack what it takes to be independent, talented, and capable, we reduce them to the level of children who need constant care, attention, and support. Yet, it is understood that children develop, grow, and become capable of living independently and caring for themselves and others. People with disabilities, meanwhile, are seen as being in permanent need of care, even if they grow, build their capacity, and learn professional and life skills that would ordinarily indicate that a person is a mature, productive adult.
According to the logic of entrenched patriarchal culture, the task of caring for and attending to children is the responsibility of women, not men. Accordingly, since people with disabilities are viewed as being in a permanent state of childhood, it is believed that they need the care and attention of a merciful and compassionate maternal figure. At the level of public affairs, this maternal role is typically assigned to high-society women, especially the wives of heads of state. It is rare to see press coverage of a male politician sponsoring the activities of segregating welfare institutions unless he is the Minister of Social Affairs or a male religious leader. A Minister of Social Affairs may sponsor the activities of a segregating welfare institution that has a substantial presence or is directly connected to the state. Sponsorship by men of religion, meanwhile, stems from the image of the disabled person as an object of compassion and pity, both of which manifest in the need for the divine mercy and care the religious leader embodies.
This section of the study examined how the Arab press, specifically that of Lebanon, dealt with issues of disability and people with disabilities over a period of more than a century. By reviewing the Lebanese Newspapers’ Archives, we observed that press coverage of this topic has mostly taken the form of news advertising, and that this remains the case today. Segregating welfare institutions hold a substantial and dangerous influence over journalistic discourse and newspapers’ depictions of people with disabilities. The model of care adopted by these institutions reinforced the stereotypes about people with disabilities, in turn perpetuating the logic of confinement and discrimination against people with disabilities. This increased their marginalization and their enforced absence from the image of productive societal activity that features interaction with the local environment.
Despite the emergence of organizations led by people with disabilities, the acceleration of the movement to respect the human rights of people with disabilities, and attempts by some organizations to encourage the development of journalistic discourse by engaging and partnering with media agencies, newspapers still employ a discourse that is rife with stereotypical terms, expressions, and portrayals. With the emergence of a disability movement that calls for the right of people with disabilities to integrate socially, economically, and politically, newspapers are starting to give a space to this new discourse, while still not abandoning the discourse of segregating welfare institutions. With the exception of some underreported efforts by a small number of journalists, newspapers do not dare to present a critical and analytical image of the lived reality of people with disabilities. Instead, newspapers are content to play an uncritical reportorial or even promotional role, thus reinforcing the portrayal of people with disabilities as mere grist for journalism.
Regarding the topics covered by newspapers, they are relatively limited. Most articles reveal the limitation of journalistic output to the realm of reporting and informing. In many cases, the press even plays an advertising or promotional role for the activities of segregating welfare institutions. Only rarely do articles report on activities or events related to the disability movement. Furthermore, press coverage does not go beyond reporting on disability issues in a collective sense; articles that highlight individual experiences are rare and tend to focus on the problems faced by people with disabilities. The problem with such journalism is that it is devoid of analytical and critical depth and fails to put a stop to stereotypical rhetoric about people with disabilities. Though some articles attempt to show how these individuals’ human rights are deprived in their daily lives and in their relationship with their social environment, the overwhelming majority of coverage continues to be held hostage by the discourse of segregating welfare institutions. With other instruments of expression that play a role in fostering collective awareness, such as cinema, theater, and television, it is similarly rare to see a spotlight on the individual experiences of people with disabilities. This topic will be explored in detail in the next section.
Portrayals of disability in Arab cinema
Few Arab films or TV shows portray the lived realities of people with disabilities. One must bear in mind that that the inclusion of a disabled character in a cinematic work may be a pure coincidence, justified by the choice of the screenwriter, perhaps based on the requirements of plot and setting. Characters with disabilities in cinematic works may be as prominent as the main character or only a marginal presence. In the latter case, the character is often sympathetic and pitiful, or caricatured to serve as a source of irony or humor, as is often seen in comedies.
The portrayal of people with disabilities is accompanied by a number of scenic elements that help engage the viewer in the situation of the disabled character. These elements may include sad music or a cinematographic emphasis on the aspect of the character that represents his or her disability. For instance, the camera may focus on the wheel or seat of a character’s wheelchair, the eyes of a blind character, or the ears of a deaf character. Like cinematography, the script plays a key role in fleshing out the character who has a disability. In many films, a character’s pitiful or sorrowful condition is emphasized through the character’s feelings of despair or submission to divine will. Occasionally, though not often, cinematic works attempt to portray a person with a disability as having superior intelligence or supernatural abilities.
Regardless of the background of the writer and director involved in a cinematic production, the films and scenes they depict generally remain captive to the stereotypical discourse surrounding disability and people with disabilities. That being said, there are a handful of works that have attempted to present a critical view of the lived reality of people with disabilities, whether in their local communities or even within segregating welfare institutions. However, such films are few and far between and still fall short of addressing this reality with a profoundness of approach and analysis.
These works represent various trends in the cinematic portrayal of disability and the position of people with disabilities in society. These works do not necessarily comment directly on disability as a social issue, whether in the strict or the general sense, nor do they address the reality of the state of policies relating to services for people with disabilities. That being said, some works have shined light on the situation of blind people in segregating welfare institutions, where they suffer from exploitation, violence, and isolation from their local communities. An example is the film Amīr al-Ẓalam (Prince of Darkness) or the portrayal of deaf people in the film al-Ṣarkha (The Scream). Al- Ṣarkha deals with the right of people with disabilities to work, through the perspective of the father of ʿUmar, a young deaf man. ʿUmar’s father tries to secure a job for his son, in light of the government’s guarantee of the right of people with disabilities to receive employment opportunities at a rate of at least 5% of the volume of openings on the job market.
If journalism is confined to depicting a general reality, such as life in a segregating welfare institution or human rights violations, then cinematic works are more successful in depicting the day-to-day life of people with disabilities. This is achieved by showing the person’s relationship with his/her surroundings, as we have mentioned previously. However, despite cinema’s profound portrayal of various experiences of people with disabilities, a number of observations can be made. If journalism, owing to its role of conveying reality as it is, often remains captive to stereotypes and the discourse of the mainstream, then cinema has benefited from the long-form nature of the medium, and from its wider reach and ability to connect directly with audiences. Cinema, especially from the 1990s and later, has provided a bolder critical lens and a deeper analysis of the topic of disability.
Nevertheless, cinematic works have not been able to rid themselves of stereotypical discourses and images, even in cases where the work attempts a seemingly positive depiction of people with disabilities. To illustrate this problem more clearly, the following observations can be made:
First: The image of disability and its conceptualization as divine punishment
Most films cannot avoid approaching and portraying disability as a divine punishment or test. This is the case in the film Ayūb, in which Abdelhamid al-Sukrī was the victim of an accident that led to his becoming disabled as a punishment for the corrupt life he had lived. On the other hand, the film Ghadī (My Tomorrow), which is a more recent film, tries to approach the issue of the relationship between the portrayal of disability and the idea of punishment from a critical perspective. In a realistic manner, it conveys the questions that society continues to pose about this topic. However, despite attempts in the film industry to present a new approach that tries to refute the link between disability and the concept of punishment, cinema falls into the trap of the stereotype of employing religion and angelic portrayals of people with disabilities as a starting point for addressing the social reality of the refusal of these individuals, specifically those who suffer from mental disability.
Second: Disability as a state of sickness
Numerous films have discussed the dominant perception, even today, that disability is a state of sickness requiring treatment. Based on this medical approach, it became necessary for the film al-Ṣarkha to present ʿUmar as constantly in search of treatment to rid himself of his deafness. Salwa from the film Khalī Bālik min ʿAqlik (Take Care of your Mind) is mentally ill, or “crazy,” as the film calls her condition, which is of course the case, de facto. Therefore, she must be isolated in a mental institution. Thus, even though these two works do stem from a discourse that continues to be considered part of the medical approach to disability, they do highlight society’s refusal of that which is different, in terms of physical appearance or mental and sensory capabilities, from the social and cultural norm. Nevertheless, works like these fall into the trap of the medical approach; as far as enabling the disabled person to overcome the problems of refusal, exploitation, and violence that surround him/her is concerned, they do not present an alternative to treatment.
Third: Disability, stereotyping, and isolation
Cinema might be less complicit with the institutional system of segregating welfare institutions for the disabled than journalism. By often portraying reality the way it is, however, cinema nonetheless finds itself forced to deal with these institutions in one way or another. The most important of these is the manner in which the reality of people with disabilities in such institutions is portrayed. For instance, in the film al-Ṣarkha, the institute for the deaf is portrayed as a place that guarantees an education to ʿUmar because at the time, society did not know another system by which to educate deaf people. As for the film Amīr al-Ẓalam, it uses the scene of a segregating welfare institution for the blind as a stage to highlight the hero of the work (Saʿīd al-Masrī). Throughout this film, Saʿīd appears as a blind person belonging to an environment of luxury due to his status as a former military officer. Beyond his background, however, the hero is a person with supernatural abilities that exceed those of his peers at the institution. Thus, the film used the miserable state of the blind people inside the segregating welfare institution to juxtapose Saʿīd al-Masrī’s character and abilities against those of the other blind people, who do not possess these. Under the pretext of gracing the work with a comedic dimension, moreover, the film exaggerates greatly in its portrayal of the appearance of the blind, of Saʿīd’s peers, and of any other ridicule-warranting aspects of their reality.
As for the case of Sheikh Husnī in the film al-Kīt Kāt, the portrayal appears to be slightly different. This film may be one of very few that portrays the disabled person in a more positive way, in terms of his/her relationship with the local environment. Sheikh Husnī is a blind person who lives an ordinary life among the other inhabitants of his community, and a natural relationship links him to them. Even the comedic lens through which Sheikh Husnī is portrayed does not extend beyond an accepted, non-stereotypical limit. However, there is one exception to this, and it manifests in Sheikh Husnī’s identity, which is imposed on him by his reality. Although this fact is not presented in a sarcastic manner, Sheikh Husnī works in the field of music. At the same time, his mother expresses her wish that her son had studied at al-Azhar Mosque and become a religious scholar, a Sharia judge, or a reciter of the Quran. The two professions connected to Sheikh Husnī are thus nothing more than those that are stereotypical, in terms of what the blind are known for in local communities.
Fourth: Disability, patriarchal society, and sex
As is journalism, so is cinema: both of them display the issue of patriarchal society and its role in forming collective consciousness and behavior. If journalism has revealed the presence of patriarchal behavior—represented in society’s dealing with issues of disability through the portrayal of the role played by segregating welfare institutions, which is accompanied by taking advantage of religious and political authority, and the strengthening of the stereotypical image of disability that goes along with it—cinema has been able to go even further than this through the embodiment of exclusively individual experiences expressing the impact of this behavior on the life of the disabled person and his position in society. The plots of numerous films have exposed this impact and position, using all of the elements of the cinematic work to do so, starting with the title of the film, the filming of the scene, and the dramatic context, represented in the film’s scenario and dialogue, and culminating in the disabled character who is played by the female or male hero of the work.
And among these works, the film al-Wadīʿa (The Meek One) constitutes the clearest example of the impact of this patriarchal dimension on the life of the disabled person. The title of the film alone carries such a connotation, even if one does not connect it to the plot of the work. In fact, Nuhā, a crippled woman with an innocent personality, is truly the meek one of the community, and is always deserving of care and attention. At the same time, she must hide her emotions, for the community around her planted the idea inside her that she is physically unable to partake in romantic relationships; therefore, it is not laudable for her to express her feelings towards the person she loves. This manifests in that she hides her disability from the person she loves, given that partaking in any romantic relationship would constitute her placing a burden on the other party in the relationship. The idea of this burden is encompassed in that which Nuhā’s mother says, namely, that nobody would desire to be her daughter’s husband because of her disability.
As for other films, they express other aspects of the way in which patriarchal society portrays people with disabilities. For example, ʿAbd al-Hamīd al-Sukrī loses his friends after suffering an accident that led to his becoming disabled. This abandonment is the result of society’s view that disability is either a burden or a weakness that must be dealt with through sheer resolve to overcome it. This is what manifests in the conversation between ʿAbd al-Hamīd and the doctor who tries to convince him that he is not disabled: it is as if disability is a sickness that must be fought in order to rid oneself of it.
The film Khalī Bālik min ʿAqlik, meanwhile, deals with the right of people with disabilities to marry. Society opposes Salwa becoming a bride, due to the fact that her disability prevents her from establishing a marital relationship. The mother of Wāʾil is opposed to her son getting married to Salwa for this reason, and the community rejects the idea as well. Therefore, Wāʾil must prove that her disability is not real in order to affirm his right to marry her, as if the negation of the disability is necessary to confirm Salwa’s right to marry the person she loves. The film al-Ṣarkha, meanwhile, portrays the opposite with regard to the issue of disability and sex. This film portrays ʿUmar’s subjugation to sexual abuse by a female sign language teacher, as well as the issue of violence faced by people with disabilities in treatment institutions.
These examples of cinematic works constitute the most extreme cases of stereotyping, strengthened by the impact of the patriarchal collective consciousness, about disability and people with disabilities. According to this consciousness, the image of the disabled person is at odds with what is normal, especially in the case of the disabled woman. The disabled person either is incapable of engaging in a sexual relationship, a reality that necessitates the deprivation of his/her right to marry, or he/she suffers from a state of weakness caused by the disability, a reality that facilitates others to abuse him/her sexually.
Conclusion: The portrayal of disability and challenges to changing the stereotypical discourse
The dominant discourse confirms the extent to which the impact of the dimension of treatment, which is entrenched in the depths of history and which dominates different spheres of social and cultural life, is rooted. This is reflected in the imposition of a reality of isolation upon people with disabilities, as well as their separation from their local environment. Furthermore, the role played by institutions that provide care for the disabled constitutes the basis for the reinforcement of this reality. In parallel, the imposition of a stereotypical discourse that has been translated through different forms of collective behavior—even within local environments that are supposed to be the primary formative, protective force for the person with a disability, with regard to the initial formation of their lived experiences as individuals—also strengthens this separation and isolation.
With the spread and dominance of this model of care, and with the status of impunity that these institutions have obtained over more than 150 years, they managed to impose a particular portrayal of disability and people with disabilities over society and the general collective consciousness. Moreover, with the rise to prominence of these institutions as the primary solution to temper the caregiving burden people with disabilities represent, the presence of these individuals in the midst of the local environment was gradually and increasingly confined. Finally, to aid society in ridding itself even of this “burden,” this group was then peeled off from the rest and isolated in residential care centers under the justification of providing them with treatment due to the lack of other places for society to do so. Based on this, the association of the societal burden with the solution of care, manifested in the shelter-and-isolation model that accompanied religious and political support, helped precipitate the stereotyping of people with disabilities. This has led to their absence from the public sphere, with respect even to their presence—much less their occupying an active role—in everyday life, as well as in the day-to-day production and interaction with their surroundings and their society.
In light of this reality, it was natural for the instruments of expression, including print media and cinema, to be impacted by this stereotype and the absence of people with disabilities. Both of these instruments of expression shoulder the responsibility of conveying and portraying reality in a way that corresponds, to a certain extent, with the current, active state of the collective consciousness. As a result, the factors determining the makeup of journalistic material are imposed by political circumstances, which are, in turn, reflected in the state of public awareness, as well as in the degree of independence of the persons controlling the means of production of both. And to the extent that the institutions of journalism and cinematic production enjoyed independence from political and religious authorities, and to the extent that their social and legal awareness increased, there exists a space to assess their ability to convey the image, and, in turn, to go beyond work oriented solely towards reporting and informing by adopting analytical and critical approaches that encourage the posing of questions seeking to break down the hidden factors motivating the sanctification of the status quo. However, the review of journalistic materials and cinematic works conducted in this paper reveals that to a great extent, this space, with regard to conveying criticisms concerning the way topics involving disability are addressed, is very narrow.
Journalism remains committed to pursuing a neutral, non-critical stance towards the practices of stereotyping, isolation, and marginalization that people with disabilities face inside care institutions and in society. Journalism is content with assuming the role of conveyor of the image of reality, in accordance with the way in which segregating welfare institutions wish to disseminate it to society. In this, journalism relies on the tangible and intangible support it receives from political, religious, and sectarian authorities. Thus, despite the efforts of disability groups to try to spread a culture of integration and rights via different news platforms, this purveyor of information continues to insist on the use of stereotypes and discourses that propagate a culture of seclusion. With the justification that it is necessary to respect differences of opinion and to address social issues from a journalistically objective perspective, journalistic institutions, in many instances, continue to adopt stereotypical language and portrayals of isolation in covering disability and people with disabilities.
On the other hand, cinema perhaps benefits from a larger space in which it can address topics involving disability through perspectives that contain a degree of criticism. Helpful in this regard is the dynamic of cinematic production, which carries with it a wider degree of freedom in dealing with the topics it addresses, including the issue of disability. Perhaps the realm of cinematic drama does have a role to play in accomplishing this: cinema enjoys a larger space to address human components of issues through its direct focus on the individual experiences of the characters it presents to the viewer. Despite this, however, cinematic works often do not avoid the portrayal of people with disabilities in a stereotypical way. This is a product of the reality that the filmmaker tries to embody through the lens of the camera.
Based on what has been presented, it is self-evident that the singular focus on stereotypical portrayals of disability and people with disabilities is the result of the stereotypical discourse and the negative “advisory” practices of society. As a result, the focus on the seclusion of people with disabilities through residential care institutions—and the support of political and religious authorities for this discourse—necessarily produce a portrayal of isolation for the disabled person, which is normalized in the collective consciousness and becomes entrenched within it. And in this way, the disabled person comes to be portrayed as someone whose presence is missing from the public scene, and whose role in society is limited in terms of interaction, production, and living a dignified life.
In this regard, it is imperative to combine a number of factors that carry the potential to change this stereotypical portrayal of isolation with regard to disability and people with disabilities, and along with it, to reform all practices—in the public sphere and within the realm of social interaction—that occur in the absence of people with disabilities. Disability groups must increase their activities aimed at raising collective awareness about the issue of disability rights, particularly within the realm of social, economic, and cultural integration. For this reason, these groups must launch a movement of communication and partnership with a variety of institutions involved with the instruments of expression, especially the press and cinema.
It is also imperative to work towards establishing print and electronic newspapers that specialize in addressing the issues of disability and people with disabilities. It is also necessary to work to secure all of the means for pushing towards the creation of a cultural movement on disability and people with disabilities that engages primarily in research and in producing documentary and cinematic works that adopt the analytical and critical approach desired in this area.
In conclusion, people with disabilities themselves remain responsible for challenging and refuting the portrayal of them that segregating welfare institutions have propagated through different instruments of expression. In fact, it is incumbent upon them to be aware of the need to stop allowing these institutions and their representatives, including the caregiving system, to take advantage of them in the process of promoting stereotypical, false, and negative notions about them. They must also be aware that their ongoing absence from the scene of current events and from the screen constitutes an inevitable prelude to the continuance of institutional practices designed to seclude them under the justification of care and ensuring the provision of services. Thus, in order to guarantee their proper portrayal and position in the public sphere, they must free themselves of the burden of isolation that these institutions have fabricated, and must, in turn, refuse every stereotypical discourse that transforms them into an example of a burden that must be isolated from its local environment and natural surroundings. Indeed, their refusal of the politics of seclusion is the only means by which they can reclaim their total and active presence in everyday societal life and lay claim to their right to live in autonomy and dignity.