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Critical theory and disability
studies: constructing the public
sphere of disability issue
Volha Verbilovich
Valeria Markina
(HSE, Moscow)
“There are no invalid people in the
USSR!” (V.Fefelov, 1986)
disability
issue
construction
Mass media
Public
Sphere
the identity
of people
with disability
forming
Collective
action
пѓј Symbolic space and the process
пѓј Media representations as catalyzers of the
discussion
Research Questions
To find out how does the disability issue
appear in public discussion?
•Who performs as the key actors of the discussion?
•How Russian press represents people with Down
syndrome?
•What changes in the images could be found?
•What are the effects? Is there a perspective of
destigmatisation?
Method and sample
 “Moskovskiy Komsomolets” (popular)
is an independent daily tabloid publishing
sensations or provocative messages on Russian
politics and society
 “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” (official)
is a daily socio-political newspaper. It has the
status of official publisher of the governmental
decisions
_____________________________________
Totally - 174 articles, 2000-2012
Trends in Representations
*General dynamics of the number of articles about people
with DS in the newspapers “MK” and “RG” (2000-2012)
1. People with Down syndrome (PWDS) are
described as a deviance from mental
health norms:
 �disabled persons who suffer from a
cruel disease’ (2010)
 �incorrect results of screening test’ (2009)
 �pathology ’ (2011)
 �nature’s mistake’ (2010)
 �genetic freaks’ (2004)
“homosexualism is one of the genetic
breaks similar to Down disease”
(quote from “Moskovskiy Komsomolets”popular newspaper, 2006)
2. People with Down syndrome are
mostly depicted as �invalids’:
60% articles in “MK” and 54% in “RG”
154 mentions in “MK” and 131 in “RG”


�invalid’
�disability’
total
weight
MK
130
24
154
appr. 0,21
RG
121
11
131
appr. 0,26
3. Most of the articles depict PWDS as
children but not as adult persons:
 the increase of such representations during
the last five years
 77% in “RG” and 74% in “MK” “childimage”representations
as children
as adult person
MK
74%
13%
RG
77%
18%
total
75%
15%
4. In the selected media people with Down
syndrome are mostly deprived of their
gender, sexuality, fertility
5. They almost never appear as individuals
with vocational skills
and as independent citizens of society
6. The increase of positive representations:
“active”, “creative”, “special”, “sunchildren”, “open-heart”
The levels of the discussion
пѓјthe official messages of the governmental
and social policy institutes
пѓјthe nature of mass-media interests to the
topic of disability, representations of the
excluded group
пѓјthe collective action from below,
mobilization of the community of people
with disabilities
Selected cases
The selected cases are the public “scandals”
in mass media in 2009-2012 that articulate
disability issues
 2009-2010 – popular Russian tabloid “Speed-Info”
article about the children with Down Syndrome
“Finish Them Off, So They Don't Suffer“ by A.
Nikonov
 Oct, 2012 – Radio Mayak case, dismissal of
popular radio hosts Victoria Kolosova and Alexey
Veselkin, who ridiculed terminally ill children live,
during a program on medicine and diseases (cystic
fibrosis)
CONCLUSION
1. Public discussion on the issue of disability makes
the community of people with disabilities more
visible in Russia
2. But mass media as a mediator of the discussion
still tends to preserve traditional prejudices and
dichotomy “normal/abnormal”
3. Even though new positive representations (e.g.
“alien creatures”, “sun children”) challenge the
traditional medical discourse, they still contribute
to the process of “Othering” and restigmatization, which distort the collective
identity of people with disabilities
4. The emergence of the issue of disability outside
the traditional headings and programs
(“resonant” cases) facilitates the discussion and
mobilizes the community of people with
disabilities in the attempt to re-examine the
boundaries of the “offensive” discourse
Critical theory and disability
studies: constructing the public
sphere of disability issue
Volha Verbilovich
Valeria Markina
(HSE, Moscow)
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