Disability, diversity and Equal Opportunities

  • Institutional discrimination
  • Discussing Equal Opportunities in the classroom

Power in society, and in the world, has always been distributed unevenly. This is reflected in moving image, as in other cultural artefacts. In most societies in the world, access to higher socio-economic class is still restricted by social status, wealth, privilege, education and profession.

Worldwide, resilient social structures remain largely intact for the benefit of the powerful few, while the many live in poverty. Moving image media often allow ordinary people to glimpse the world of the powerful few and fantasise about achieving it for themselves, while also reinforcing why they are not entitled to expect equality.

Images of the Western free market economy lifestyle have sometimes been a spur for social change: in soviet Russia, Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa, for example. However, overthrowing existing orders has not necessarily benefited ordinary people, as the rich and poor have tended simply to become more polarised in these societies. In the new world order, where world markets are dominated by multinational companies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Bank and World Trade Organisation, this growing polarisation between rich and poor seems likely to continue, with all the social problems it creates.

Institutional discrimination

Seeing images of an unattainable lifestyle can create a sense of injustice in the viewer, which may turn into prejudice or discrimination towards those perceived to be preventing access to a better job/life/status. These could include women, different racial, minority ethnic or religious groups and disabled people. This process has often been encouraged by those in power to help maintain the status quo, and is one of the root causes of racism, sexism and disabilism.

A current UK example is the prejudicial treatment of asylum seekers by politicians and others. The UK has a shortage of labour and takes fewer asylum seekers than most European countries, yet sentiments against them are stirred up by their portrayal in the press and on TV.

According to a major new survey of public attitudes, Profile of Prejudice (June 2003) stonewall.org.uk:

  • Asylum seekers, refugees, travellers and Roma people are the groups the public is most prejudiced against.
  • Those who hold one prejudice are much more likely to be prejudiced against other minority groups.
  • Television is the primary influence on the formation of prejudicial attitudes.

Prejudice and discrimination towards women (sexism), or towards people with alternative sexuality – gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-gendered – can be just as potent and oppressive. Once such prejudices become built into the structures of society (the police, judiciary and education system, amongst employers or employees), there is institutional discrimination. These establishments have a direct influence on the media industry. From funding for films that challenge the status quo, to employment of minority groups, the institutions affect whether films get made and distributed to a wider audience.


Occasionally, films that challenge this status quo emerge and are seen as both powerful and dangerous. Some well-known ones are Kes (UK, 1969, Ken Loach), which shows how state schools fail working-class children; Mississippi Burning (1988, Alan Parker, USA), about the fight to find the racist murderers of three civil rights workers in a town which is cajoled by the Ku Klux Klan into covering up the crime; Schindler’s List (USA, 1993, Steven Spielberg), the story of how a Nazi businessman saved hundreds of his Jewish factory workers from concentration camps; and City of God (2002, Katia Lund/Fernando Meirelles, Brazil) about Brazilian street children, the gangs they form and the poverty and crime they are forced into. For a list of other films that challenge prevailing attitudes.

Discussing Equal Opportunities in the classroom

Schools in the UK are committed to Equal Opportunities and are required to have a strong anti-racist strategy. The need to challenge racism is well understood by pupils and staff. Challenging sexism, disabilism and homophobia is not always given the same importance. Experience over the last thirty years shows that a whole-school approach involving all staff, pupils, parents and governors is the most effective way to change school culture.

Moving image media texts can play a crucial part in developing this culture of equality, by encouraging students/pupils to go beyond their instinctive reactions and explore issues of identity, nationalism, normality, and prejudices of all sorts.

The Bone Collector

Oppressions are not separate entities, but interact with each other. The oppression of disabilism may interact with racism, sexism or homophobia. Some films challenge these oppressions and others just exploit them. For example, The Bone Collector (2000, Phillip Noyce, USA), challenges stereotypes through Denzel Washington’s character, who is disliked by his police chief because he is a clever black man and a disabled person with quadriplegia; whereas Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose, USA), reinforces prejudices as it tells of the apparition of a black man who had his hand chopped off for having a relationship with a white woman a hundred years before. He returns to a downtown Chicago housing estate to attack and mutilate white women with his prosthesis, or hook. The film plays to the racism, sexism and disabilism of the audience to create horror. For a list of other films that would be useful for discussions about prejudice in the classsroom.

Published in: on February 27, 2007 at 6:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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    Disability, diversity and Equal Opportunities « The history of attitudes to disabled people…

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