We need more diverse disability stock photography

As someone who writes a LOT of stories on disability, I often find myself doing photo research for pieces on disability — sometimes editors or the art department will actually do that research for me, other times I am expected to do it, at others I may make suggestions that will be used or not depending on inclination. Sometimes I’m turning to Flickr and other Creative Commons resources, while at others, I have access to Getty and other stock companies, especially for things like news (e.g. a story about Senator Tammy Duckworth).

But as a news consumer, you probably don’t see the amount of work that goes into selecting stock photography. Partially, that’s because on an article about disability, you’re likely to see either parasports (often featuring a white person), a head clutcher (for mental illness), a sad older adult using a wheelchair (eldercare), a lonely wheelchair or other assistance device without an actual person (generic disability story), or an adorable disabled kid (inspiration porn). Understandably as a news consumer, you get upset — or at least you should be getting upset, because this representation is bullshit.

Disabled people of colour tend to be unusual. Disabled people engaged in joyful non-organised sports movement also tend to be unusual, so no wheelchair dance or zoomies around the block with friends, no amputees rock climbing. Disabled people working are unusual — you’re not going to see a professor lecturing with a cane, a programmer using a ventilator, a blind person working in a bakery, a disabled painter. Disabled people being happy are unusual. Disabled people engaged in collective activity in a mixed disabled/nondisabled group are rare. Disabled people shopping for fun? Unusual.

Disability stock photography tends to either reinforce the notion that disability is isolating and terrible and lonely and an endless slog, or prop up inspiration porn, or feature supercrips. The daily lives of ordinary disabled people doing things are rarely depicted.

This is a huge problem. It’s a problem because when nondisabled people don’t see diverse (in terms of identity and activity) representations of disability, they take away very distinct messaging about what it means to be disabled. Our lack of representation makes it harder for us to fight for our rights because the way you depict us matters. The conscious decision to not include diverse stock photography makes it incredibly hard to showcase what disabled life is really like.

From a purely practical perspective, sometimes I have to select a photograph that is wildly unsuited to the subject at hand. It’s an article about disability and education, for example, and I either have to choose a classroom full of nondisabled students and a smiling teacher, or a picture of a school bus with no humans, or a generic access sign. Or maybe it’s about disability dance, and I’m posting a photo of an athlete because I can’t get reuse permissions in time. This is like writing articles about cats and illustrating them with polar bears, like discussing basketball for 2,000 words alongside photographs of rowing. It’s absurd, and it makes me feel ridiculous, and it makes readers roll their eyes. ‘Really?’ They say. ‘You couldn’t find a single photo of a disabled person doing X?’ Actually, yes, really.

This sucks for another reason, though. I’ve commented in the past that people send important messages with the stock photography they use and it’s something I try to think about carefully when I can, in terms of who I am selecting to represent an idea. In an article about law enforcement, I try not to use images of people of colour in handcuffs — unless it’s specifically about racialised disparities. In an article about education, I try not to show a universally white classroom — unless it’s about segregation. In an article about food and cooking, I try not to use fat people (and when I do, they have their heads) — unless it’s an article about fat people cooking. I am aware of the ramifications and layers of symbolic meaning in the images I use.

Without a diverse array of disabled people presented alongside nondisabled people in stock contexts, people miss opportunities to send social cues. For example, if I’m doing an article about teen readers, I might use a photograph of a teen wearing hijab and using a wheelchair. This isn’t about hitting all the diversity tickboxes or being a good little progressive, but about the fact that wheelchair using hijabis read and enjoy books, so showing one is factually accurate, while also disrupting the notion that teenhood is white and nondisabled.

If I’m doing an article about people in the workplace, why not show a disabled person? If I’m discussing an issue or activity or event that requires illustrations of humans, at a minimum, 20 percent of those humans should be disabled — though things are tricky here because disabilities aren’t necessarily evident, and it’s not like I can pin a ‘chronic fatigue’ or ‘schizophrenia’ label to everyone in a picture.

The point is that we can only normalise disability by making it an unremarkable part of daily life. Articles about disability issues should be illustrated with germane photography, but also, articles that are not about disability issues should include disabled people, because disabled people are part of the fabric of society. And while it may unsettle and confuse readers at first to learn that a photograph with a wheelchair user taking care of her hives is about  beekeeping, not disabled people or disabled people who keep bees, they’re going to have to get over it.

Image: Erasmus Student Network, Flickr