Article Summary: Stereotyping and stigmatizing disability: A content analysis of Canadian print new media about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Newspaper and other forms of media can have a significant influence on public perception, including society’s attitude towards people with disabilities, including FASD. This group is often discriminated against, and stigmatized, because of the way the media stereotypes and criticizes those with FASD, and mothers who drink while they’re pregnant. The authors of this article looked at common themes among media articles about FASD. It is important to note that this study is one of two manuscripts based on this larger body of work, and results regarding other science- and health-oriented themes are presented elsewhere.

Stereotypes and stigmatization in the media

Individuals with FASD and other disabilities are often displayed in the media as being a victim, someone to be pitied, a burden to their family and society, villainous, or even heroic in some cases. By negatively portraying individuals with a disability, society is likely to adopt similar attitudes and also view individuals with a disability, such as FASD, in a negative way. Not only are those with FASD stigmatized, but the biological mothers are as well.

Motherhood stereotypes

Mothers are seen as responsible for their child’s wellbeing, and are blamed when something in their behaviour is atypical. Without considering the circumstances behind the pregnancy, or the personal background and situation of the mother, they are viewed as irresponsible if they consumed alcohol during pregnancy. This portrayal creates further stigmatization and isolation of the mother, who now feels she is unable to seek support.

Common themes

From a mass search of media articles around FASD, eight common themes were found:

  • Crime associated with FASD
  • More support needed for FASD stakeholders
  • Awareness of FASD
  • Family composition of people with FASD
  • Funding for FASD
  • FASD and Indigenous populations in Canada
  • Secondary adverse outcomes associated with FASD
  • Impact of the social world on FASD

Crime associated with FASD

The most common theme identified in this study was crime associated with FASD, from both the perpetrator and victim perspective. The media generally described people with FASD as more likely to commit crimes, and very few articles talked about the justice system failing to accommodate people with FASD. Media coverage regarding crime associated with FASD described individuals with FASD as being more likely to be involved in criminal activity because they don’t understand consequences, because they have difficulty with impulse control and attention, and because they may be easily influenced by their peers. There is a gap in media news coverage on people with FASD being the victims of crimes, especially female victims of sexual assault, which is very common.

Take-home message:

Media coverage of FASD may be a potential source of societal stigma. The stigma that the media creates around people with FASD and their birth mothers may be harmful for these individuals, and for people who are easily influenced and agree with the attitudes of the media. It is important that more news coverage is dedicated to the positive aspects of FASD, and the amazing capabilities of these individuals, as well as embracing and supporting mothers, so that they are not criticized for having a child with FASD, but educated instead.

For more information:

Authors: John Aspler, Natalie Zizzo, Nina Di Pietro, Eric Racine 

Journal: Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

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