Movies, TV shows, marketing campaigns, and other forms of media have improved in recent years in terms of positive representations of people living with physical disabilities and mental health challenges. Recently, there has been more public pressure for equitable, positive and inclusive representations as this has not always been the case. We know that children learn through observation and imitation. The media that children view, read, listen to and interact with influences their perceptions, perspectives, and opinions. This is a good reason to tackle the issue of misrepresentations in media.

Media literacy strategies can help us learn and teach students how to think critically about the media they interact with (Hobbs, 2011). Even though children spend hours using media and technology, they haven’t necessarily developed the set of skills needed to analyze and evaluate what they see and hear. Media literacy lessons encourage students and teachers to ask critical questions about what we watch, see, listen to, and read. By developing our media literacy skills, we learn how to critically analyze media messages and how to use different forms of communication technologies for self-expression and communication.

A report from the U.K. video subscription service Hopster and research company Dubit analyzed 50 popular programs for preschool-aged children in the representation of different identities and groups. They found minimal representations of people with disabilities and mental illnesses, and that many of the representations consisted of negative stereotypes. Working-class families were under-represented and appeared in only 9% of episodes, despite the fact that they make up 50% of the actual population. They also found plenty of gender stereotypes, where female characters were objectified or even undermined by male characters and little to no representation of same-sex parent families or the LGBTQ+ community. (Hopster, 2019)

When a child lacks media literacy skills, they are more vulnerable to negative representations, which can result in negative behavior patterns and values. Parental guidance is crucial for children to help distinguish these influences and develop the ability to make decisions independently. Children who are still developing their media literacy skills might not find it easy to distinguish stereotypes without help from a parent. With parental guidance, children can learn how to evaluate what they see in media messages. (“Influence on Children Media – History of Media for Children, General Considerations, Studies of Media Influence, Domains of Influence, Recommendations,” 2020)

Children’s shows are taking a turn for the better, however. One positive step that the popular show Peppa Pig took was to introduce a character called Mandy Mouse, who uses a wheelchair. Co-creator Mark Baker wanted to introduce a character with a disability as the series is based on small children’s real experiences. Many reacted positively to the change and many children, as well as adults, can relate to the character. In an interview, Baker explained to Teen Vogue that they kept the nature of Mandy’s disability deliberately vague so that the character could represent children with different special needs (Kay, 2019). Before the introduction of Mandy, the company Entertainment One held a consultation meeting with UK disability equality charity Scope. This meeting ensured a positive and responsible representation of a young character living with a physical disability. Danielle Wootton, Head of Marketing at Scope, mentions one particular scene in Peppa Pig where Peppa asks Mandy if she needs help getting up the hill. This show navigates issues of consent and autonomy regarding people with mobility impairments (Kay, 2019).

Media Literacy and Technology

Focus on personalized learning has grown over the past years and the use of technology in the classroom makes it easier for teachers to support students with disabilities (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2015). However, when most educators employ technology and media in the classroom to support their students, they don’t include instruction on analyzing, creating, or reflecting upon media messages (Hobbs, 2011). The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE, 2007) has set core principles for what media literacy should consist of; however, their materials provide little insight on adaptations for students with disabilities. By combining educational theories and media literacy, teachers and schools can develop innovative instructional practices that benefit every student.

The perspective that (dis)abilities are social constructions based on a society filled with barriers is a good way for educators to think about making changes in the classroom environment, as all of our students face different barriers. (Dis)ability may be part of our students’ identity and we can help them understand that this is a result of a disabling, constructed environment (Siebers, 2008).

People with disabilities do not belong to just one group, since all humans have unique needs and intersecting identities. This is also true for people who belong to minority or marginalized groups. Medical models of disability that promote special needs education can result in students being separated and excluded based on their disability, rather than focusing on meeting every student’s needs and aspirations.

Students and adults with disabilities can experience oppression for many years, which can lead to them adapting and changing who they are in order to fit in with the existing power structures. (Freire, 1970). For this reason, many contemporary theories on disability argue for a democratic society to be an inclusive one, where every identity and need can be accommodated (Friesem, 2017). These theories investigate the oppression, and exclusion that students with disabilities face and how to support the identity and emotional well-being of students with a disability, instead of solely focusing on accessibility and physical obstacles (Watson, 2012, as cited in Friesem, 2017).

By integrating theory with media literacy skills, we can take an inclusive and universal design approach to teaching students with special needs. Media literacy aims to improve students’ competencies in access, analysis, composition, reflection, and action. This is to strengthen children’s self-expression and promote advocacy, reasoning, critical thinking, and communication skills. As children grow up using 21st-century technology, they need social development, self-confidence, conflict-resolution skills, and sensitivity to social responsibilities in order to thrive (Hobbs & Moore, 2013).

The following list explains the details of the competencies that can be used inside the classroom to improve media literacy skills.

Media Literacy Competencies: Table 1 (Hobbs & Moore, 2013, pp. 16-17)


  • Listening skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Using appropriate technology tools
  • Asking questions
  • Gathering information using multiple sources
  • Applying knowledge to solve a problem


  • Understanding how symbols work
  • recognizing particular types or genres
  • Identifying authorship, message purpose, and target audience
  • Recognizing evidence of quality and credibility



  • Speaking to an individual and demonstrating listening skills
  • Speaking to a large group and responding feedback
  • Communicating a personal reaction and expressing a point of view
  • Selecting messages and texts to use, respond to, and combine in a creative way
  • Composing, writing, and creating images to inform, persuade, and entertain
  • Composing in a variety of formats
  • Composing for a variety of audiences



  • Recognizing and valuing relationships and engaging in socially appropriate behavior
  • Brainstorming and contributing ideas
  • Staying on task and following directions
  • Using good judgment and social responsibility when communicating
  • Exercising leadership, integrity, and accountability
  • Offering feedback to, helping, and teaching others




Taking action

  • Participating in a creative community
  • Sharing and expressing ideas with others
  • Being aware of and sensitive to differences among people


  • Making connections between current events, the community, and self
  • Generating ideas to improve a thing or event
  • Collaborating on solving a meaningful real-world problem

Even though these are principles meant for every student, it has not reached its full potential for inclusivity. For this, a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) could be the right approach.

NAMLE’s core principles are:

Active inquiry and critical thinking provide us with the opportunity to think about how different types of disabilities are represented in the media and technology we use. We can help students do this by encouraging them to ask critical questions about how disabilities are represented in media messages and and to question the power relationships that exist regarding people who have been labelled as disabled.

Expanding the concept of literacy to include all forms of media which helps us broaden our knowledge of types of media. Helping students understand that media includes more than just movies and TV shows enables them to deconstruct representations in almost everything they read, listen to,  watch and play.

Building and reinforcing skills for learners of all ages builds on the learning from the first two principles’ results by reinforcing knowledge and providing students with opportunities to practice using their skills. Dalton (2017) researched how to connect the areas of UDL and media literacy. By combining UDL principles of multiple means of representation, action & expression, and engagement with media literacy principles(2013), media literacy can be accessible for every student.

Developing informed, reflective, and engaged participants is essential for a democratic society. It is crucial for students to learn how to reflect on their own abilities as well as disabilities. As students reflect upon their perceptions of and behaviours towards others, they become more self-aware, more responsible, and more equitable.

Recognizing that media is a part of culture and functions as and agent of socialization draws our attention to the relationships between representation and perception. If we can critically analyze images of ‘others’ we will understand where the misrepresentations are and we will understand how we take in those images and make judgements based on them. Educators should present different types of media that represent various voices of disability. Students can learn about the diversity in disability and become responsible agents of society when it comes to representing a disability.

Students use individual skills, beliefs, and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages(NAMLE, 2007). This last principle emphasizes that everyone has unique skills, beliefs, and experiences and that we can construct and re-construct multiple meanings. We are active participants in interpreting media and not passive consumers of it. This empowers students and helps them develop more positive feelings towards others as well as themselves.


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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