Attitudes are defined as having positive or negative judgments of people, things and concepts. It is believed that attitudes are formed from affective, cognitive and conative components. Societal and cultural norms have a significant influence on many individuals’ attitudes. Societal and cultural norms of physical attributes, socioeconomic status, and health status are portrayed throughout the media. The media has a significant influence on society, as it is a part of our everyday life. However, the influence that the media holds over society has not always been used to society’s benefit, particularly in relation to disability, where the media has continued to add to the discrimination of people with disabilities.
The media carry out many intentions. It is instructive, expressive and influential but it also contributes to creating stereotypes and maintains cultural values. Despite the fact that there is no explicit connection of the ramifications the media has on the attitudes of society towards people with a disability it is seen to have an influence. People with disabilities are perceived in the media as either a star for doing something inspirational or achieving something substantial, as people who should be sympathetic towards for their impairment or as people who are threatening and encapsulates unease. In our society people with disabilities are excluded, oppressed, treated unequally, seen as helpless and are victims of prejudice. This is seen in the film ‘Forrest Gump’, produced by Robert Zemeckis and written by Eric Roth in 1994. The film was based on the book written by Winston Groom in 1986. The movie involves both positive and negative imagery. The movie is about a character that was born with a deformed spine and has an intellectual disability. The film undeniably depicts disability as something that is ‘normal’ as opposed to something that shouldn’t be embarrassed of. Robert Zemeckis purpose of the film was to show people that disability is something that can be overcome and that everyone has the ability to achieve greatness. It creates the bias that every individual with a disability is inferior.
Dahl (1993) suggests that attitudes, beliefs, and misconceptions of society constitute a major barrier for people with disabilities. He believes that attitude change can follow on heightened awareness, increased contact, and increased meaningful communication between disabled and non - disabled people. Although personal interaction is the most effective medium for conveying the personal experience of disability, the mass media can be an effective vehicle for bringing about greater understanding, and a consequent gradual change in public perceptions, of people with disabilities. In the movie ‘Forrest Gump’ there are many barriers that Gump overcomes due to his disability. For example, when he was enlisted within the Vietnam War, he was able to rescue many soldiers from death. Forrest Gump ended up receiving a Medal of Honor for his bravery. One of the soldiers he saved happened to be Lieutenant Dan, and Lieutenant Dan ended up being disabled as a result of the war. Overall, both Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan were able to form a very successful shrimp company and became wealthy. They were able to achieve the ‘American Dream’ despite their disadvantages and thus are quite inspirational.
“A stereotype is a social construct, a textually based assertion of what a given type of individual should be” (Jackson & Hogg, 2010, p. 789). The media has significant influence on perpetrating stereotypes of people with disabilities; this is done through their representations of characters. These stereotypes manipulate the attitudes and judgements of the published medias audience. Many people argue that people’s attitudes and judgements may be influenced by what they see and hear. In the film ‘Forrest Gump’, there are many stereotypes presented throughout the whole movie. The main character in the movie Forrest is stereotyped as an inspirational character that is actually seen to be extraordinary or heroic just because of their disability. He is also stereotyped as innocent. This proves that “the potential of the mass media to create false impressions … is tempered by a tendency of the public to neglect the mass media in favor of other source of understanding social reality” (Howitt, 1989, p. 179). Most of mainstream societies believe of people with a disability as they are different from fully human people, incapable of looking after themselves, the impairment gives them a chance to become a superhero, they need sympathy, it is a sickness that needs to be cured and that they are innocent. These stereotypes are depicted throughout published media, therefore having such a significant influence on the viewer’s attitudes towards people with disabilities. “Media images, however, can help to shape the meanings we find directly in the situation and what we discover in the actual situation can influence the way we look at the media” (Kelly, 1981, p. 167). Forrest Gump is a sociocultural stereotype as it reflects the majority of the audience’s values.
Questions around disabilities are highly visible in the media, but the day-to-day lives of people with disabilities are rarely mentioned. The society we live in through its norms and structures enables certain people to be seen as capable and independent, while disabling others. “Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of these categories” (Goffman, 1963, pg. 2). Mainstream society has a significant impact on individual’s attitudes, as people we are constantly looking to fit in, and live up to the expectations that society holds, hence creating barriers for people with disability because society sees them as different, due to the portrayals of them in the media. Education has a significant impact on society, as it shapes our attitudes. The movie ‘Forrest Gump’ would be a useful piece in inclusive education, as it signifies that even if someone may be different, they too have the same dreams and aspirations as everyone else. Each individual has his or her own unique characters and barriers they may face, because no one person is the same as the other. The audience can relate to the film, despite his disability Forrest has dreams and aspirations, just like everyone else, it depicts the message that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, and that people living with a disability are just the same as everyone else.
In conclusion, the media has a great influence on society and our attitudes. Societal beliefs and attitudes create a significant barrier for people living with a disability. In order to achieve inclusiveness within our society, the media needs to put a stop to the stereotyping of people with a disability. Society needs a greater understanding of people with disability and need to understand that even if they have that disability, they are no different to everyone else. Over the years people living with a disability have been marginalized within and through the media. There has been a significant change throughout the years with how the media portray people with a disability. The film ‘Forrest Gump’ depicts the story of a ‘disabled inspiration’, that despite his difference he still made a place for himself.