CUNY: Disability in Mass Media

jennifer brea

Jennifer Brea’s TED Talk, “What happens when you have a disease doctors can’t diagnose,” is about her journey when she became disabled from chronic fatigue syndrome.

Disability in Mass Media, DSAB 622, Spring 2021 (asynchronous online)
City University of New York
Disability Studies Master’s Program

Instructor: Beth A. Haller, Ph.D.,

Get to know me online:
Beth Haller website:
Book website:

Prerequisite: None

Course Description
This course focuses on issues related to disability and mass media representation, including journalism, TV, film, advertising, photography, documentary, comic art and the Internet. Topics covered will include:
• The relationship between disability studies and media studies;
• The various models of media representation of disability;
• Authentic mass media imagery of disability;
• Mediated bodies – the impact of cultural and media representations on the experiences of people with disabilities;
• Disability media, i.e. content created by and for people with disabilities;
• News about disability rights in U.S. society, what is and isn’t covered; and
• Invisible disabilities and how they do or don’t get onto the media’s radar.

Course Learning Outcomes
The Master’s in Disability Studies introduces students to this emerging multidisciplinary field that spans the social sciences, arts and humanities, and sciences. The Disability Studies paradigm recognizes that disability is not inherent in the individual as a personal problem or deficit, but rather, is a set of physical and social barriers that constrains people. Several goals of this course are:
• To understand disability studies as “the holistic study of the phenomenon of disability through a multidisciplinary approach;”
• To incorporate the experience of disability and the perspectives of people with disabilities into a research structure;
• To offer a sampling of the major scholarly perspectives and professional issues in disability studies and media studies;
• To encourage students to engage with, as well as critique, disability studies scholarship and mass media representations of disability;
• To provide a structure for student analysis of disability in mass media representations, as well as engaging with the writings and media from disabled people.

Course Materials:
• Selected readings will be posted in the Course Materials area of Blackboard. For others, you will find them online.
Representing Disability in an Ableist world: Essays on Mass Media by Beth Haller (Advocado Press, 2010). My book is available on Kindle for $9.95 and used for under $12.

General Information about an asynchronous online course:

A rewarding aspect of graduate study is the opportunity for colleagues (faculty and students) to interact, learn from each other and, sometimes, to produce new knowledge. Aside from helping me to get to know you as a colleague, your class participation on Blackboard will help me evaluate your analytical skills, your preparation for each class, and your ability to integrate concepts we discuss into your understanding and analysis of disability and media issues.

As you are doing the readings, write down questions, comments, and critiques of that week’s readings that you can use when you post in the Discussion area. I will post prompts/questions in the Discussion area for most of the readings/videos in this course.  You will also be expected to ask questions or comment on the responses of your classmates as well.

The purpose of your participation in the Discussion area is that you will be engaging the readings and videos in a critically constructive way. Think about the ways you can extend the ideas or issues raised by an author(s) by linking them to the lived experience of disability, to the media texts, or other readings. The Discussions also count as your attendance in the course, so you should make every effort to complete them. The Discussions are separated into modules with deadlines for your posts each week, so you should complete them in a timely manner. 

The Structure of the Course:

Each class week is typically 7 days and ends on the 7th day at 11:59 p.m. Please note that the classroom server is set to U.S. Eastern time. Therefore, all due dates are noted in USA EST.

In the Announcements area of the Blackboard classroom, I will post updates and comments. You should check this area each time you log in. It will be used on a weekly basis to post about class matters. I will also post a schedule that reminds you of important due dates.

In the Course Materials area, I will have everything arranged in folders by modules. Materials for the course are posted and can be reviewed from the start of the class.

In the Assignments area, I provide full information about completing each assignment as well as deadlines.

The Discussion area contains at least multiple discussion forums for each week of the course. Each discussion forum will be open from the beginning of the semester and will close a week after the each set of modules are completed.  There is a forum labelled “Cyber Cafe” for casual conversations among yourselves, as well as a general “Ask the Professor” forum where questions about class requirements or other questions that do not fit into a weekly discussion may be asked.

For individual written papers, you will upload them to Blackboard by the due dates. See specific instructions on the assignments.

Contact with instructor: I will be logging on to the Blackboard site almost daily. If you need to email me privately, please put the course name in the subject line so I know it is from this class. For general questions about the course, readings, media texts, etc., please post them in the Ask the Professor Discussion forum, because if you have a question about something course-related, it’s guaranteed other students do, too.

Some General Policies:

This class will be governed by the CUNY’s general policies on intellectual property, academic misconduct, and plagiarism. If you have questions about how to properly cite material, please let me know. CUNY Policy on Academic Integrity: 

If you have specific accommodations you need as a person with a disability, please let me know as soon as possible so I can provide those. All students should let me know what I can do to maximize your learning potential, participation, and general access in this course. I am available to discuss this on Zoom or on email. To make arrangements for accommodations, contact the CUNY Disability Studies program:

CUNY’s policy is here:

Grading criteria for written assignments and course in general:

90 – 100 (“A”). On the written assignments, this means the paper is clear, organized coherently, and well-written. It is an effective discussion of the topic. It has no spelling, grammar, format, or accuracy errors. In terms of the course, this means the content of your discussion posts are substantial and in-depth; you have scores in this range on the assignments, and have good questions and discussion posts.

80 – 89 (”B”). On the written assignments, the paper is cohesive and well-organized, although it may have some minor spelling or grammatical errors. The discussion covers almost all of the important information and follows proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have made almost every required post in a substantial way, have scores in this range on the assignments, and have good questions and discussion posts.

70 – 79 (“C”). On the written assignments, the paper is disorganized and contains many minor errors. The discussion missed some pertinent information or does not follow proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have made fewer than required posts, have scores in this range on the assignments, and have not participated on the discussion boards.

60 – 69 (“D”). On the written assignments, the paper ineffectively discusses the topic; it is not coherent or understandable. It contains an unacceptable number of spelling, grammar errors and/or inaccurate information or does not follow proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have rarely posted anything, have scores in this range on the assignments, and have not participated in discussions at all.

Below 60 (“F”). The paper contains major factual error(s) related to the topic. The information presented is completely incorrect. The paper does not meet the requirements in word count, focus, or format. In terms of the course, this means you have not participated in posting anything, have scores in this range on the assignments, and have not participated in discussions at all. If you are caught cheating in any way, you will automatically receive an F in the course.


  • Discussion posts/Participation: 25%
  • Disability nonfiction representation paper: 20%
  • Disability Blogging analysis paper: 25%
  • Disability video/film/TV curation project: 30%


Due Date

Disability nonfiction representation paper (at least 1,000 words)

March 20

Blog paper (at least 1,200 words)

April 17

Disability video/film/TV curation project

May 20

Discussion posts for modules 1-4/responses to other students posts

Feb. 27

Discussion posts for modules 5-8/responses to other students posts

April 3

Discussion posts for modules 9-11/responses to other students posts

May 1

Disability nonfiction representation paper (20 percent)

For your paper, watch:

  • The NY Times short documentary “The Men of Atalissa”  (Content warning: These men with intellectual disabilities were treated very badly for decades. It is upsetting to hear, but it is important that their stories be told.) Discuss why you think this kind of thing happens and why it is important that The NY Times report on it. Most importantly, how can exposing this abuse through journalism/non-fiction help society prevent things like this happening again?
  • “When Billy Broke His Head and Other Tales of Wonder” – You can watch it for free if you have Amazon Prime and use a free subscription to Fandor, or you can rent it here for $3.99: (Although this film is from 1995, much discrimination against disabled people is still the same. It also contains interviews with a number of important disability rights leaders. Only a few numbers have changed: 1) The United States now has 61 million people with disabilities. 2) Social Security Disability Insurance monthly payments now range from $800 to $1,800, with the average being about $1,200.) Discuss at least 5 things that you learned from this documentary and why you think society does not know these facts about the lives of disabled Americans.


  • Chapter 6. Disability media tell their own stories, Representing Disability in an Ableist World (Haller, 2010).
  • Several articles from the disability magazine, New Mobility, Discuss the perspectives in the New Mobility articles, which are all written by and for the disability community.  How are the New Mobility articles different from mainstream media articles? What media models do the New Mobility articles represent? (For a reference point, here are the news values within mainstream journalism, i.e. what is considered newsworthy:

Your paper should be at least 1,000 words, have at least eight references (including the two documentaries, several New Mobility articles, one or more models of disability, and any mainstream news articles you want to include), and corresponding in-text citations to all your references.

Due Date: March 20 


Disability Blog analysis paper (25 percent)

You will write a 1200+-word analysis paper about one disability-related blog from the list provided. Email me with your selection of a disability blog. Selection is first come, first served and each student will write their paper on a different blog.


  • The Disability Studies Quarterly special issue: Disability Blogging, (9 articles). You will have direct quotes from at least three articles from this special section.
  • Chapter 1: “The changing landscape of disability ‘news’: Blogging and social media lead to more diverse sources of information,” Representing Disability in an Ableist World (Haller, 2010).

Email me with your selection of a blog from the list below and I will post the updated list as each student emails me. Choices are first-come, first-served. (Note: Students should select a blog not selected by another student. Once all are selected, then two students may select the same blog.)

What the analysis should include:

  • Write at least a 1200-word paper in which you carefully analyze a number of posts (at least 6-8) on the disability-related blog. In your analysis, explain what model(s) or perspectives on disability the blog posts appear to reflect. What seems to be the blogger’s perspective toward disability, toward people with disabilities? How do you know? Be sure to support your argument with specific references to the blog posts by date. As part of your analysis, try to figure out who the blog’s intended audience is. Who are they seeking to reach? Based on the blogger bio, what are their backgrounds and how does that seem to influence the blog content?
  • Your paper must reference at least 3 of the 9 articles from the Disability Studies Quarterly article on blogging with direct quotes,
  • Your paper should reference chapter 1 of Representing Disability in an Ableist World.
  • Your paper will have a reference list of at least 10 sources (6 blog posts, 3 DSQ articles and the Haller chapter).
  • Write about your reaction and reflection on the blog. Why do you think they do or don’t fit the disability models discussed? How do they reflect the perspectives in the DSQ essays about disability blogging?  Please include your personal commentary about what you think the impact of the blog and its posts are.

Due date: April 17

Blog choices:

Blog name


Autistic Future,


Autistic Hoya,




Claiming Crip,


Crutches & Spice,


Despite Lupus,


The Geeky Gimp (part vlog),


Kathie Comments,


Meriah Nichols,


Oh, Twist,


So About What I Said,


Picnic with Ants,


Rooted in Rights blog,


Slow Walkers See More,


The Squeaky Wheelchair,



Final Project: Disability video/film/TV curation project  (30 percent)

Readings for this assignment:

Project requirements:

  • This project’s end result will be the possible content for a Disability Video Festival. You will select 18-20 videos, TV episodes and short films for presentation to an audience interested in disability representation. Please select videos of less than 30 minutes so a variety of content will be in the Disability Video Festival.
  • You may include up to 10 videos from class but the rest you should find on your own (8-10 more videos). Please do searches of YouTube and Vimeo for the content, not streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu.
  • For each video/film/TV episode you will write a sentence-long synopsis and then at least 1-2 paragraphs about why it is being included in your video festival. What will it be teaching the audience? Example:  Title of film: A Woman Like Me. (9 min.) The film tells the story of a deafblind woman from Denmark who ventures to Nepal to meet with another deafblind woman, who grew up with significantly less advantages (Bondy, 2019). You will write several paragraphs about why you think people need to see this film. Your paper about all the videos should be about 5,000 words (about 18-20 pages, about 250-350 words for each video – double spaced in Times Roman 12-point type.)
  • After you have written about all the video content, you will write a 300-500 word reflection statement about your video festival that includes 5 concepts from the readings above and the course in general that you want your video content to educate audiences about, i.e. why inspiration porn hurts disabled people, the need for authentic representation, etc.
  • Finally, create a 1-page resource guide for the audience listing references about topics they can read related to the videos you will show.

Course Schedule & Readings
About the readings: We may not have time to discuss all the readings in each week’s Discussion area, but they are meant to give you different perspectives on Disability and Mass Media, and a number of them should be integrated into your papers for the course.


Module 1: Models of representation & disability/ableism

CUNY Spring semester begins Jan. 29, 2021


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Introduce yourself to the class
  • A brief history of disability rights in the USA
  • What does ableism mean to you
  • The disability and media models
  • Actors with disabilities confront ableism
  • “Code of the Freaks”

Week of Feb. 7 – Module 2: Supercrips, inspiration


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Inspiration porn
  • Supercrips in the media

Week of Feb. 14 – Module 3: Paralympics representation


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Paralympics history and competition
  • Media representation of the Paralympics
  • Promotion of disability sports
  • Profile of Paralympics archer Matt Stutzman

Week of Feb. 21 – Module 4: The power of social media to frame both visible and invisible disabilities


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Empowerment through new media forms
  • Despicable memes
  • Society’s reaction to invisible disabilities
  • “Guest Room” short film

Week of Feb 28 – Module 5: Representations of autism/neurodiversity


Autistic Self-Advocacy Network,,

Discussions on Blackboard:

  • “No Pity” documentary
  • Carly’s autistic experience
  • Nothing about us, without us
  • The forgotten history of autism
  • Autism representation in the media

Week of March 6 – Module 6: Analyzing language about disability


Discussion on Blackboard:

  • Why is terminology about disability important?

Week of March 14 – Module 7: Authentic media vs. disability mimicry

Assignment: Nonfiction disability representation paper due March 20


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • The problem with disability mimicry
  • “My Gimpy Life” web series

Week of March 21 – Module 8: Accessible media


Discussion on Blackboard:

  • Why audio description is important


Week of March 28 – CUNY Spring Break – no work assigned


Week of April 4 – Module 9: Imagery


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Stock photos of people with disabilities
  • Hip Hop and documentaries
  • “My Dad Matthew” short film
  • “Born This Way” reality show

Week of April 11 – Module 10: Advertising

Assignment due: Disability blog analysis paper due April 17


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Ads featuring physically disabled people
  • Guinness wheelchair basketball ad
  • Deaf people in ads
  • Emily’s OZ
  • Milk-Bone service dog partnership
  • Audio-described ads

Week of April 18 – Module 11: Entertainment TV and humor


Discussions on Blackboard:

  • Entertainment TV and disability
  • “Pelswick”
  • Josh Blue comedy (2006 winner of Last Comic Standing)
  • Lost Voice Guy comedy


Week of April 25 – Module 12: Disability Film Festivals

Readings (These are readings to guide you on your final project); no discussions for these:


Week of May 2 – Work on final project; individual zoom meetings as needed

Week of May 9 –  Work on final project; individual zoom meetings as needed

May 20 – Final Disability video/film/TV curation project due