Scholarship domains glossed as ‘Disability Studies’, ‘Handicap Research’, ‘Special Education’, and so forth continue to be organized along a binary where ‘medical/psychological’ or ‘social/critical’ models persist. Taking a point of departure in the long-term engagement in issues that can broadly be understood in terms of marginalization processes and identity-positionings across analytical scales, that have and continue to be conducted within the Communication, Culture, and Diversity, CCD research group,1 the study presented here aims to contribute to a problematization of hegemonic binaries in the scholarship with regards to some salient constructs (see for instance, Clark, Dyson & Millward 1998; see also Bagga-Gupta 2017a, 2017b, 2007). Time, and concepts like continua, rather than binaries related to medical and social models, constitute illustrative examples. A concept like continua has (see for instance, Hornberger 2003, including research from projects at CCD) shown to be useful for troubling semantic dichotomies related to movement, such as migrant/mobile/nomadic/errant/fugitive on the one hand and immobile/established/rooted/settled/fixed on the other hand, and to space, such as local/nearby/regional/national/specific–global/distant/world/general (see Lindberg 2018, 2019).
Such dichotomies framed linguistically are reductionist and problematic; they turn people and worldly phenomena into static entities, neglecting the fact that transformation and change are key conditions of life. Thus, framings through continua of peoples’ abilities-disabilities or (dis)abilities, as well as of their positionalities in movements and spaces, potentially enable transgressing fixed categories, making visible the fluctuant features of binaries (see Bagga-Gupta, Messina Dahlberg & Winther, 2016, Bagga-Gupta, Hansen & Feilberg 2017).
This study aims to unpack the complexity of how (dis)ability is positioned through continuous naming and framing processes in a specific Swedish institution related to information and knowledge (i.e., the morning press). Key questions we pose relate to the ways in which the press discursively shapes positions and oppositions through naming and supports the evolution of new categories over time (see Bagga-Gupta 2021a, 2021b, 2018; Bagga-Gupta & Messina Dahlberg 2018, Bagga-Gupta, Messina Dahlberg & Vigmo 2020). This is why (dis)ability is contrasted with how another category, ‘migrants’, is articulated in the press. Migration constitutes a point of reference that potentially deepens the analysis of continua of identity-positionings and widens understandings of how (dis)ability is continuously (re)named in journalistic contexts. Both (dis)ability and migration constitute concepts that relate to named-groups (compare Andersson 1991) that regularly circulate in the press, often in connection to challenges for a society that upholds inclusive ideals. Furthermore, even though these named-groups are difficult to identify and delimit through statistical data (Grönvik 2007; Strömbäck et al. 2017), Eide and colleagues (2014) present evidence for a gap between marginalized groups’ part of an entire population and the space offered to them in media. Thus, migration offers a potential for observing intersectional positionings and thereby allows for further illuminating what shifts in such constructs mean for the area of identity scholarship.2
The next section offers insights regarding the study’s theoretical framings, anchored in semantic-discursive concepts. Thereafter—(Dis)Ability Made (In)Visible—presents analysis and results in two sub-sections: the first explicates the quantitative data, and the second presents a content analysis of data from 2016. The final section summarizes the results and offers an overall analysis of positionings and dichotomies in movement within the conceptions of (dis)ability that circulate and are transformed across time in media spaces in the nation-state of Sweden.
In contemporary virtual-physical spaces, where exchanges of modality rich texts are common-place, there exists a risk that meanings conveyed through intricate ‘webs-of-understandings’ (Bagga-Gupta 2017c) get lost. In such spaces, like within scholarship, semantic-discursive fields are both under transformation and construction. They, thus, leave interpretations and questions about relationships open for explorations based upon peoples’ conceptions of layered realities. Consequently, media framings (i.e., features that ‘describe the power of a communicating text’ (Entman 1993: 51)) create links between identity-positionings and between societal contexts. Furthermore, meaning-making is communicatively and culturally shaped in different communities of practices.
Societal institutions decide what is worth viewing and paying attention to and how and in which contexts dimensions of reality need to be attended to. These decisions are embedded in communicative practices or ‘languaging’ (Linell 2009) across virtual-physical spaces. Languaging, or the ‘doing’ of language, is the meaning-making deployment of semantic-discursive resources in practices, including textual arenas. Far from being only a system of signs that expresses ideas or mirrors intent, languaging is itself a constitutive cultural-tool (Berger & Luckmann 1966; Finnegan 2015; Säljö 2009; Wertsch 1998). This means that languaging transgresses a narrower understanding of communication. Recognizing that languaging co-constructs human cultures, the data pushed study presented here illuminates the mundane ‘ways-of-being-with-words’ (Bagga-Gupta 2019, 2014) that construct understandings related to abilities-disabilities.
We have chosen the largest national morning newspapers, Dagens Nyheter (DN) and Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), as our data source. Their task is to safeguard freedom of expression, encourage a democratic mission that is relevant to the national constitution’s democratic values, provide citizens with objective coverage and offer insights into diverse and complex national and international political, economic and cultural news (Cokely et al. 2011; Edström & Svensson 2016).
The daily press reflects moments of events and stories from the ‘real’ world, creating a constant flow of momentums of reality (Edström 2018). These momentums are not isolated entities but generate a continuum that can be visualized in terms of what receives importance in certain contexts (i.e., comes into the spotlight at a specific timespan). With the objective to cover a wide spectrum regarding the accumulation of momentums that describe (dis)ability, Swedish experts in the domains of Disability Studies, Handicap Research and Special Education3 were consulted to identify relevant search words for our data generation. This process led to the shortlisting of the following (Swedish) concepts:
The retrieval of data connected to migration, in the same media context, was based upon three generic (Swedish) terms used in public discourses that address migration:
The digitalization of DN (first digital retrieval: November 13, 1991) and SvD (first digital retrieval: January 1, 1995) enabled the starting point of data generation in 1992. The Swedish database Retriever Mediearkivet (https://www.retriever.se/), used for the collection of articles, indicates how far back in time tracing the content of the two papers is possible digitally. The exhaustivity of the database covered is evaluated as reliable for the purpose of identifying patterns, even though an absolute retrieval of all articles published during this period cannot be guaranteed. For example, the digital archiving of articles in the database seems to become systematic for both newspapers first after 1995. Data were generated between December 15, 2016, and January 10, 2017, in three stages by using Retriever Mediearkivet. During the first stage, the terms in both search word sets (Disability and Migration) were used jointly in single retrievals between 1992–2016. One mapping was conducted for (dis)ability and another for migration. In this way, all texts that used these two concepts were identified. The aim here was to enable a visualization of the annual fluctuations of the number of articles that reported on (dis)ability and on migration.
During the second stage, the search words for the (dis)ability field were used isolated from each other so that the number of texts that cited any of the search words could be identified. Three distributed samples were thus created, each one limited to a specific year situated in the beginning, middle and end of the studied period: 1995, 2000 and 2015. This strategy allowed for a preliminary view of changes in the use of the terms related to (dis)ability during the time-period 1992–2016. Such data retrievals did not attend to the relevance of the content in the identified articles. The point of departure was rather that some functionality dimension was evoked, stressed and/or treated in the texts.
During the third stage, texts from the year 2016, representing a recent momentum, were analyzed based on the search words in the dataset for (dis)ability. Articles were identified under general subject themes and sub-themes that constitute section-headings in daily newspapers. This allowed for an identification of focused areas, including dimensions where (dis)ability became salient. The final analysis involved synthesizing an overview of the qualitative data, which aimed to identify underlying constructs of (dis)ability at play in the 2016 momentum. This included confirming or contesting constructs that could be gauged at the overall quantitative level.
This section first presents analysis at an overarching level: Constructs in Swedish daily press 1992–2016, explicating the key concepts (dis)ability and migration across the period 1992–2016. The second sub-section—Three emerging constructs of (dis)ability. An analysis of 2016—presents the findings of the qualitative analysis of the categories (dis)ability and migration in the 2016 momentum. Here the connections, intersections and concurrence of the categories are focused upon, including other emerging intersecting identity categories, such as gender.
The identified search words were used together to identify the volume of data associated with (dis)ability and. migration across 1992–2016. Figure 1 illustrates two different developments of article productions for these two categories. The peaks in the number of articles related to (dis)ability between 2008 and 2010 can be linked to the moment when Sweden signed the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Ds 2008; Della Fina et al. 2017; Riley II 2005). The convention led to fundamental changes in perspectives; wherein, a primarily medical perspective was foreclosed in favor of a human rights perspective.
While (dis)ability presents an approximate average of 150 articles annually, a concentration of articles regarding migration appears around the millennium shift, when the numbers peak at 100 articles annually. These increase dramatically around 2012, when immigration trends to Sweden get shaped by aggravations in international conflicts, such as those in Syria (SCB 2020). News coverage related to migration fluctuates between 500 to over 1000 articles annually more recently, far outpacing the number of articles in the (dis)ability area during the same timespan.
While the space that migration gains in the press recently reflects the attention payed to this area in society at large, the space devoted to (dis)ability remains unchanged and has been overshadowed by the former. New identity-positionings that follow the augmented spaces in the press are not necessarily advantageous for the named-group of migrants, who are depicted as a social threat (Strömbäck 2017). It is nevertheless illuminating to unpack the identity-positionings and public perceptions of (dis)ability against the backdrop of positionings related to another marginalized named-group in the same geopolitical space. The presentation of the constructs of (dis)ability in the momentum of 2016 (see next sub-section) shows that even though (dis)ability as a category is not framed in terms of an internal societal threat, difficulties faced by this named-group emerge as a societal challenge.
In addition, it is worth noticing that the previous dearth of research that focused upon migration and media has been addressed; several books, articles and reports currently exist in these intersecting fields (for instance, Eide et al. 2014; Haller et al. 2006; Meltzer et al. 2017; Karim & Ahmed Al-Rawi 2018). However, as Ljuslinder (2011) highlights, as compared to discrimination grounds related to gender, ethnicity and sexuality, research on (dis)ability continues to be a neglected theme in media studies, especially in Swedish spaces. Some international studies in the new millennium in English commonwealth cultural spaces constitute exceptions. These highlight that (dis)ability is depicted by the media as a ‘folk devil’ (Briant et al. 2013), as a ‘catastrophy’ (Goggin & Newell 2004) to be cured through scientific advancement and in terms of a disruption of comfortable normality (Dosch 2019). In contrast to these negative representations (see also, Auslander & Gold 1999; Haller et al. 2006), Howe (2008) illustrates that sport journalism is policed to systematically cover positive news stories about (dis)abled athletes, which produces an image of ‘elite disability’, or the ‘supercrip’ (Schalk 2016), far from real life sportsmen and sportswomen’s highs and lows. Despite these findings, as underscored by Ljuslinder (2011), the sparse research on (dis)ability in Swedish media published in the new millennium (Ljuslinder 2002, 2007, 2009; Ghersetti 2007; Rübsamen & Jarlbo 2008; Magnusson 2010) does not reach media professionals. Having said this, a heightened consciousness of issues related to (dis)ability can be noted in Swedish media during the 21st century, especially in Swedish television, where the presence of (dis)abled persons on the screen has increased considerably (Ljuslinder 2011). Such awareness also indicates new perceptions of (dis)ability, revealing the progressive evolution of what (dis)ability is and can be.
The focus during the second stage of our analysis attempts to understand how this enhanced awareness is illustrated through journalistic framings and vocabularies that are employed for addressing (dis)ability. In order to explore such a semantic-discursive evolution across time, three strategic years were selected for a closer scrutiny. These represent how different momentums deploy the studies key words (see Figure 2):
It is not surprising that the word ‘handicap’ [handikapp]4 dominates the discourse in 1995 (Figure 2; in blue). During the 20th century, this term was borrowed from the sports domain and progressively became accepted in everyday languaging as a generic term for different categories of (dis)abilities (Bergman 2007). However, 1995 also sees the emergence of the term ‘functional hinder’ [funktionshinder]. This term replaces the concept ‘handicap’ [handikapp] in 2003, when ‘functional hinder’ [funktionshinder] was declared the official term for naming (dis)abilities (Nationalencyklopedin 2020). In 2000 (Figure 2; in orange), the usage of the word ‘handicap’ [handikapp] declines, even though its use is visible in the data, while the use of ‘functional hinder’ [funktionshinder] increases substantially. This shift in the naming of (dis)ability can also be seen in the results from 2015 (Figure 2; in grey). In this momentum the wording ‘functional reduction’ [funktionsnedsättning] dominates, even though the terms ‘functional hinder’ [funktionshinder] and ‘handicap’ [handikapp] exist in parallel. By 2015 the term ‘functional variation’ [funktionsvariation] emerges marginally in the data. In addition, the qualitative data reveals that the Swedish word ‘funkis’, a popular, but not derogatory, alternative term to designate a (dis)abled person, makes an appearance in 2011 in SvD (Söderström 2016).
The in-depth analysis of identified articles related to (dis)ability, retrieved from the journals SvD, and DN in 2016, offers a view of the role and place of (dis)ability in contemporary Swedish society. By synthesizing a view of the content and the ways in which different subjects are treated, this analysis attempts to make visible underlying constructs that support representations of (dis)ability in three themes, which correspond to established sections in newspapers: A. Society, B. Sports, C. Culture (Table 1).
|2016||A. Society||B. Sport||C. Culture|
The content in the category ‘society’ (201 articles) includes a wide range of subjects (i.e., sub-categories such as science, portraits and politics). The science sub-category includes articles pertaining to research and recently published scientific knowledge related to (dis)ability. The sub-category ‘portraits’ (i.e., reportages, interviews and obituaries) highlights citizens and personalities in Swedish society representing and/or seen as active in the (dis)ability field. The sub-category ‘politics’ includes the largest number of articles (152) and displays a wide range of themes associated with life and the participation of (dis)abled people in society. This includes family life, labor market, support and service, education and health. It is noteworthy, though, that the sub-category ‘politics’ displays a nationally oriented gaze, and international contexts of (dis)ability are not included here. Only 21 articles were identified in the ‘sport’ category and 42 articles under ‘culture’.
The specific terms used for naming (dis)ability in the data are both generic and specialized, for example, ‘mental disorder’ vis-à-vis ‘Ehler’s Danlos syndrome’. Among the identified terms, ‘autism’ and ‘neurodevelopmental disorder’ dominate clearly, indicating a public interest in neuropsychiatric (dis)abilities in comparison to, for instance, physical (dis)abilities, like blindness or deafness.
The following sub-sections offer a view of how themes under ‘society’, ‘sport’ and ‘culture’ are addressed in the articles and linked to (dis)ability and, where applicable, how these intersect with other named-groups, specifically ‘immigrants’, but also gender and other identity-positionings.
A large number of articles address societal concerns that have an impact on (dis)abled people’s daily lives, such as the law related to support and service (LSS). For example, Hagerman (2016) states that in the midst of the refugee crisis the minister of finance suggests that the extended reception of refugees was going to be financed through cuts to areas such as assistance to (dis)abled people. The risk of cuts is perceived as a reality, because several testimonies from end-users and service providers reveal a ‘crisis’ sentiment, wherein strict interpretations of regulations would be an outcome even though the law does not change (Hagerman 2016; Hedenmark 2016). However, representatives of the Swedish Social Insurance Agency highlight in a debate article that assistance is steadily increasing, both in time allocated to users and in terms of the state budget (Begler & Lender 2016).
The named-groups of immigrants/refugees and (dis)abled people are in competition in this discourse, including the discourse surrounding the labour market. Stockholm city reports that ‘newly arrived citizens’ (i.e., immigrants) and (dis)abled people constitute groups that have the greatest problems to enter the labour-market; this leads to several initiatives for creating employment opportunities (Ritzén 2016). This issue is approached in several articles at the national level too (Ashing 2016; Goksör 2016; Orre 2016). In a debate article, the Centre-party argues, for example, for the need to create ‘simple jobs’ with lower wages and educational qualifications. The target is ‘exposed groups’, such as ‘asylum seekers who have obtained their residence permits recently […], young people under 24 years who are not studying or working [….] and the large group of people with disability’ (Lööf et al. 2016). In fact, insidiously, these named-groups are depicted as competing with one another for jobs, support and resources. A similar trend can be seen with regards to the housing market, where critical voices discuss municipalities’ purchase of real estate, not for the lodging of ‘prioritized groups with social problems and disabilities’, but for new migrants who lack personal contacts or bank loan opportunities (Hellekant 2016).
However, migrants and (dis)abled people as a theme in this part of the data is also an intersectional category that illustrates the double challenge named-ethnic minorities with (dis)abilities face in cultural spaces where a homogeneous self-image is increasingly concerned with people’s origins and abilities. In an interview, Nujeen Mustafa, currently living in Germany, affirms that she does not want to be characterized either as a refugee or as (dis)abled. It is noteworthy that Nujeen’s story of fleeing Syria in a wheelchair has been published around the world in 13 languages in its first edition (Ohlson 2016). The double-naming of Nujeen, as the author of the article frames it, as ‘a disabled immigrant’ appears to invite admiration, displaying a refugee and a (dis)abled person’s courage while facing challenges and risks in the struggle for safety and a ‘normal life’ (see Sande Jacobsen 2014). This double-naming becomes triple when women are highlighted on March 8. SvD’s editorial writer Lifvendahl (2016) says that ‘equality is one of the things I am most proud of in Sweden’, and in her report on honor violence against women, in addition to a question of gender and ethnicity, she also underscores the vulnerability to sexual abuse that (dis)abled immigrant women face (see also Tottmar 2016). This triple-naming is extended in the news regarding procuring and ‘men who sell their partners’ (Svensson 2016). The Swedish police specifies that such activities can be noted among immigrant and native Swedish communities, and where women with intellectual (dis)abilities are not uncommonly victims. Neuropsychiatric (dis)abilities are taken up in the data as an important criterion that can be taken advantage of by negative social environments (Letmark 2016a); wherein, both women and men from diverse named-ethnicities are targeted. While intersectional aspects of (dis)abled people emerges in relation to the psychosocial health of indigenous ethnic minorities, such as the Sami in northern-Swedish spaces, a lack of knowledge regarding LBTQ-persons, elderly and (dis)abled persons in these communities is also stressed (Lind 2016).
Neither competing nor intersectional aspects seem important with regards to education broadly. Instead, quality education for all named-groups gets highlighted as a fundamental right; wherein, the goal is to support people to become independent contributors to society, capable of earning their own livelihood. However, the data indicates that this inclusive vision is not easy to meet. For example, a news item covering the findings of a doctoral thesis regarding autistic school children highlights that the monitoring of support functions is insufficient (Nordgren 2016), and several articles highlight the challenges of meeting the needs of intellectually gifted children, especially because this named-group tends to display a spectrum of (dis)abilities (Letmark 2016b, 2016c, 2016d). Furthermore, schools’ refusal to admit (dis)abled children is seen as a problem, as are reports that the state’s special schools for deaf children employ teachers who can barely use Swedish Sign Language and that their classmates are, as a consequence, obliged to act as interpreters (Delin 2016; Remius Strömberg 2016). One research study reported in the press shows that ‘society has failed to create opportunities for young adults with an intellectual disability to get a job’ (Tideman & Arvidsson 2016) and that the special schools for this named-group are not capable of preparing them for the labor-market. This contrasts with the previous minister of higher education and research’s vision that ‘Swedish educational politics are based on the premise that everyone, irrespective of gender, origin, or disability, shall be offered a good ground to stand on, and that adults shall have good access to education throughout their lives’ (Hellmark Knutsson 2016).
Our analysis so far highlights political and societal concerns regarding measures for creating cohesion and the inclusion of competing and intersecting named-marginalized groups. Such an inclusive approach indicates a focus on how limited resources can be used to support vulnerable named-groups like (dis)abled people, with the intent that they can become independent and can themselves contribute to society in different ways. In contrast, articles reporting from international contexts mediate a pessimistic image, linking (dis)abilities to natural catastrophes, societal conflicts and polarizations of groups, for example, the consequences of starvation, related to the severe drought in Ethiopia (Alestig & Åsell 2016) or the zika virus in the case of pregnant women in Brazil (Brandão Jönsson 2016a) and Norway (Von Hall 2016). In addition, shootings in the USA are related to mental illnesses that perpetuators are often seen to be suffering from (Torén Björling 2016), and Romani peoples in the Czech Republic are depicted as lacking governmental support and thereby excluded from healthcare that could prevent chronic illnesses and (dis)ability (Pallas 2016). In this part of the data, deviations from a norm, whether it is functional, socio-economic or ethnic, are presented as disastrous for the named-groups themselves, and society’s engagement appears less pronounced. Thus, marginalized named-groups are positioned as problems that are roadblocks to societal progress, even a curse as in the case of (dis)abilities caused by health issues, and not as a normal dimension of the make-up of communities. Such positioning emerges also in the articles on science, reflected, for example, in a report on how research in genetics can support diagnoses at an early stage and thereby find remedies for specific (dis)functionalities (Högblad 2016).
At an overarching level, a tension in the positioning of (dis)abled people is identified in the category ‘society’, pointing, on the one hand, to an attitude adopted towards a loosening up of fixed identity-positionings where a spectrum of vulnerability aspects are addressed and, on the other hand, a cementing of conceptions of normality, which suggests a need for preventive measures that could contain an increase in the numbers of (dis)abled citizens. This tension leads to an attempt to theoretically pinpoint the continuum embedded in the discourses surrounding (dis)ability under the category ‘society’. In fact, underlying motives, ambiguities and oppositions emerging in the journalistic representational efforts attempt to balance (dis)ability as a societal responsibility and (dis)ability as a shameful state that can, and even should, be eliminated. We call this tension the construct of exclusion/inclusion of (ab)normality-illness.
The content in the category ‘sport’ is dominated by the 2016 Paralympics held in Rio de Janeiro. The articles usually foreground (dis)abled sportsmen and sportswomen. Here the discourse is characterized by a pedagogical journalistic style that contrasts with regular sports jargon in everyday news. For example, a journalist places the reader in medias res, in the middle of the events, when a goalball match between Sweden and Brazil is introduced. It is in the third paragraph that the reader is first informed that goalball is ‘different and puts demands on the spectators’ who must remain silent, because the blind players are dependent on hearing a little bell inside the ball—a challenge for sports fans (Sännås Lundqvist 2016). In general, pedagogical explanations of Paralympic sports genres are systematically center-staged in these articles, as well as complex categories like S14 (a specific type of blindness) that the sportsmen/women belong to, including the actual (dis)abilities of sports performers with their personal trajectories from childhood to the elite level. The strong focus on (dis)ability within the category ‘sport’ reverses views regarding (ab)normality and unpacks sport categories that are probably only vaguely understood by the larger public.
(Dis)abled people depicted in these news-items are not vulnerable. On the contrary, they are strong and capable, perhaps even more capable than able-bodied persons (see Howe 2008). A breaststroke sportsman is quoted as follows: ‘My drive is to become the strongest version of myself […] it is better to be unique and to be yourself’. While his cerebral palsy has disabled his legs, he identifies with ‘other functionalities’, rather than with ‘reduced functionalities’ (Wreede 2016). An elite boccia player, who has severe cerebral palsy, informs the journalist that ‘the entire life is a challenge and you choose if you want to accept it’ (Lindkvist 2016). Such a statement would be aligned to by the Colombian elite swimmer with a body shot at by six bullets during his war engagement against the guerilla. He is reported as saying: ‘Gold is the only thing I think about’ (Brandão Jönsson 2016b). The international and varied profiles of the participants in this dataset displays the fact that (dis)ability has different origins, and its impact is related to the environment and other people’s views. One chronicle asks if Paralympics confirm or refute able-bodied peoples’ representations and prejudices regarding (dis)abled people and whether the success of the event is not simply about our underlying desire to see the strongest win (Croneman 2016). After all, these sport-profiles are praised for their achievements and are presented as ‘more than less’, even as extraordinary phenomenon and superheroes (Schalk 2016). They are not addressed as a societal problem as in the previous category, but rather continue to be positioned as normal people. In addition, the chronicle author, while addressing (dis)abled elite sport-profiles as a message of encouragement and models to emulate, highlights that these remarkable stories make us weep and are used for economic profit (Croneman 2016), hence, underscoring the media marketing forces behind these representations. In summary, a relatively straightforward dichotomized construct emerges from this dataset analysis: here synthesized in terms of a common-exceptional view of (dis)ability and (ab)normality.
One news item in the category ‘culture’ states that 48% of the (dis)abled population in Sweden accessed culture and entertainment in 2015, as compared to 64% of the rest of the population (SvD 2016). While elucidating the subject of culture as (in)accessible for-all, these statistics also evoke topics from previous sections, such as how (dis)ability is framed, how norms are used in actions of exclusion/inclusion and reflect fixed identity-positionings. ‘Norm-criticism’ (i.e., critical views on how marginalized groups are categorized and framed) emerges as a central theme here, nourished by an ongoing debate regarding how state-governed museums proceed in their mission to attract different named-groups like (dis)abled people in society. The debate in the press can be illustrated by a critique of the exposition ‘Playground’ at the ethnographic national museum, which displays a spectrum of sexualities, family constellations, ethnic named-groups and functionalities. The norm-critical message is here considered too superficial, with a narrow mirroring of a one-sided context of Swedish contemporary society. For instance, a journalist demands more culturally crossed and historically anchored perspectives on norm-critical issues (Bäckstedt 2016). Writer and Literature scholar, Johan Lundberg, confirms this tendency of state-museums to engage with identity issues in a ‘simple-minded’ [enfaldig] way, under the false flag of ‘diversity’ [mångfaldig]. Lundberg (2016) suggests that diversity can be addressed through multiple strategies, rather than through the assumption that a person’s colour, gender, ethnicity and/or functionalities will automatically make him/her embrace identity-politics.
The identity-politics that frame museum debates go hand-in-hand with a discussion regarding uneven access to culture across different named-groups in society (Weckström & Bagga-Gupta 2020). For instance, an article highlights that the ‘state’s goal with culture lies in it being accessible independent of who you are and where you live’ (Jones 2016). The then director of the national Agency of Culture responds to a critique regarding the unjust distribution of cultural resources in an interview by suggesting that ‘this question relates to the fact that culture represents democracy, freedom of expression, and what our society is built on. Everybody does not have to consume culture, but they must have the possibility to do so’ (Jones 2016). Thus, both economic and material resources (such as buildings) and the form and content of culture are discussed in the press, with the intent of attracting a broader public to cultural events, beyond an intellectual elite characterized by mainstream norms.
Such norm-critical approaches to culture are channelled in specific ways in the creative productions, such as films, television series and books launched in 2016. In an interview with Johannes Nyholm, director of the drama comedy The Giant [Jätten], the story’s protagonist is positioned as ‘autistic’. However, Nyholm claims that he is ‘in fact, completely uninterested in which diagnosis the character has’, because The Giant is an attempt to represent a psychic state from his childhood. By letting a giant from a parallel world ‘collide with the “real” reality’, alternative ways of seeing and observing become possible (Wennö 2016). The giant as a fictional representation can be associated with monsters and horror fiction. Lundström (2016) continues this line of thought in his article on the Blair Witch Project and on witch-trends in general that he links to mental illnesses. He observes that society tends to associate horror fiction and monster characters with (dis)ability, with the intent of harnessing the fear of the unknown. His point is that it is easier to reduce the fear to an ‘anthropocentric affair’ than to recognize how little we know about what exists beyond our comprehension. Thereby, through original representations, cultural creations per se manage to provoke established views of normality and (dis)ability, where cultural institutions and politics often fall short in their good intentions to change normative patterns in society. Moreover, cultural creations make (dis)ability visible in society and offer insights on how differently abled individuals think, live and construct relationships.
Thus, a philanthropic and normalized view of (dis)abled people emerges in the category ‘culture’, pointing to an underlying construct that activates a tolerant and explorative approach to what (dis)ability is and can be. In summary, this theme offers a positive and constructive view regarding (dis)ability, where politics, cultural institutions and artists contribute to naming (dis)ability among other marginalized categories through norm-critical lenses. (Dis)ability, in this dataset, becomes an aspect of reality that can be enriching and that encourages transformation of norms and normative thinking. The construct that emerges in the category ‘culture’ seems to strive at creating spaces in society for (dis)ability. This effort can be summarized in terms of explorations of a dichotomized tension synthesized as (dis)ability philanthropy–(dis)ability misanthropy-phobia.
This study has unpacked complex identity-positionings and conceptions of (dis)ability and their transformation in the Swedish morning press across 1992–2016. In comparison to named-groups related to migration, (dis)ability as a societal phenomenon does not seem to have come center-stage in the daily press in the nation-state of Sweden during the last three decades. However, the analysis suggests that the semantic-discursive field related to functionality or the continuum of abilities-disabilities clearly expands, offering openings that can reshape common perceptions regarding (dis)abled people. In fact, in comparison to Norwegian media landscapes, where (dis)ability seems to be systematically addressed in terms of ‘functional reduction’ [Norwegian: funksjonshemmede] (Eide et al. 2014), the Swedish morning press displays a ‘bearable lightness’ regarding the relative ease with which new terms emerging in society are included in journalistic writing. The tendency is ‘bearable’, because it points to openness and acceptance towards ongoing processes of identity-shaping in society regarding named-groups conceptualized at the margins. This result stands in stark contrast to previous studies that report on struggles to transform narrow-minded and negative semantic-discursive ways of naming (Auslander & Gold 1999; Briant et al. 2013; Dosch 2019; Goggin & Newell 2004; Haller et al. 2006).
The recently coined Swedish term ‘functional variation’ [funktionsvariation] reflects an inclusive, egalitarian view of (dis)ability in our most recent dataset and constitutes a value neutral synonym for ‘functional reduction’ [funktionsnedsättning]. The term ‘functional variation’ points to the fact that abilities-disabilities are relative, that an individual’s functionality is unique, dependent on the environment and can change over time. In addition, complementary terms, ‘funcophobia’ [funkofobi] and ‘functionalism’ [funkis], have been identified in the 2016 dataset. While ‘funkis’ originally designates the artistic style of the functionalist movement (SAOL 2020), it is used in mundane communication to indicate persons with (dis)abilities.
Parallel with changing societal views regarding (dis)ability, the Institute for Language and Folklore [Institutet för språk och folkminnen] accepted a supplementary term in 2017, ‘functionality right’ [funktionsrätt], that had been taken up by the Swedish Disability Rights Federation [Funktionsrätt Sverige] a few months earlier. The institute defines the word formally as ‘the right for a person with functional disability to self-determination and full participation’. This term does not appear in our datasets, even though the issue of (dis)abled peoples’ rights has been identified under the category ‘society’. However, its recent emergence further confirms the ongoing negotiations of how the ability-disability continuum is named and thereby continues to be transformed and made visible in Swedish society at large. This nomenclature pluralism also highlights the transition across the last three decades from a view regarding (dis)ability as a medical problem to a view on (dis)abled individuals as a question of the right to participate fully in society, independent of functional conditions.
The semantic-discursive ‘ways-of-being-with-words’ indicate an evolution of meanings surrounding (dis)ability. This aspect has specifically been identified in how the named-groups ‘immigrants’ and ‘(dis)abled people’ both compete and intersect in the datasets. (Dis)abled as an identity-positioning is not constructed in isolation, rather it is shaped in dialogue with conceptions of able-bodied and other marginalized named-groups, especially ‘immigrants’, that becomes particularly salient in the dataset from 2012 onwards. This tendency is also emerging in Norway, where representations of (dis)ability intersect with other marginalized groups related to, for instance, gender and ethnicity (Gjerver 2014).
Fusional and concurrent aspects of semantic-discursive categories can be perceived as a constructive and risky evolution. On a positive note, an awareness of people’s multilayered belongings seems to be increasingly reflected in the press, allowing individuals to be included both in marginalized and mainstream categories. It is in this way that languaging constitutes an important cultural tool that offers alternatives and possibilities of new meaning-making processes. However, on a negative note, nuancing and inclusive ambitions, together with the dilution of clear-cut categories, seems to give way to an ‘unbearable lightness’ of framings and contextualizing interpretations that sometimes obscure the real everyday conditions of (dis)abled people. For example, the qualitative analysis of the momentum of 2016 reveals how different constructs of (dis)ability frame debates and media coverage in press themes like ‘society’, ‘sport’ and ‘culture’, which also is partly identifiable in Norwegian media (Morlandstø & Sandvin 2014). These constructs develop in the discourses of the thematic contexts, which dictate how (dis)ability is and can be addressed. In this way, they contribute to define differentiated concepts of (dis)ability that can only be applied in specific contexts and that can be contradictory. This journalistic practice serves agendas in different thematic fields, while relegating critical issues of dis(ability) to the background, such as people’s mundane possibilities to frame their own existence in different societal arenas.
Three different domain specific constructs were identified: Society: exclusion/inclusion of (ab)normality-illness, Sport: common-exceptional and Culture: philanthropy/misanthropy-phobia, illuminating how conceptualizations of (dis)ability are contextually bound. Admittedly, these constructs point to more complex and dynamic identity-positionings of (dis)ability than those revealed in terms of threats to society in English-dominant cultural spaces (see Briant et al. 2013; Dosch 2019; Goggin & Newell 2004) or simply of negative connotations, such as ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘the retarded’ (Auslander & Gold 1999; Haller et al. 2006). They nevertheless reveal a prevailing unconsciousness of the power of media framings and contextualization for naming marginalized groups, which can become ‘unbearable’ if it is not addressed and explained. Hence, these findings confirm the need for further observing languaging vis-à-vis (dis)ability in different societal sectors, with the intent to identify a nuanced view of conceptions related to named-groups.
1www.ju.se/ccd; recent scholarship from the Communication, Culture and Diversity, CCD research group in the areas of marginalization processes and identity-positions include Bagga-Gupta (2017d), Bagga-Gupta, Hansen & Feilberg (2017) and Bagga-Gupta, Messina Dahlberg and Winther (2017a).
2See Bagga-Gupta, Feilberg and Hansen (2017b) for a more overarching study in the area of identity where data focused upon is the press and research in and across the nation-states of Sweden and Norway.
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
We, the authors, have worked closely in the study that is presented in this paper. The first author created the study design and was responsible for the initial analyses. The second author joined the process thereafter. Both authors have independently and jointly studied the large open dataset repository to which both have had access. They have collaborated closely in the analysis and writing process.
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