Re-presentation, disability and gender: Are there commonalities in the visual representation of women and disabled people?

I don’t propose to cover the history of the representation of women and disabled people here; just answer the question.

Suffice to say the notions of what is means to be a women are created, reflected and negotiated party through imagery, and as the use of images has become more widespread with the onside of reproductive technologies and markets the power of the image has become stronger and more widely applicable. If you dispute this take this test: Google the following terms under images: 1) Women; and 2) Disabled Women and see what you get?

Figure 1 First screen grab of images found under a Google search for the term “Womanimage

Given that women come in all ages, colours, shapes and sizes this is a very narrow view of them. It doesn’t matter if you do the test 50 times – the representations all looks quite similar and narrow.

Figure 2 First screen grab of images found under Google search for the term “Disabled Womenimage

The similarities and differences in this search term are interesting. While the imagery here is dominated by representations of wheelchair users there is clearly a little more diversity in terms of ethnicity. This result is repeatable as in the first search term.

The results of this simple exercise are very interesting. The searches result in very narrow representations of what it is to be women or a disabled women. These are predominantly white western and disability represented though wheelchair users. This should not surprise me. But the search also indicates something else: with over 1 billion websites now in existence (Business Insider, 2014) the internet presents the opportunity for great diversity but when I explored this a little it was clear that the vast majority of internet traffic goes to a very limited number of sites. But in fact a BBC article showed that over 90% of searches are carried out using Google (Kelion, 2013) so while there is a diversity of websites accessing them looks very very narrow.

This research led to some interesting findings regarding how companies categorise and assess web traffic. In particular Alexa – itself a subsidiary of showed top sites by traffic (clicks) globally, by nation state and by category.

What does this tell me? I am not sure yet but wanted to carry out a few more tasks. Firstly I want to search the terms impaired women and ill women to see what Google’s search algorithms  would throw up and I wanted to repeat the whole exercise using a different search engine – to see if that threw up any major differences.


Business Insider (2014) Available here Accessed on 17/11/2014

Kelion L (2013)  Google: Alternatives to the search giant Available here: Accessed on 17/11/2014  Data available at Accessed on 17/11/2014


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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