Decolonizing the Dynamics of Media Power and Media Representation Between 1830 and 1930

Australian Indigenous Peoples with Disability

Authored by: John Gilroy , Jo Ragen , Helen Meekosha

The Routledge Companion to Disability and Media

Print publication date:  November  2019
Online publication date:  October  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138884588
eBook ISBN: 9781315716008
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Indigenous Australians have experienced the horrific consequences of European invasion and colonization. Some of these consequences include wars, geographic displacement and attempted genocide. Both the high prevalence and experience of disability among Indigenous peoples remain directly linked to the events that followed European invasion. Critical disability studies and media studies can investigate the process of decolonization. This chapter is cross-disciplinary in so far as we are concerned with the representation of Indigenous people in the mass media and decolonizing Indigenous disability. We examine data collected from an analysis of the print media during the colonial period; that is, representation of “disabled” Indigenous people in mainstream newspapers during the first 100 years of the press from 1830. We use Martin Nakata’s Indigenous standpoint theory and decolonizing frameworks to deconstruct and analyze the material collected.

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Decolonizing the Dynamics of Media Power and Media Representation Between 1830 and 1930


The newspaper industry is one of the oldest forms of news media in Australia. Many media studies scholars state that newspapers are an important source to understand how “our history can be accessed and interpreted.” 1 Recent media studies involving Indigenous 2 peoples 3 and people with disability 4 have shown that the news media provides a source of data for exploring how minority groups have been portrayed and treated within Australian popular culture since colonization.

The news media and more recently social media play a vital social function in the dissemination of local and national information via radio, newspapers, magazine, television and more recently the Internet. News media provides information for local citizens, migrants and foreigners about issues pertaining to the economy, politics, fashion and local and national cultural identity. 5 The centralized ownership of the news media enables the industry to maintain its stronghold and limitless reach, representing and influencing the public discourse on matters the media deem important. It is for this reason the news media is often described as essential for “collective identity formation” in nation states around the world. 6

The links between colonization and disability among Indigenous populations have been well documented. 7 Schofield and Gilroy 8 define colonization as a process of coerced alienation of Indigenous peoples that serves the interests of the growing Western metropole. Scholars have long argued that the Western metropole, through its Eurocentric lens, defined and categorized the “cultural/racial other” (Indigenous/Aboriginal/native) was different and inferior to white European races. 9 Decolonization, on the other hand, remains the “ongoing, radical resistance against colonialism that includes struggles for land, redress, self-determination, healing historical trauma, cultural continuance and reconciliation.” 10

The World Health Organization reports there are around 370 million Indigenous peoples in at least 70 countries around the world. 11 In Australia, Indigenous people represent over half a million people, 12 around 3 percent of the nation’s population. When the British invasion of Australia occurred in 1788, the colonial elite explored and stole the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. The British elite did not respect Indigenous peoples as humans or as custodians. The ensuing wars between the British elite and the Indigenous peoples persisted for over a century. Indigenous peoples were subject to kidnap, rape and murder in the name of European imperialism. 13 In effect, Indigenous peoples are among the unhealthiest and most disadvantaged people in Australia. 14

Australian Indigenous peoples with disability have received limited attention in disability studies and media studies. To the authors’ knowledge, there is no known research on how Indigenous peoples with disabilities were portrayed and treated in the colonial news media in any settler society. Taking a decolonizing approach to disability studies involves creating a space to understand the present situation of Indigenous people from the perspective of Indigenous people themselves. This approach involves a deconstruction of the embodiment of social, political, economic and cultural processes of colonization. Part of the process of a decolonizing inquiry is to critique Western constructs and conceptions of disability and ill health.

By using Australia as a case study, this chapter aims to illustrate the representation of Indigenous people with a disability in the print mass media throughout the first hundred years of newspaper publications in Australia from the 1830s to 1930s. This period was chosen as it followed the colonial government’s relaxing censorship of the news media. 15 This study is positioned within a decolonizing methodological framework, building upon the works undertaken by Gilroy 16 and Gilroy, Donelly, Colmar and Parmenter. 17 The research demonstrates how early media reporting played an important role in supporting colonial power structures such as the courts and policing, early welfare instructions and institution systems such as prisons. It also shows how the use of disability tropes in the print press supported discourses of Indigenous inferiority and backwardness.

Print News Media and Minority Groups

Following the British invasion of Australia in 1788, many settlers migrated away from the city regions to set up large horticultural and agricultural outstations, becoming one of the primary industries for Australia’s growing colonial economy. The first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, was published in March 1803 to improve the distribution of government official information throughout the colonies and outstations. The Australian (not the current newspaper with that title), the Monitor and the Tasmanian and Port Dalrymple Advertiser were the first known published provincial newspapers in Australia. 18 Australia’s longest published newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, was first published in 1831, becoming the first popular daily newspaper in Australia.

The European elite brought cultural values of normative health and human functioning, directly connected to Western biomedicine and free-market capitalism. The eugenics movement, a Eurocentric set of beliefs, ideals and practices that aims to improve the genetic quality of the human population, was well advanced in Westernized countries between 1880s and the mid-twentieth century and overlapped the period under study in this chapter.

In Australia, many institutions and asylums were established under law, such as the Queensland Benevolent Asylums Ward Act 1861 and “lunatic persons” became the responsibility of the prison system during the late 1800s. Yet many Indigenous peoples regard the Western biomedical approach to pathologically labeling and categorizing people by their perceived disabilities as part of an attempt to further alienate Indigenous peoples. 19 Much research suggests that there exists no word in any Indigenous communities’ language equivalent to the English words “disability” or “impairment.” 20

Media scholars have used framing theory to demonstrate how information about Indigenous people influences and frames public attitudes and places Indigenous people within a particular “field of meaning.” Marcia Langton’s 21 essay on the representation of Australian Indigenous peoples argues that the news media was used as a tool to create an imagined community of a “white Australia” as normative, reflecting the hegemony of eugenics. For example, Figure 3.1 shows how one newspaper, the Bulletin, represented and supported the capture and trading of Indigenous peoples as free labor for the colonialists’ farms and homesteads.

Cartoon depicting a slave trader luring buyers to his “niggers
                                 for hire” stand,

Figure 3.1   Cartoon depicting a slave trader luring buyers to his “niggers for hire” stand, Bulletin 6, no. 6 (April 30, 1881).

Indigenous peoples are often represented in the context of “civil disorder” to generate a moral panic about “race relations” in Australia. Many political and social issues, such as land rights, welfare policy, alcohol, crime and unemployment have been portrayed in a way that represents and treats Indigenous peoples as a social problem. 22 Even though Indigenous people’s voices are included in some news stories, their views are often obscured or cordoned off by the views of white, middle-class professional peoples and organizations. Bullimore describes this issue well:

As a result of this domination, interpretations and evaluations of news events are routinely embedded in the ideology of the white elite. When ethnic or minority voices are heard in the media—if they are heard at all—they are found to be less credible than elite speakers, such as police and government officials. 23

Likewise, Ellis and Goggin’s 24 review of media research on disability in the news media shows that people with disability were portrayed as a social problem in similar ways to Indigenous people. Zhang and Haller 25 observed that the negative representation of people with disability in the mass media contributes to their oppression by reinforcing existing, or creating new, stereotypes and stigmas associated with disability and impairment. Thus, disability stereotypes that medicalize, patronize and dehumanize people with disabilities perpetuated in the mass media aim to normalize hegemonic ideologies. These objectifying representations and depictions of people with disability contribute to their social isolation, thus reinforce the hegemonic values of ableism as normative. 26

Critical Disability Studies at the Cultural Interface

Relying on newspaper publications in the period in question inevitably limits our analysis to material written only by the white affluent classes. However, these publications in the hands of the powerful elite frame popular meanings about Indigenous peoples and are thus an important source of information.

One of this chapter’s authors claims “disability studies’ differentiation between chronic illness, impairment and disability cannot usefully explain the contemporary lived experience of indigenous peoples.” 27 Scholars 28 have demonstrated that disability studies regularly assume universality in their middle-class colonialist standpoints, thus imposing normativity of white non-disabled bodies. By adopting Indigenous research and decolonizing methodologies we critically deconstruct how Indigenous people with disability were represented and treated at the cultural interface of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and critically reflect the implications this had for Indigenous peoples with disabilities.

The recent turn to critical disability studies seeks to be “self-aware of its own historicity” and “engage in dialogue among cultures” while undergoing a process of intellectual decolonization. 29 This requires developing methodological frameworks that privilege Indigenous peoples and are developed either by or in cooperation with Indigenous peoples. An example of this paradigm shift is work by Gilroy 30 that explores the applicability of Indigenous standpoint theory (IST) in disability studies. IST is not an “Indigenous” way of doing research. Rather it is a researcher’s positionality that prioritizes the personal experiences of Indigenous peoples in the research process. 31

As Indigenous (author one) and non-Indigenous with disability (authors two and three) scholars, we position ourselves at the cultural interface as defined by Martin Nakata. 32 In previous papers, Gilroy 33 has demonstrated that critically exploring the cultural interface helps us understand why many problems experienced by Indigenous people with disability have persisted for many decades. The cultural interface is the domain where the trajectories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s histories, cultures, ideologies and practices regarding disability and impairment intersect creating the social environments that impact on Indigenous people’s lives. The cultural interface is a metaphysical world where Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples constantly interact and negotiate matters pertaining only to Indigenous people’s lives. Nakata states that, “for in this space there are so many interwoven, competing and conflicting discourses that distinguishing traditional from non-traditional in the day-to-day is difficult to sustain even if one were in a state of permanent reflection.” 34

Indigenous People with Disability in the Colonial Press

The National Library of Australia’s Trove digitized newspaper database was searched for Australian newspaper articles published between the 1830s and 1930s. This period was selected as it marks one century of the “freedom of the press” following the government lifting of press censorship in 1824. 35 It was also the period when numerous newspapers were published on a weekly basis and witnessed Australia becoming a Federation of States under the British Commonwealth in 1901. Near the end of the nineteenth century there were 599 metropolitan daily and weekly, suburban and country newspapers and magazines published in Australia. Of these, 466 were published in country areas. 36

Tables 3.1 and 3.2 show the key search words and their meanings used in the analysis. The articles selected used disability terms in relation to Indigenous peoples. The search terms were obtained from the literature and our lifelong experiential knowledge on disability and Aboriginal affairs. The meanings and synonyms of these terms were searched in a nineteenth-century English dictionary to ensure the meanings are the same in the research period. Given that there were no adequate Australian published dictionaries for that period, the Oxford dictionaries published in London were used for this study. Many of the articles obtained have used more than one of these search terms.

Table 3.1   Terms describing disability searched in the newspapers database, 1830–1939

Search term



An institution for receiving, maintaining and, so far as possible, ameliorating the condition of persons suffering from bodily defects, mental maladies or other misfortunes


No, or limited, sense of visual capabilities and sight


One who creeps, halts or limps; one who is partially or wholly deprived of the use of one or more of his limbs; a lame person


Lacking the sense of hearing; insensible to sounds

Deformed/ deformity

To mar the natural form or shape of; put out of shape; disfigure, as by malformation of a limb or some other part of the body


Blind and deaf; the two words are connected. The origin sense being then “dull of perception”


Lacking strength; lacking capacity for the forcible action or resistance; weak; specifically reduced to a state of weakness as by sickness or age


To place at a disadvantage by the imposition of any embarrassment, impediment or disability


Mentally feeble; fatuous; having mental faculties undeveloped or greatly impaired


To make worse; diminish in quantity, value, excellence strength or any other desirable quality; deteriorate, weaken, enfeeble as to impair the health or character


Be infirm or sick; to weaken enfeeble; not sound in health; impaired in health or fatality


Unsound in the mind; unsound or deranged in the mind


Bruised or maimed; crippled or disabled by injury to or defect of a limb or limbs


Mad; moonstruck, insane; affect by lunacy; periodically insane, with lucid intervals; crazy


Belonging to or characteristic of the intellect; as the mental power or faculties


Dumb; incapable or utterance; not having the power of speech


To render helpless, useless or ineffective, as if by paralysis

Physical defect

A recognized defect of the physical body; diagnosed defect


In a state of stupor; having the faculties deadened or dulled; stupefied, either permanently or temporarily; lacking ordinary activity of mind

Table 3.2   Terms describing Australian Indigenous peoples searched in the newspapers database, 1830–1939

Search term



The first inhabitants; pertaining to Aborigines


An Aboriginal inhabitant


The primitive inhabitants of a country; the people living in a country at the earliest period of which anything is known; the original fauna and flora of a given geographical area


A member of one of the dark-colored races; a negro or other dark-skinned person


A black person; a negro; an Aboriginal inhabitant


A black person; a negro


A human being with dark colored skin


An Australian native woman; an old woman generally


Born or originating in a particular place or country


Of Indigenous origin or growth; not exotic or of foreign origin or production belonging by birth


A native of the West Indies or one of the Australian Aborigines


A baby; a child; especially, the child of a member of any negroid race

A total of 75 articles were obtained. Five articles were excluded as the term “native” was used to describe the birthplace of a European, such as “a native of London,” rather than an Indigenous person. Four articles were excluded due to the article text being unreadable. A total of 66 newspaper articles were included in this study. Table 3.3 shows the number of newspaper articles found for each decade from 1830. The largest number of matching articles were published in the 1880s and 1890s.

Table 3.3   Number of relevant newspaper articles per decade, 1830s–1930s


Number of articles

























The main theme identified from the analysis of the news articles examined focused on labeling and categorizing Indigenous peoples within a Eurocentric medical framework. The articles commonly used the following phrases to describe an ab-normal Indigenous person:

  • “Aboriginal cripple” 37
  • “old lubra 38 who was blind” 39
  • “old black cripple” 40
  • “the gin was a cripple” 41
  • “imbecile Aboriginal” 42
  • “partially imbecile Aboriginal native” 43
  • “old blind native woman” 44
  • “deaf and dumb Aboriginal” 45
  • “The native was an old helpless inoffensive cripple” 46
  • “blind bobby” 47
There are five elements to this main theme presented under the headings below: disability a consequence of Indigenous inferiority; pathways to welfare; protection; criminalization; institutionalization.

1. Disability a Consequence of Indigenous Inferiority

This first element framed the prevalence and incidence of impairment in Indigenous communities as a consequence of the Indigenous people’s “inferiority/inability” to prevent, or adapt to, the European invasion. Disability was discussed as a consequence of the frontier wars during the first century of European invasion. 48 For example, one article 49 stated that “one native who was humpbacked and a cripple for life, as a result of injuries, understood locally to have been inflicted some time ago by a white man by means of a tomahawk.” Some articles 50 presented statistics on the prevalence of impairments in the local Indigenous communities. Similarly, an interview with John Alce about the implications of European invasion on Indigenous peoples made the following statement about the spread of diseases and represents Indigenous people’s approaches to impairment and disability as inferior and archaic:

The ranks of the island natives, numbering between two and three hundred, have been decimated by a dire scourge, the effects of which are still visible on both old and young. Mr. Markey gives a harrowing description of some of the sufferers, who in their appalling ignorance are indifferent to the consequences of the disease. With these unfortunates, as well as seven blind men and twelve deaf and dumb children. 51

A letter from a government minister 52 published in 1889 reported that “new-born children are frequently killed by their mothers—of twins the female, or if one sex the weaker, also all the children who are feeble or cripples and many bastards.” Some articles mocked Indigenous traditional approaches to defining and responding to impairments. For example:

A well-known figure in the streets of Palmerston for many years past—Cripple Jimmy, a Larrakeyah native—died suddenly … Jimmy’s sudden taking off will not tend to increase their confidence in the white man’s methods of healing. This is to be regretted, as the distrust entails much needless suffering. Had Jimmy chosen to see the doctor earlier, he might still have been alive, and as well as his deformity would ever permit him to be. 53

Some articles discussed the Indigenous cultural approaches to supporting Indigenous people that were experiencing the physical effects of illness and disease. 54 For example, Leckie 55 published a newspaper article titled “Black Magic,” which mocked and ridiculed Indigenous healers as inferior.

2. Pathways to Welfare

Many articles used impairment to frame Indigenous people as dependents, unproductive and a resource burden on colonial farmsteads and outstations. While constructing Indigenous people as a resource burden, many articles reported on the allocation of “government rations” and “handouts” to Indigenous people with impairments as fulfilling their Christian duties. 56 Some colonial farm-station managers published opinion pieces to voice their dissatisfaction of owners and managers of colonial outstations who provided compensation to Indigenous people with impairment in order to retain the services of Indigenous peoples as laborers. 57 An outstation manager’s letter to the Editor linked the “slaughter” of Indigenous peoples to the allocation of welfare to Indigenous peoples with disabilities on their outstation farmstead:

When they [Indigenous people] are on the station it is cheaper to feed them than to let them help themselves … this mob of cousins, aunts, blind uncles, etc., have to be looked after [by the station] so as to retain the services of two or three good ones [Indigenous people], of which there are still a few left in spite of the slaughter there has been lately. 58

The authors of these articles connected the prevalence of impairments to their desires of capitalism to expand the global colonial empire within a Christian philosophy. Below is an example from a farm-station manager’s letter to the editor expressing his dissatisfaction on how the government is treating Indigenous peoples with disabilities:

Frequently I observed old, decrepid [sic] natives and absolutely blind, of no possible use to the station—useless and only waiting for the grave to receive them—all kindly treated, well looked after, generously fed, and provided with rugs at the station’s cost. I will not say that there are not now and then instances of unnecessary hardship and gross cruelty inflicted on the natives by their “bosses,” just as there are instances of unreasoning cruelties inflicted in the various social strata of civilization. 59

The settlers were described as being generous by fulfilling their “duties” of Christianity. In effect, the handouts given to Indigenous peoples were a means of pacifying the Indigenous peoples and making the settlers feel like they were fulfilling their duties. Thus the violence of colonization was immune to scrutiny both through the pathologization of Indigenous people and by the provision of minimal levels of welfare. 60

3. Protection

The articles represented the Indigenous peoples as tractable and in need of protection and position, the Europeans as their “protectors.” For example, in an article titled “the last of their race” 61 the author discussed how Indigenous peoples were removed from their traditional lands and relocated to farms and out-stations.

[T]he small remnant of the Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land have been withdrawn from Flinders Island … They consist of 18 adult men, 22 adult women, 5 boys and 5 girls … one is nearly blind, one is imbecile, that of the remaining five … two of them having been pretty regularly employed as boatmen, and one having for years done the duty of cowherd, with a steadiness which would have been praise-worthy in a man bred to labor. They have all lived about in civilized habits. 62

The articles that discussed “protection” often represented the Europeans as the “saviors” of Indigenous people. 63 Some articles referenced how Indigenous geographic displacement is impacting on Indigenous people’s livelihood. For example, an opinion article from 1898 similarly stated that:

[T]he government … should protect them [Indigenous people] from suffering starvation through legislation. Game [wild fauna] is scarce in the district, many of the blacks are old and decrepit, some even blind … as their protector [government] should recommend that steps be taken to ameliorate their condition. 64

Protection and welfare worked hand in hand. An opinion article in the Western Australian stated:

Europeans who take a sympathizing interest in the race of human beings whose primitive habits and wretchedness we are bound, as their superior, to improve and ameliorate so far as we are able. It has been a mistake of longstanding on the part of the government—a mistake which I have long vainly endeavored to have removed—the neglect, socially speaking, of the feeble, the sick and the blind among our Aborigines. 65

4. Criminalization of Indigeneity and Disability

Indigenous people with disabilities who were involved in the criminal justice system featured strongly in the material collected. Some Indigenous people with disabilities 66 who were involved in the criminal justice system were identified by their impairment, such as “deaf Johnny, an attempt to commit a capital offence” 67 or “mad Tommy” 68 or by both their impairment and indigeneity, such as “Aborigine declared insane.” 69 For example, an article about a murder 70 stated that “there was no sign of lameness or any other physical defect about [the accused].” An article titled “half-caste Aborigine acquitted” 71 reported that “the inspector general of the insane (Dr. Bently) said that Johnnie was sane on August 23 but must have been insane on the date of the murder.” Similarly, an article titled “Aborigine Declared Insane” 72 stated that “Thomas Shaw, the half-caste Aborigine… has been classified as insane at the time of the tragedy.”

Prisons were said to have an “invasion of Aborigines and lunatics.” 73 Indigenous people with disability who were involved in the criminal justice system were also represented as dependent on handouts from settler communities. For example, a magistrate stated in an opinion piece 74 that some Indigenous people with disability were committing crimes, such as theft, because of disadvantage. He gave the following account of a convicted Indigenous person:

I was resident magistrate of Bunbury … I know the native, Banyan. He came to my house with other natives in 1858. He … was partially deformed. … he was brought here into court, and appeared helpless and decrepid [sic] … [and] began to draw rations as a sick native in 1859. 75

Treatment reflected the use of the medical model of “impairment” in the criminal justice system. The type and severity of a person’s impairment were assessed and diagnosed under the European medical model of impairment and functioning. For example, a news report of a court hearing in 1897 described “the case of an Aboriginal girl ‘Bluey’ … who has the appearance of an imbecile [who] was remanded for medical examination.” 76 Similarly, a report of a convicted Indigenous person stated that “the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, but stated that it believed that the accused was insane at the time he committed the deed.” 77

Indigenous people with disability in the criminal justice system were discriminated against, humiliated and disrespected and they were neither treated as equal to an able-bodied Indigenous person or a European. An opinion piece mocked an Indigenous person with impairment who provided evidence in a criminal court hearing against a European suspected of property theft:

Can it be possible that the South Australian Government accept the evidence of Aborigines in a court of justice! I notice in your police reports that a blackfellow gave evidence in a portmanteau stealing case, and (tell it not in Gath) that darkie was deaf and dumb! Why, he might point to a portmanteau and mean a saddle, or a pair of boots, or any other article made of leather. 78

Another incident in a court setting demonstrated how an Indigenous person was not properly supported in providing evidence against a European who was suspected of selling alcohol to Indigenous people. The author of the article described this event as “funny”:

One of the funniest things in the way of Police Court work was the attempt made on Monday last to convict an Aboriginal grog-seller on the “evidence” of a deaf and dumb black-fellow, who (to add to the singularity of the thing) had his peculiar signs and antics interpreted by a Chinaman. Mr. Knight stood it for a while, but when the ludicrous nature of the joke had been played out he advised the police to look round for testimony that was more reliable. A deaf and dumb blackfellow assisted by a Chinaman in an Australian police court is not often met with. 79

The criminal justice system openly discriminated against Indigenous people with impairment due to cultural and language differences: “[T]he jury found the accused was unable to understand the proceedings owing to his ignorance of English. They also found him to be insane. He was committed to the lunatic asylum during the Governor’s pleasure.” 80 The police and military institutions recruited many Indigenous people as police officers to maintain law and order within Indigenous communities. This process of divide and rule was also a means of controlling Indigenous resistance against the spread of European rule. A newspaper article from 1865 reported that “a black-fellow—a cripple—had left Mr Dutton’s station, and was shortly afterwards met by the black police … [and] was immediately shot dead.” 81 Similarly, in 1875 an article described how an Indigenous person with impairment was framed for a crime:

The case of Nabbagee Tom … a poor old cripple, who could hardly speak or hear, brought down from the North West because a smart native assistant, Jim Crow, had knocked an unintelligible confession out of him. Jim Crow and some white police, go out in a searching party. They see two blacks, and gallop them down. 82

5. Institutionalization of Indigeneity and Impairment

Analysis of the data suggested that the institutionalization of Indigenous peoples with disabilities was discussed in three ways.

First, the articles reported the advancements of the psychological sciences and the impact these “advances” had for Indigenous people. Indigenous peoples who were accused or convicted of a crime were assessed by a medical professional in psychological sciences. Indigenous people with impairment were imprisoned under the Insanity Act 1884 for people regarded as “insane.”

Wallinjera an Aboriginal belonging to the Uranna tribe … inquiries showed that the accused was once in Woogaroo, and he was still subject to delusions. The judge then took evidence on the point as to accused’s sanity at the present moment, the principal witness being Dr Voss; and the jury, after fifteen minutes consideration, found him insane. The judge then directed the accused to be kept in strict custody in Rockhampton Gaol … until death with as provided for by the Insanity Act of 1884. 83

Many Indigenous people with impairment were institutionalized in “destitute asylums” or “mental asylums.” Some articles reported on the number of “asylum inmates” by Indigeneity, age, sex and type of impairment. 84

Second, segregating Indigenous peoples onto reserves, outstations or missions. This practice is linked to the power to “protect” (category 3 above) Indigenous people with impairment. Many organizations established to “protect” and represent Indigenous peoples, such as the Aborigines’ Friends’ Society, reported on the Indigenous “inmates” (age, sex, impairment, etc.) at some missions. Many journalists and writers 85 of the time reported on their “travels” to Indigenous missions. For example, a letter to the editor 86 stated that “these reserves should be under the control of specially qualified white protectors … [to enable Indigenous people to care for] the old, the lame or the blind.”

Third, some Indigenous people who were diagnosed as either “deaf,” “dumb” or “blind” were placed in the Deaf and Dumb Institution or the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institute. 87 During the 1890s, these two institutions reported on their services and “inmates” in the print media. The Deaf and Dumb Institution 88 would only accept Indigenous people if the Aborigines Protection Board would allocate funding.

The Future of Disability and the News Media

The field of disability studies has until recently neglected the people with disability outside of the non-metropole. This chapter is a contribution to the project of decolonizing disability studies by critically analyzing the representations of Australian Indigenous peoples with disabilities in the colonial print media. This was achieved using Martin Nakata’s standpoint theory, the cultural interface and supports the new paradigm emerging from critical disability studies.

Our analysis of the colonial newspapers has identified five main discourses in the representation of Indigenous people with disability within the theme of a Eurocentric medical framework:

  1. Disability a consequence of Indigenous inferiority.
  2. Pathways to welfare.
  3. Protection.
  4. Criminalization of Indigeneity and impairment.
  5. Institutionalization of Indigeneity and impairment.
The findings of this study have implications for disability and Indigenous media studies. Our findings show that the Australian media was used as a tool in the first 100 years of settlement to impose a white able-bodied normalcy and racial superiority in a colonized nation state. The print press acted to support white power structures and non-Indigenous occupation of Indigenous lands and resources. The study adds support to Gilroy and Donelly’s 89 claim that disability research inherently serves the interests of the non-Aboriginal affluent classes by falsely justifying “whiteness” and “ability” as normative. Gilroy stated that:

There are volumes of knowledge, a whole epistemological library in fact, on Indigenous people with a disability. This knowledge is not owned by Indigenous people, rather this library operates as a resource for non-Indigenous researchers and government decision makers to legitimate themselves as the controllers and bearers of the “truth” on disability. 90

During the period under consideration, the media helped create and portray an imagined “superior being” (white/male/European/able-bodied) and a “non-superior being” (black/Indigenous/disabled/impaired-bodied). This was done in two ways. First, the Indigenous peoples were “culturally othered” as the inferior human race when contrasted to predominantly European communities. As such, eugenic philosophies influenced both media and public policy that encouraged the institutionalization of impaired persons. Professionals (white middle classes, medically trained men) were positioned as experts to determine the inclusion or exclusion of “defectives” influencing the removal of “defectives” from society. Impairment and indigeneity counted as “defective” within this dominant hegemony.

The findings have implications for future research in critical disability studies, media studies and colonial history. The findings support that we need to read disability differently, 91 not only in texts but in the media. The findings supports Meekosha’s claim that “we cannot meaningfully separate the disabled subaltern from the colonized subaltern.” 92 The articles authors represented in this study were focused on labeling and categorizing Indigenous peoples on the basis of their Indigeneity and impairments. This was done in the context of European “superiority.”

The newspaper articles categorized, represented and treated the Indigenous and the disabled-bodied as one embodied identity. As such, Indigenous peoples with impairments were “doubly labeled” within a white medicalized and racialized system that inscribed and normalized Indigeneity and functioning. The articles represented Indigeneity on the basis of radicalized stereotypical body features, such as skin color and the practice of “traditional” cultures and languages. This double labeling resulted in the criminalization and institutionalization of Indigenous people with a disability as a “social problem” to be addressed within taken-for-granted Western practices, thus reinforcing the normalcy of colonization.


Victor Isaacs and Rod Kirkpatrick, Two Hundred Years of Sydney Newspapers: A Short History (Richmond, NSW: Rural Press, 2003).

We use the term Indigenous in this chapter to include both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Melissa Sweet, Luke Pearson and Pat Dudgeon, “@IndigenousX: A Case Study of Community-Led Innovation in Digital Media,” Media International Australia 149, no.1 (2013): 104–111; Kerry McCallum, Lisa Waller and Michael Meadows, “Raising the Volume: Indigenous Voices in News Media and Policy,” Media International Australia 142, no.1 (2012): 101–111; Marcia Langton, Well I Heard It On the Radio and I Saw It On the Television (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993).

Katie Ellis and Gerard Goggin, Disability and the Media (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Ellis and Goggin, Disability and the Media.

Philip Smith and Tim Phillips, “Collective Belonging and Mass Media Consumption: Unraveling How Technological Medium and Cultural Genre Shape the National Imaginings of Australians,” Sociological Review 54, no. 4 (2006): 818–846.

John Gilroy, Jo Ragen and Helen Meekosha, “Conceptual Framework for Policy and Research Development with Indigenous Persons with Disability,” Journal of Australian Aboriginal Studies no. 2 (2013): 42–58; Helen Meekosha, “Decolonising Disability: Thinking and Acting Globally,” Disability & Society 26, no. 6 (2011): 667–682; David Hollinsworth, “Decolonizing Indigenous Disability in Australia,” Disability & Society 28 (2013): 601–615; Julie A. King, Mark Brough and Marie Knox, “Negotiating Disability and Colonisation: The Lived Experience of Indigenous Australians with a Disability,” Disability & Society 29 (2014): 738–750.

Toni Schofield and John Gilroy, “Indigeniety and Health,” in A Sociological Approach to Health Determinants, ed. Toni Schofield (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 99–122.

Hollinsworth, “Decolonizing Indigenous Disability in Australia”; Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 1999); Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1995); Shaun Grech and Karen Soldatic, “Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies: Why Colonialism Matters in the Disability and Global South Debate,” Social Identities 21, no. 1 (2015): 6–21.

Cameron Greensmith, “Pathologizing Indigeneity in the Caledonia ‘Crisis,’” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 1, no. 2 (2012): 14–42.

Ethel Alderete, The Health of Indigenous People (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1999); United Nations, State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (New York: United Nations, 2009).

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: An Overview (Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011).

Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788, 4th ed. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2010); Henry Reynolds, Dispossession: Black Australians and White Invaders, Australian experience (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989).

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Isaacs and Kirkpatrick, Two Hundred Years of Sydney Newspapers; Rhonda Jolly, Media Ownership and Regulation: A Chronology Part One: From Print to Radio Days and Television Nights (Canberra: Parliamentary Library, 2016), 2.

John Gilroy, “The Theory of the Cultural Interface and Indigenous People with Disabilities in New South Wales,” Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism 10 (2009): 44–59; John Gilroy, “The Participation of Aboriginal Persons with Disability in Disability Services in New South Wales, Australia” (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2012).

Gilroy et al., “Conceptual Framework for Policy and Research Development.”

Isaacs and Kirkpatrick, Two Hundred Years of Sydney Newspapers.

Gilroy et al., “Conceptual Framework for Policy and Research Development”; Gilroy, “The Theory of the Cultural Interface”; Neil Thomson and Chris Snow, Disability and Handicap Among Aborigines of the Taree Area of New South Wales (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1994); Lindsay Gething. “A Case Study of Australian Indigenous People with Disabilities,” Australian Disability Review no. 2 (1995): 77–87.

Hollinsworth, “Decolonizing Indigenous Disability in Australia”; Grech and Soldatic, “Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies.”

Langton, Well I Heard It On the Radio.

Howard Sercombe, “The Face of the Criminal Is Aboriginal,” Journal of Australian Studies 19, no. 43 (1995): 76–94.

Kim Bullimore, “Media Dreaming: Representations of Aboriginality in Modern Australian Media,” Asia Pacific Media Educator 6 (1999): 72–81.

Ellis and Goggin, Disability and the Media.

Lingling Zhang and Beth Haller, “Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People with Disabilities,” Communication Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2013): 319–334.

Beth Haller, Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media (Louisville, KY: Advocado Press, 2010).

Meekosha, Decolonising Disability.

Gilroy et al., “Conceptual Framework for Policy and Research Development”; Grech and Soldatic. “Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies”; Meekosha, “Decolonising Disability”; Karen Soldatic, “Postcolonial Reproductions: Disability, Indigeneity and the Formation of the White Masculine Settler State of Australia,” Social Identities 21, no.1 (2015): 53–68.

Helen Meekosha and Russell Shuttleworth, “What’s So ‘Critical’ About Critical Disability Studies?” Australian Journal of Human Rights 15, no. 1 (2009): 47–76.

Gilroy, “The Theory of the Cultural Interface”; Gilroy, “The Participation of Aboriginal Persons.”

Ngahiiti Faulkner and John Gilroy, “Encountering Narratives and Narrating Encounters: Comparing and Contrasting Kaupapa Maori and Indigenous Standpoint Theories” (paper presented at the International Indigenous Development Research Conference Auckland, NZ, November 25–28, 2014).

Martin Nakata, “The Cultural Interface: An Exploration of the Intersection of Western Knowledge Systems and Torres Strait Islander Positions and Experiences” (PhD thesis, James Cook University, 1997); Martin Nakata, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface: Underlying Issues at the Intersection of Knowledge and Information Systems,” IFLA Journal 28, no. 5–6 (2002): 281–291.

Gilroy, “The Theory of the Cultural Interface”; Gilroy, “The Participation of Aboriginal Persons”; John Gilroy, “History of Aboriginal People with Disability in NSW: How Are Aboriginal People with Disability Positioned and Represented in the NSW Disability Services Sector?” Interaction: Special Edition on Aboriginal People with Disability 24, no. 1 (2010): 6–29.

Nakata, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface.”

Willa McDonald, “Precursor to the Profile: The Character Sketches in Colonial Australia,” in Profile Pieces: Journalism and the “Human Interest” Bias, ed. Sue Joseph and Richard Lance Keeble (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2015), 47.

Henry Mayer, The Press in Australia (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1964), 10, quoted in Jolly, Media Ownership and Regulation, 5.

“Collision on the Western Railway,” Empire, September 30, 1868, 3; “The Courier,” Brisbane Courier, September 25, 1868, 2.

Lubra means “Aboriginal woman.”

“Smallpox Among the Aborigines,” Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, September 23, 1882, 2.

“District News,” Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, October 17, 1882, 7.

“News and Notes,” West Australian, August 2, 1898, 4.

“Sifting, Local and Otherwise,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, August 28, 1891, 3.

“News and Notes,” West Australian, August 14, 1897, 5.

“Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land,” West Australian Sunday Times, February 12, 1899, 1.

“The Federal Land Tax Review,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, May 26, 1911, 2.

“News and Notes,” West Australian, June 3, 1892, 4.

“Western Mail—Christmas Number,” West Australian, November 28, 1898, 2.

“Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land”; “Albany Quarter Session,” West Australian, June 25, 1880, 3.

“The Forrest River Mission—Return of Mr T. Ormerod, an Interview,” West Australian, February 11, 1899, 10.

“The Advertiser,” South Australian Advertiser, February 17, 1860, 2; “The Aborigines Question and Leprosy,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, March 16, 1900, 2; “News and Notes,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, August 24, 1900, 3; “Religious News,” South Australian Register, July 1, 1889, 3.

“Return of John Alce,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, January 6, 1923, 5.

“Religious News.”

“News and Notes,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, February 12, 1904, 3.

“News and Notes,” West Australian, July 18, 1889, 2; “Died Under Choloroform,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, February 12, 1904, 2.

G. Leckie, “Black Magic,” Argus, August 27, 1932, 7.

“Our Natives,” West Australian, July 17, 1883, 2; “News and Notes,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, May 25, 1889, 2.

“A Day with North Queensland Blacks,” Brisbane Courier, June 6, 1891, 6.

“Correspondence,” West Australian, December 13, 1892, 6.

“The Native Question,” Western Mail, September 16, 1899, 67.

Grech and Soldatic, “Decolonising Eurocentric Disability Studies.”

“The Last of Their Race,” Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, January 29, 1848, 4.

“The Last of Their Race.”

“Cases for the Aborigines’ Protection Board,” West Australian, February 16, 1897, 6; “North Australia,” Brisbane Courier, September 18, 1926, 9.

“Deplorable Condition of Aboriginals,” Warwick Argus, May 14, 1898, 5.

“Correspondence,” West Australian, May 29, 1883, 3.

“A Day with North Queensland Blacks,” Brisbane Courier, June 6, 1891, 6; “Inquest,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, December 1, 1888, 3; “News and Notes,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, July 24, 1903, 3; “Tuesday, July,” West Australian, July 10, 1883, 3; “Echuca,” The Age, December 13, 1924, 26.

“The Brisbane Courier,” Brisbane Courier, May 12, 1885, 4; “Queensland News,” Brisbane Courier, May 7, 1885, 5.

“Lubra’s Throat Cut,” Argus December 15, 1921, 11.

“Aborigine Declared Insane,” Argus, May 31, 1926, 19.

“Supreme Court,” West Australian, February 8, 1881, 3.

“Murderer Insane—Half-Caste Aborigine Aquitted,” Argus, September 7, 1927, 27.

“Aborigine Declared Insane.”

“The Passing Show,” Argus, May 4, 1918, 5.

“Supreme Court—Civil Sittings,” Perth Gazette and the West Australian Times, May 1, 1874, 3.

“Supreme Court—Civil Sittings.”

“In the City Police Court,” West Australian, August 10, 1897, 7.

“Lubra’s Throat Cut,” Australasian, December 17, 1921, 45.

“A New Arrival’s Jottings,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, February 8, 1879, 2.

“Local Court—Truro,” Kapunda Herald, February 9, 1892, 3.

“Intercolonial Telegrams,” West Australian, March 3, 1893, 6.

“Legislative Assembly,” Brisbane Courier, August 5, 1865, 5.

“The Western Australian Times,” Western Australian Times, October 12, 1875, 2.

“Rockhampton Supreme Court,” Queensland Times, Ipswich and General Advertiser, April 25, 1895, 3.

“The Advertiser,” South Australian Advertiser, January 31, 1859, 2; “The Sketcher: Notes of a Short Stay at Woogaroo,” in Queenslander, August 3, 1872, 8.

“Queensland Aboriginals,” Brisbane Courier, June 18, 1895, 2; “The Aborigines’ Friends’ Society,” South Australian Weekly Chronicle, August 14, 1858, 3; “The Aborigines Mission,” Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, August 8, 1882, 4; “An Enthusiastic Missionary,” Northern Territory Times and Gazette, September 20, 1901, 3.

“Queensland Aboriginals,” Brisbane Courier, June 18, 1895, 2.

“Deaf Dumb and Blind Institution,” Brisbane Courier, May 28, 1864, 4; June 25, 1896, 3; January 30, 1896, 2; January 30, 1896, 2; April 7, 1898, 7.

“News and Notes,” West Australian, September 17, 1897, 4.

John Gilroy and Michelle Donelly, “Australian Indigenous People with Disability: Ethics and Standpoint Theory,” in Disability in the Global South: The Critical Handbook, ed. Shaun Grech and Karen Soldatic (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 545.

Gilroy, “The Participation of Aboriginal Persons,” 116.

Tanya Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

Gilroy et al., “Conceptual Framework for Policy and Research Development.”

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