How to Appropriately Represent Disability in Marketing

In July we celebrated Disability Pride Month, a month dedicated to commemorate “accepting and honoring each person’s uniqueness and seeing it as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity”, whilst connecting people with a real sense of the importance of disability justice.

Scarlett Rushby-Smith

Over the past two years, with cultural shifts and hard hitting events shining a light on prejudice and equality worldwide, the advertising and media industry has been rightly focused on improving its diversity in ads. And with sporting events such as the Paralympics and Commonwealth Games showing a broad range of disabilities, there is more awareness than ever before. 

However, when it comes to diverse advertising, we still see a heavy focus being placed on two areas of Diversity – race and gender.  Other marginalized groups, such as those living with a disability, are still being vastly under-represented. 

With over 1 Billion people living with disability worldwide – this group represents 15% of the population and consumer landscape, as well as “fitting into a specific demographic”. As marketers, it should be a priority to ensure our efforts are focused on creating campaigns that aim to not only include people with disabilities, but to tailor them to ensure they create the best UX for those consumers too.

It’s crucial to remember that Representation Matters. Tokenism is always a worrying factor when it comes to introducing people with disabilities into your advertising campaigns, and the easiest ways to combat this are scope, and authenticity. 

Scope

It’s important to keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. 

“A disability is any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities or interact with the world around them”. 

Marketers will often opt for an image of a wheelchair user to clearly represent their “diverse” product or service, before looking to illustrate or use images of someone with a hearing or visual impairment (9.2% of the world’s population). Not to mention those living with chronic pain, underlying health issues, and more. 

It’s imperative to consider intersectionality within your representation efforts. There are an estimated 2-3 million LGBT+ people with a registered disability, and allowing space in advertising for people who identify with these groups, given the extra challenges and societal barriers they may face, can be powerful.

Authenticity

The second factor to consider is how to ensure your ads come across as authentic, and this is a challenge that many large scale brands and organizations face on a daily basis. Some brands who are getting this right include Benefit Cosmetics, Barbie, and Microsoft who are highlighting disabilities in different ways, while all telling the same story; that disability should be celebrated. 

a row of 7 new barbie dolls. This features barbie dolls of all different skintones, including a wheelchair user barbie, a barbie with alopecia, a male doll with long hair, a barbie with a prosthetic leg and a barbie with vitiligo. They are lined up and facing towards the camera

You should also look inwards. Could your business do more to hire people with disabilities, or find ways for the workplace to be more inclusive and accessible. A brand that practices what it preaches is always going to ooze authenticity. 

Additionally, you need to make sure that you’re representing people with disabilities for the right reasons. Using a model or actor who has a disability, without it being the key focus of your ad can demonstrate a commitment to equality and fairness within your brand, without using it as a token gesture. People want to see themselves represented as people, rather than being defined solely by their disability. In the right environment however, driving awareness for those with disabilities by making it a central focus to your campaign, can be equally as effective and powerful. 

Accessible for All?

An area of advertising that has been vastly undervalued is the accessibility of your campaigns. This is easy to overlook, and equally as easy to make someone feel excluded. There is really no point in including diverse representations in your advertising, if the content created cannot be viewed or experienced by those who belong to that group. 

Consider areas such as “inclusive” or “universal” design. Inclusive design starts by identifying the most rare or extreme needs, otherwise known as edge cases or stress cases. By contrast, universal design aims to serve the broadest range of people and situations. Color, contrast, and semantics can all be really important design elements for those with Neurodiversity, for example. 

Think about how your ads are being viewed – through the experiences of those with disabilities. People with audio and/or visual impairments often use e-readers, subtitles or alt text to consume campaigns. Designers should be thinking about this from the storyboard to the moment they go live, ensuring that their UX is just as show stopping for those who use these kinds of tools. A huge part of DEI is making sure things are equitable, and people with disabilities shouldn’t be getting a worse UX. 

Social media has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with the implementation of automated closed captions on Instagram stories and IGTV, the introduction of Alt Text, and much more. Use these tools, and make sure you learn how to use them properly. 

Best Practices for Considering Disabilities Within Advertising

1:Represent The Diversity of Disability 

Remember that disability is a huge spectrum, and not all of them are visible. Make sure to highlight the intersectionality of diversity and disability when using spokespeople in your ad campaigns. 

2: The Power of Words

Inclusive language can be key to a powerful piece of copy. This means acknowledging disabilities in your messaging to create a more accessible environment that involves every reader. Also consider your phrasing, to avoid derogatory statements about the lifestyle or experiences of those living with a disability. For example – calling wheelchair users “wheelchair bound” is a prime example of a commonly used phrase that people with disabilities often have to deal with. Tim Rushby-Smith, a paraplegic writer who focuses on his experiences with a Disability said “My wheelchair doesn’t bind me, it liberates me”. Make sure you are using commonly accepted terms and phrases, preferred by those with disabilities themself, and this will help to enhance authenticity and acceptance. 

3: Increase Accessibility

Use the tools available to you wherever possible to work on enhancing user experience for those with different requirements. Alt text, closed captions and subtitles are becoming readily available, and they’re there to be used. You can learn more about how to increase accessibility in your social advertising here.

4: Accept Feedback 

Accepting that you’re not the expert in this field and reaching out for support can be your most priceless tool. Research and enlist the support of disabled creators and pay for their advice – their lived experience will be more valuable than any help article. 

Thoughtful, representative should be inherent to your brand – something that you continually work on to make each and every customer feel valued, represented and appreciated. For more information about inclusive marketing and the value of representation have a look at some of Incubeta’s latest blogs.

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