Humour me for a moment and imagine you weren’t able to read this sentence. Perhaps you might try listening to an audio clip of the text instead, but all you hear is deafening silence. Or maybe see if someone could help mime it using British Sign Language. Which would be great… if you knew anyone that knew how to. Hmm. How much time does it take to learn braille?
Now back to reality.
If this hypothetical scenario made for slightly uneasy - and frustrating - reading, rest assured you aren’t alone. Although it may have sounded a bit far-fetched (and it’s probably fairly unlikely that any one person would experience all of those barriers simultaneously), these are just a handful of examples of the difficulties that some 1.3 billion people around the world with disabilities encounter on a daily basis. That’s right: at the time of writing 16% of the global population currently have some form of physical or mental condition that causes them to live in a way in which they must adapt to a world that is largely not built for them.
Unsurprisingly, this number is gradually rising because of the increase in noncommunicable diseases and longer life expectancies across the board.
Unequal representations are problematic for everyone
However, despite the fact that this demographic accounts for such a sizeable proportion of the population, depictions of the disabled community in advertising, entertainment and media are sparse – and are often stereotypical and verging on tokenistic when they do occur.
“Recent research from the ad industry bears out this disparity. In the U.S., 26% of Americans are disabled, but they are seen in only 1% of primetime TV ads, Nielsen’s 2021 Ad Intel report found. In the U.K., 22% of the population is disabled but only 4% of TV ads feature disabled people, according to broadcaster Channel 4."
New research by Samsung UK has revealed nearly half of the population (45%) expressing discomfort when talking about disability. It’s a contentious topic in society, not least because of the (largely negative) connotations attached to it, but also because - as far as most developed nations go - people aren’t always sure of how to approach the subject without causing unintended offence or being seen as insensitive or ignorant. Speaking from personal experience as a wheelchair user, I’ve often felt a strong sense of obligation to put others’ minds at ease by addressing the wheely large elephant in the room (humour helps); nothing kills a conversation quicker than when one party is constantly walking on eggshells (no pun intended).
Disability - both visible as well as certain hidden ones - can sometimes be understandably difficult to talk openly about, because people are wary of acknowledging the obvious for fear of doing or saying the 'wrong thing’, even if it’s simply an offer to help reach a high shelf or hold a door open for someone (just for the record, you’re unlikely to offend anyone by doing either of those things). It’s not difficult to understand why this happens, but it does get boring. And it needs to change.
So how can we shift this narrative?
In short, by having more open conversations about the subject, fostering more positive attitudes towards notions of disability as a concept, and increasing visibility of the diversity that exists in our society shown through mainstream channels.
Advertising done right
Most recently, tech titan Apple launched a video campaign in a bid to promote International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). The TV spot featured a diverse cast of individuals with different disabilities, all demonstrating their own spin on how they’ve adapted and leveraged the use of technology and devices to their advantage.
The advert reflected well on Apple, simultaneously showcasing the broad range of accessibility features and technical upgrades they had made to their software whilst also positioning themselves in a more than favourable light as a brand that advocates for inclusivity and digital equity.
Another example of successful PR was back in 2012, when London was set to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. As media buzz reached fever pitch, the country turned its gaze to the athletes representing the nation. In the lead up to the events, Channel 4 launched a marketing campaign to promote coverage of the Paralympic Games called "Meet the Superhumans".
Channel 4 was never one to shy away from tackling prickly topics like this, and the campaign was decidedly bold in its approach from the start. Instead of avoiding any emphasis on the athletes’ physical differences, it embraced them and showed the ways that they had adapted their bodies to their particular sport. The campaign continued in subsequent years with the most recent iteration of their TV adverts for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Channel 4’s initiative deserved the outpour of praise and recognition it received for two key reasons: it highlighted the determination and extraordinary skill that the disabled athletes had, yet it also reminded viewers that they were real people too – with flaws, imperfections and struggles like everyone else.
The campaign was intended to build up an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation of an event previously thought of as merely ‘the bit after the Olympics’. But in reality, it did something much more important than that. It altered societal perceptions of disability and created a shift in attitudes about a topic rarely discussed in public discourse. Additionally, viewership figures of the broadcaster during the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics reached up to 20 million (1/3 of the UK), in part due to the success of the campaign.
Well, that all sounds quite good. But why should businesses care?
Clearly, diversity drives innovation, audience engagement and delivers higher financial results. It has been proven time and again that businesses that score highly on diversity metrics are often also outperforming their peers and competitors. That isn’t a coincidence. Not only does it just make good business sense to embrace DE&I best practices, but having a diverse set of insights will naturally lead to the development of new, improved ways of doing things and contribute to a more open-minded, inclusive society. We shouldn’t stand for anything less.