Nearly 15% of the world’s population experiences some form of disability – yet historically, the portrayal of people with disabilities in marketing has rendered them all but invisible. Nothing about us without us expresses the conviction that people with disabilities must always be included from the beginning of any planning process and should never simply be an after-thought. In keeping with this conviction, the insights that follow were built with input from community partners and may be used as a starting point to help create marketing that positively and authentically represents people with disabilities – including, but more importantly, beyond key moments like Disability Employment Awareness Month campaigns. Every Disabled person has a right to experience the creative put out in the world. In partnership with Disability:IN, LaVant Consulting and others, we’re thrilled to share our accessible marketing playbook.
What is disability-inclusive marketing and why is it important?
Disability-inclusive marketing is built on the premise that marketing should represent and be accessible to all people with or without disabilities. Not only is including people with disabilities the right thing to do, but it also makes marketing more authentic. Around the world, over 1 billion people live with some form of disability. In the U.S., 20.3 million families have at least one member with a disability and one in four adults live with a disability. Ultimately, most people will live with some form of disability in their life. Furthermore, in the U.S., the total disposable income for working-age people with disabilities is about $490 billion. This is similar to other significant market segments such as Black and Hispanic Americans. This market size doubles when considering family members, caregivers, and others (American Institute of Research). Authentic marketing can do more to represent the wide range of abilities and neurodiversity in the world around us.
Definitions of Disability
There is no single way to define disability – it’s an umbrella term with different meanings across different people. One thing is certain: the world is filled with people who have a range of apparent and non-apparent disabilities. The ADA defines a person with a disability as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Yet many people don’t define themselves by or feel limited because of their disability — instead view disability as a strength.
Disability itself is incredibly diverse
Consider the different ways disabled people may be accessing your content.
Assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” Source: ATIA
This includes high-end technologies like specialized digital devices, such as refreshable braille displays or screen readers, hardware, such as prosthetic limbs, or no-tech solutions like paper flashcards, large print, canes or walkers.
If marketing content or campaigns aren’t created with accessibility in mind from the beginning, they may be incompatible with assistive technologies, preventing people from interacting with your brand.
While not an exhaustive list, these are some of the most commonly used assistive technologies to consider when creating accessible marketing content.
Word choice and appropriate language
Be thoughtful about word choice, but don’t let it derail the story
Consider using language that is both inclusive and empowering. There is no common language about how to address disability.
Some people advocate for the use of people-first language (e.g., people with disabilities), while others push for identity-first language (e.g., disabled people). This decision is related to the individual’s own relationship with their disability and their disability journey. Work closely with individuals by asking and using their preferences. It is important to acknowledge that disabled people are more than their disability. While language is important, don’t let it be so intimidating that you avoid the conversation altogether.
Three principles to accessibility
Ensure representation and adopt a growth mindset in teams
1.“Nothing about us, without us”
2. Consider accessibility a mindset, not a box to check
3. Start somewhere and build on what you learn
Accessibility efforts should show up throughout the entire project
From information gathering, briefing, content strategy, and production to design and engineering, accessibility should be considered.
Design and engineering:
Testing and launch:
Web accessibility is critical to making the internet accessible for all
Here are some key guidelines to consider when creating web experiences.
Video and Audio
It’s best to not convey information solely through audio or visual means
Video is a format that can be inaccessible to many if left without additional considerations. When creating videos and audio, it’s important to remember that not everyone will be able to hear or see your video content. This is also true for audio-only content, where a transcript should be available.
Custom captions can help everyone understand audio
Captions are text descriptions of all audio in a film or video, allowing these aspects to be accessed visually, helping not only deaf or hard-of-hearing people, but anyone watching videos in a noisy environment, quiet space, or without headphones.
They include dialogue, music, background noises, and differentiation between speakers. Captions should be part of the creative process for all videos– not just a last-minute add-on.
Audio descriptions and transcripts can help everyone understand videos
Audio description is an additional narration track intended primarily for blind and low-vision consumers of visual media.
It consists of a narrator talking as the media plays, describing what is happening on the screen, and providing information on key visual elements during the natural pauses in the audio. If the video doesn’t have a voice-over, audio descriptions are essential.
Transcripts can be thought of as plain text versions of your video or audio, making these formats more accessible.
For videos, a transcript should include not only dialogue but also descriptions of actions, important information on-screen, or references to people who are speaking. For audio-only media, transcripts convey all content including tones and sound effects.
Transcripts are useful not only for those accessing content via a screen reader, but they also allow people to read dialogue at their own pace compared to the prescribed pace of captioning. Many people prefer to consume content in text format. Similar to captions, transcripts can also help people who are watching your videos in a noisy environment, quiet space, or without headphones.
When sending emails, consider the needs of your recipient
While an individual approach is best, there are some best practices you can take for email content as well as for e-newsletters. Many of these follow the same best practices for general web accessibility. Check the help center of your preferred productivity software for accessibility checkers and related features.
Creative requirements for planning email marketing campaigns
Basic developer requirements for building email marketing campaigns
Preparing presentations with care
The goal of any presentation is to communicate with your audience, but it’s easy to exclude people unintentionally. The following guidance is intended to help make presentations more accessible for everyone, including disabled people.
If you aren’t able to share your slides in advance, consider sending an email or document with a bulleted outline of your presentation.
If you’re using acronyms, technical or obscure terminology, include a glossary with definitions. This information is especially helpful for sign language interpreters and captioners.
Creating accessible PDFs
PDFs are a great tool to package information and make it sendable, however the compressed format of this means not everyone can visually scan a document or make certain distinctions of color, or structure. Accessible PDFs are simply PDFs that are optimized for accessibility. Alongside the guidance below, check the tools or help center of your preferred PDF creation software for accessibility features. To create an accessible PDF there are a few key principles to keep in mind:
Giving accessible presentations
When giving presentations there are a few key steps you can take to make this more accessible for everyone. If presenting virtually, check the help center of your preferred video conferencing tool to enable captions and other accessibility features. This is increasingly important as teams work in hybrid formats.
Making accommodations for events
Event planners should factor in accessibility considerations at every stage of the planning process. Don’t wait until the last minute to think through your event’s accessibility. There are a few key principles to keep in mind when planning and running any event:
In-person events are a key channel for your brand to connect with people, and bring groups together. There are a few specific principles to keep in mind for in-person events:
In an increasingly hybrid world, virtual events are an essential way to connect with people globally. There are a few specific principles to keep in mind for virtual events:
Reach out for help from the right people and groups
Lived, underrepresented perspectives should always be included at the onset and throughout the creative process. When creating marketing content that features people with disabilities, reach out to internal employee resource groups or other community groups of people with disabilities for consultation. Realize that these consultations are volunteer-based, and avoid tokenizing people. There are many organizations like Disability:IN who can provide their perspectives, but if you’re getting help or resources from an external source, be sure to acknowledge their contribution appropriately with recognition, compensation, etc.
Empower self-representation in roles
Present people with disabilities in a positive, empowered way
Show people with disabilities in everyday situations – in school, at work, in the community. Individuals with disabilities should be expressing themselves, rather than having another person (such as a caregiver or family member) form opinions for them. Note that having a translator or ASL interpreter is fine, as long as the thoughts expressed are those of the person with disabilities. While the goal is to have the people with disabilities be the main focus of the work, it’s also OK to include an individual in a supporting role that they’d play in real life (e.g., a friend, a spouse, or child).
Represent the intersectionality of disability with other dimensions of diversity
Disability intersects with all types of demographic characteristics. Living with a disability is just one aspect of an individual’s identity. When portraying people with disabilities, consider other dimensions like race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, etc. It’s also important to consider that not everyone with a disability will primarily self-identify as disabled. Some may not self-identify as disabled at all.
Build work without stereotypes
Judy Heumann, a disability rights activist, provided thoughtful feedback on a Google Doodle celebrating the polio vaccine work of Dame Jean Macnamara: “...it is unfortunate that the rendering of her work has a child who is wearing braces and using crutches looking at herself without her braces or crutches. Post-polio survivors have fought for decades for people to see us with our braces, crutches, wheelchairs, and ventilators and value us for who we are. These pieces of technology have enabled us to fight for our rights as disabled people, winning victories such as the signing of the 504 regulations, the passage of the ADA, and the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.”