People with disabilities

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.

Developed in partnership with Disability:IN

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.

REMEMBER

Supporting people with disabilities is a 12-month commitment. The anniversary month of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Disability Employment Awareness Month are celebrated annually in July and October. However, showing up just for July and October can come across as opportunistic and empty. Showing meaningful representation outside of these two months demonstrates a deeper commitment to inclusion.

What is 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.

Be thoughtful about word choice, but don’t let it derail the story

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). Work closely with individuals by asking and using their preferences. While language is important, don’t let it be so intimidating that you avoid the conversation altogether.

RESOURCE

For more language insights, explore resources like this writing guide and this terminology guide.

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

Actively seek out opportunities to authentically portray people with disabilities. When casting fictional roles, understand that disability inclusion groups strongly advocate for disabled roles to be played by disabled actors. Doing so will help your work authentically reflect lived experiences and help counteract the persistent lack of self-representation by actors with disabilities. Check out this example of an inclusive casting policy from Equity.

Disability itself is incredibly diverse

There are many ways to describe and categorize levels of ability. Disabilities are not always apparent. One U.S. study found that among people with disabilities, 74% don't use anything that could visually signal their disability. Non-apparent disabilities can often limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations, and vary from person to person. Disability is often broken into several broad classifications. Here are just a few examples:

  • Blind or low-vision
  • Chronic health condition (e.g., diabetes)
  • Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing
  • Learning (e.g., dyslexia)
  • Neurodiversity (e.g., on the autism spectrum)
  • Physical (e.g., spinal cord injury)
  • Psychiatric (e.g., depression)
  • Speech

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.

CONSIDER

Take an intersectional approach throughout general market campaigns as well as other months that celebrate underrepresented groups like Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Pride Month, etc.

Ensure accessibility

It’s not just about casting or content. It’s also about making sure everyone can access the work.

Accessibility is key to disability-inclusive marketing. Be mindful of whether people can consume an advertisement or interact with an interface. When only one part of this equation is addressed, inclusivity efforts can feel half-baked and people may feel left out.

Websites

RESOURCE

Check out the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Usability First.

EXAMPLE

Ensure screen reader compatibility; avoid blinking, flickering, flashing, or moving content; provide transcripts for all audio and video content; ensure sufficient color contrast, etc.

Copy

RESOURCE

Review the Disability Language Style Guide and understand how copy can affect one’s ability to absorb and understand content.

EXAMPLE

Use descriptive headings and subheadings; avoid jargon-packed sentences; be mindful of abstract language, sarcasm, metaphors, and jokes; re-examine language with direction or sensory characteristics.

Video and TV

RESOURCE

Review University of Washington’s Video Accessibility Guide.

EXAMPLE

Provide captions and transcripts; allow the user to start and stop the content; ensure the start and stop buttons are easy to navigate and read properly by screen readers; add audio descriptions.

Events

RESOURCE

Review Google’s Inclusive Virtual Events Guidance.

EXAMPLE

Have wheelchair-accessible pathways; add Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioning; provide sign language interpreters; provide audio descriptions for content.

Build work without stereotypes

Social context

DO

Familiarize yourself with “Disability Pride” language and use empowering words and phrases such as “wheelchair user” as opposed to “confined to a wheelchair,” “person who is deaf or blind” rather than “deaf or blind people.”

Show people with disabilities in the same context that you show people without disabilities: with friends (who may or may not have disabilities), doing everyday things like going to school or work, etc.

Go beyond the bravery worship narrative (known as “inspiration porn”). While disabled people are aware that these narratives mean well, they are often experienced as demoralizing or embarrassing.

Depict people with disabilities as having agency rather than being dependent on or directed by others.

Create scenarios where people talk openly about disabilities and avoid awkwardness when asking about disability.

Portray people with disabilities in a variety of different jobs and professions.

Behavior

DO

Show people with disabilities with a variety of personalities.

Show people with disabilities with romantic interests.

Portray people with disabilities with many levels of social skills and intelligence.

Champion independent people with disabilities.

Illustrated Google Doodle for Dame Jean Macnamara's 121st birthday showing girl on crutches looking into a mirror where the crutches are invisible.

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.”

Appearance

DO

Show a variety of disabilities and use a range of ways to tell that story beyond wheelchairs – hearing aids, walkers, etc.

If you are going to show a wheelchair, show a customized power chair rather than defaulting to a generic hospital wheelchair.

Create portrayals that break the stereotype of a low quality of life.

Other sources: Disability Museum, “Stereotypes about People with Disabilities;” “Media Smarts, Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities”