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Why the Right Kind of Disability Representation in Media Matters

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If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said or heard some variation of the words, “representation is key to inclusion” in impassioned conversations about disability rights and equality, I would be so rich that I can almost guarantee I wouldn’t qualify for any medical or quality-of-life services (a little disability life humor, if you will).

But I’m not rolling deep in money, and we, the disabled people of the world (about one-fifth of the planet’s population, by the way), are still emphatically advocating and smartly arguing for normalizing the presence of disabled bodies in spaces that are routinely reserved for able bodies.

To get there, I believe we must first dismantle all systematic and societal roadblocks to freedoms of choice and decision-making, equal opportunities and placements in the workforce, and most importantly, remove barriers to connecting to people and creating relationships, professionally and personally.

Asking people to be all about diversity — that means not just joining in conversation or giving a head nod when confronted with questions or expectations to diversify, but actively engaging with people who express themselves differently and experience the world in a way that is not the same as another — is an imposing feat to reach. But it’s not an impossible one to conquer.

A cultural change — a shift to not only accepting the diversity of humanity, but embracing differences in all of us — takes culture shock. The only way to dislodge from a long-held stance and to move forward into a new attitude is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The key to understanding people — in this case, disability life — is freely welcoming immersive experiences and deliberately connecting and communing with neighbors who may look, think or feel distinctly dissimilar from us.

It is the Digital Age, and we live with over-saturation of digital content that enables our fast-paced lives. We can consume information more quickly than we can form our own opinions, or sit down to hear the thoughts of our peers. How do we generate discussion when we seem to have forgotten how to interact with each other?

Our Teacher, the Media

Tech Neck, the nagging neck and shoulder pain that sets in after hours of burying our noses in our phones, is a real epidemic — but at least chiropractors are seeing an impressive uptick in billable hours. The more concerning issue, however, is that without taking a moment to look up and uncross our eyes, it’s difficult to see people, talk to others and learn undiscovered truths about the human experience.

These days, like it or not, media, in all its forms — social, digital, political, and commercial — is one of the most influential teachers of cultural ideas, customs, and behaviors. That means, when choosing perspectives on diversity, disabilities and inclusion, society tends to lead or follow in the direction of the carefully curated narrative spun out by the media. Media is the largest, most common form of mass communication, and its space for impact is only growing wider. According to the 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, across multicultural communities, the average adult spends more than 11 hours — that’s close to half a day — listening to, watching, reading or plugging into media.

It’s safe to say that the world’s broadcasting, publishing and internet companies — the creators and keepers of information — have tremendous influence over thoughts, feelings and opinions. Immediate power brings a necessary responsibility to produce content that is candid and authentic. If we are going to have our noses buried in our phones, or our eyes glued to screens, we can at least be confronted with as-accurate-as-possible representations of the community surrounding us.

The (right) representation matters

No doubt, modern media is one of the most influential and controversial arts. Today’s print, digital, and audio content is thought-stirring — and opinionated. In other words, virtually every message we consume is one of belief, not total truth. That means all consumable media is open to interpretation; more than one school of thought means that the world needs more than one representative of unique human experiences.

The World Bank Group’s Disability Inclusion Overview highlights that one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities. It’s a good guess that these numbers will continue to inflate, making adults and children with disabilities one of the world’s largest population minorities — and still, disability life experiences are the least seen or shared among the rest of humanity.

That’s why disability representation matters. If people with disabilities are not adequately present in our fellow humans’ daily dose of media, then we are not appropriately seen or understood. When a person is not seen, they cannot be invited — into the offices, the homes, the events, the critical conversations and relationships — and that means fewer perspectives and more silenced people.

The good news is, the media is trying to make space for people with disabilities to be seen and heard more loudly than ever before. In the fashion industry, Tommy Hilfiger’s line of adaptive clothing — clothes with a more flattering fit on bodies that are differently proportioned, and that are easier to put on — is a recognized rebranding on the runway and in stores. In music and entertainment, actresses and actors with physical disabilities are receiving big-time awards for their talents, and prime time television is featuring more storytelling about mental health, disabilities and chronic illness.

All good, right? Absolutely. It’s not a matter of when disability will be seen in the media, but there is still a question of how disability life is portrayed to the masses. From where I sit, it seems showcasing disabilities on television and film, or in fashion and entertainment is still less about equal representation and more about necessary justification. That means media continues to tell the narratives that says, “despite being obviously different, people with disabilities are doing all they can to show up and stay in this small space they had to make for themselves. How inspirational.”

In 2019, large-market companies, ones with a huge power to influence, are still selling disabilities as uncommon inspiration. Earlier this year, Nike aired a commercial featuring a marathon runner with cerebral palsy. Athlete Justin Gallegos is seen stretching, warming up for a freeing run around a springy rubber track. He’s dressed head-to-toe in his runner’s uniform, complete with a pair of well-worn Nike running shoes. Justin is heard explaining why he loves running, telling the camera that running started as a hobby and then morphed into a way to celebrate his body. After that, video captures Justin exploding from the starting position and sprinting around the track.

“It doesn’t matter that he has CP,” his coach says near the end of the commercial. “He is saying, if I can do it, anyone else can, too.” The intention for representation is there, but still, this Nike commercial is perpetuating the narrative that disability is a marker to gauge another’s success or quality of life against, or that being disabled is an identity used to inspire other people to push themselves harder or further towards a goal. This Nike commercial missed the mark; this message is not the right kind of representation of disability life. People with disabilities are not props for propaganda; we are not a strategy to diversify an advertising portfolio.

For a Super Bowl 2019 ad spot, Microsoft debuted a commercial featuring a young boy playing video games with his friends. The boy had a few physical differences and was excited to be using Microsoft’s new adapted game controller. In this instance, the selling point is the adapted controller, so it made good sense to feature a young boy with a disability using the product. However, I still have a little bit of a rub in the way that disability is used in this commercial. The story arc ends with a young boy finally being able to participate fully in his friendships because he has an adapted video game controller. The moral of the story here is that because of his disability this boy was once excluded, and now he is welcomed into the fold. The narrative has a muted message of hope where there was once pity.

Disability is not fodder for pity, or for inspiration. Our stories are not for sale; products are for sale. We want to be represented, yes, but in a simple, more real way. Advertising agencies need to realize that the best kind of advertisements happen when disabilities do not steal away from the intent of the advertising, which is to sell the product, not a human. We are people with many layers. Disability may permeate each layer of a unique life experience, but disabilities aren’t always at the center of our lives’ conversations. They shouldn’t be at the center of storylines and selling pitches either.

Getty image by Ciaran Griffin.

Originally published: December 2, 2019
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