Opinion

It’s all about how you move

Brands need to think more deeply about disability inclusion and as an industry, we're well placed to do so.

A few years ago, I met a man called Srin Madipalli, he was born with spinal muscular atrophy, and has been in a wheelchair his whole life.

He always loved exploring and travelling but it was not easy with his condition. Undeterred by the lack of accessibility options for those with physical disabilities like his, he started building a company that listed holiday apartments that are accessible for those with special needs.

A few months after we met, Airbnb acquired his company.

Srin created a solution for those who experience mobility challenges and empowered the community by making it easy for them to find accessible properties for holidays, scaling it with the help of a large brand that saw the potential market they could disrupt and support.

Sadly, stories like this are few and far between. The calls to arms around greater racial and gender diversity in our industry is powerful and there is still more to be done. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the needs of those with physical or mental disabilities.

According to the World Health Organisation, 15% of the world’s population has some form of disability and, according to a survey by iProsepct in 2020, that same number were represented in global marketing campaigns.

The media and marketing industry is uniquely positioned to play its part in changing the conversation because of the sheer reach and influence brands, creators, influencers and commercials have on culture and society.

Last year, MediaCom pledged to shift our media planning approach to always focus on diverse audiences in a bid to help brands better communicate with all audiences. The great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t segment and silo people with disabilities, rather, those people with disabilities that appear in campaigns, are seen like anybody else, authentically using products.

You can see the power of this approach in my favourite TV show, Schitt’s Creek. The show isn’t about two men’s love story, it is simply a love story. It makes LGBTQ relationships look normal and this is what true inclusion represents, taking something that isn’t considered mainstream and showing that it just is part of our everyday.

The disabled community may be differently-abled to the so-called majority but we should not ignore their humanity, collective spending power and the moral imperative to creating products and services with these groups in mind.

Not only is there a significant portion of new customer base at stake – businesses in the UK, for example, lose approximately £2 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people – but there are transformative changes that can benefit everyone.

You only have to look at the widespread use of closed captioning such as on social video, which was originally created for people with a hearing impairment, to see this in action.

Brands that embrace disabled people can inspire; and make the next generation realise that nothing is impossible. Yet shockingly, the World Health Organisation has found that up to half of businesses in OECD countries choose to pay fines rather than meet legal quotas on disability. Some even face lawsuits, as Dominos recently found out.

We should also not forget that not all disabilities are visible. McCain recently featured children with different disabilities, showcasing artwork by a young child with autism and a brain injury. The brand even went one step further by also setting up a £1 million fund to support families; this was more than simply virtue signalling.

There are even some really impressive creative campaigns designed to tackle the challenges faced such as IKEA’s ThisAbles furniture ad-ons and Maltesers Superhumans Wanted. The creative opportunity here is also extraordinary.

More than anything, we must start listening before doing. By listening I mean consulting, hiring and partnering with those with real lived experiences. Doing this could transform toy stores, for example, where the sensory overload of music, colours, products and smells, can make people uncomfortable. Young children with autism especially can struggle in such loud environments and brands can make these spaces inviting and inclusive by creating dedicated relaxing and quieter zones.

The more we normalise incorporating disability marketing and product design into our innate thought process, the better a society we can create. We’ve started seeing more people with disabilities represented as talent but what about those making the decisions, like those at C-suite?

Disabled representation in advertising and marketing still has a way to go and we are as an industry well-placed to impact change in society as a whole.

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