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Boosting Disability Representation in Culture and Business

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Photo by Robin Marchant Getty Images for Hello Sunshine x Together Live Tour)GETTY IMAGES FOR HELLO SUNSHINE

A New Era of Disability Representation in Popular Culture

It might not have been the Glastonbury’s Pyramid set he had envisioned, but Lewis Capaldi may have created one of the most memorable and captivating performances Worthy Farm has ever witnessed earlier this Summer.

He presented to the world the realities of navigating disability and proved that it does not have to impose upon one’s success. Capaldi’s symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome were under the limelight, and the reception was phenomenal. Similar, public disclosures of Tourette’s have come from global superstar Billie Eilish and Gogglebox sensation, Scarlett Moffat – all with equally supportive responses.

The Power of Media in Influencing Perceptions and Driving Change

Representation of people with disabilities, particularly in popular culture is advancing. Yet, one in six people globally have a disability – and whilst instances of representation of people with disabilities have become more frequent in popular culture, it remains disproportionate. There is so much more to be done.

The media and creative industry’s immense power to influence perception and attitudes is arguably unrivalled. Vogue’s May 2023 “Reframing Fashion: Dynamic, Daring & Disabled” issue was a marvel. Edward Enninful presented a masterful editorial show of how the fashion industry and business leaders can use their power to move the dial on representation.

Business Imperatives: Genuine Representation and Eliminating Discrimination

Quality, authentic representation of people with disabilities and the lived disabled experience is not just a matter of social justice, but an imperative business strategy too. As long as discrimination of people with disabilities remains, business must strive to do more.

2021 Nielsen report looked at this issue in depth. The report found that content featuring depictions of disability rose more than 175% over the past decade, but the majority of those roles were played by performers without those disabilities, which perpetuates the notion that people with disabilities are incapable and should not be publicised, showcased or represented.

Elevating Disabled Voices through Collaborations

The recent collaboration announcement between Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and Making Space Media — a disabled and women-led media company focused on producing film and TV centering the disabled voice — is great news.

The deal will see the division of Candle Media and the co-founders of Making Space Media, Sophie Morgan and Keely Cat-Wells, partnering on projects focusing on centering the lived experiences and voices of the disability community.

The Advertising Sector: A Call for Responsible Representation

Advertising reflects and shapes cultural norms and values – it’s powerful, and often deftly so. Channel 4’s ‘Mirror on the Industry’ research in 2022 found that just 4% of TV adverts in the UK feature disabled people, dropping to 1% of disabled people in lead roles, despite 22% of the UK population being disabled. Advertisers have a responsibility to accurately and positively represent people with disabilities. It is a duty upon which they must act.

Two first-rate examples of advertisements that provide an accurate portrayal of people with disabilities were produced by Apple and Reckitt. Apple is a leader in inclusive design and resulting accessibility of its products. The company’s “The Greatest” campaign was lauded with industry awards for its 2-minute showcase of Apple products’ accessible features, seen through the lens of people with disabilities. Similarly, Reckitt’s “Me, My Autism and I” spotlights a standard day in the life of a teenage girl with autism. It’s powerful in its subtlety and it will have lasting influence.

Accessibility: Beyond Physical to Digital and Communication Inclusivity

Representation goes hand-in-hand with accessibility. Ensuring that all content is accessible – from subtitles to alt text – is imperative. The content itself might be representative, but if it is not accessible then it is a futile exercise.

Accessibility ensures that products, services, environments and information are usable and inclusive for everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. That includes everything from ramps, to flexible working. All too often accessibility is limited to physical accommodations. But accessibility extends to digital platforms, technology and marketing communications. Take Proctor & Gamble’s inclusive advertising as an example of this: the company has pledged since 2017 to ensure that the majority of its ads are inclusive to blind consumers.

Authenticity and Substance in On-Screen Representation

Representation on our screens can often be performative and lacking in substance. Purple Goat Agency is a marketing agency with over 50% of their workforce self-identifying as having a disability. Dom Hyams, Head of Strategy at Purple Goat expertly surmises what needs to be done to shift the needle: “It’s about flipping those stereotypes we see all too often as tropes of disability, and actually starting to have conversations where, yes, disabled people can have relationships, disabled people have friends, disabled people can be employed.”

Purple Goat’s business model allows the company to open the uncomfortable conversations that aren’t happening often enough. There is a pertinent lack of disabled talent in the creative industries and this remains one of the greatest system barriers to nurturing authentic portrayals of individuals with lived experience.

Behind the Scenes: The Impact of Off-Screen Representation

It is important not to diminish the influence of the off-screen representation too, as it has a profound influence over the creative direction of advertising. For example, initiatives such as Unilever’s Inclusive Set Commitment commits the corporation to a pledge that over 70% of Unilever brand adverts will now be made with disabled representation behind the camera.

Educational and Societal Implications of Diverse Representations

The benefits to broader society are boundless. From an educational perspective, the more representative portrayals of the lived experience of disability there are, the more we can educate the public about the diversity of disability and the accommodations that disability sometimes requires.

Synchronized Collective Action and The Future with The Valuable 500

Following extensive research with the global disability community, later this year, The Valuable 500 will launch a Synchronized Collective Action for Inclusive Representation to help define KPIs for the 500 companies to work towards.

These will be measurable, transparent and strategic KPIs that will focus on increasing the authentic representation of people with disabilities in advertising and media, creating inclusive advertising campaigns, and ensuring all content is accessible for everyone within the disability community. But ensuring diverse and authentic disabled representation requires collaboration with the disabled community to achieve the gold standard of inclusion that the Valuable 500 is striving towards.

Mobilizing Influential Businesses Towards Accountable Actions

This will mobilize the Valuable 500 to be accountable for their influence. As the 500 are some of the world’s largest and most influential businesses, the power of this synchronized movement is significant. At the Valuable Accountability Summit in Tokyo in 2025 the 500 companies will be invited to report on the progress they have made.

Moving Forward: Shared Responsibility and Continuous Progress

Ultimately, it is a shared responsibility to create a world where people with disabilities are not just merely included but welcomed, embraced, valued, and celebrated for their unique contributions. The progress in recent years has been positive. Shared cultural moments of authentic, raw representation are really welcomed – but it is now time for business to get in lock step with the shifting cultural dial.

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