Disability in adland: plenty of goodwill but too little action

A Future of Fairness includes a roadmap for companies to follow no matter where they are on their diversity and inclusion journey.

Disability is woefully under-represented in advertising, in terms of both agencies’ workforces and their creative output. It’s an area of diversity and inclusion that attracts plenty of goodwill, and has some high-profile role models – from Stevie Wonder to Ellie Simmonds – but sees very little action or change.

There’s a very real chance, however, that the pandemic lockdowns may have helped to shift perceptions, and could inspire the world to be a more disabled friendly place going forwards. Remote living and working turned out not to be so hard to achieve as people imagined, which is good news for many in the physically disabled community.

Martyn Sibley, founder of inclusive platform Disability Horizons and the Purple Goat agency, says, "COVID-19 has shown that people can work at home, be educated at home, and enjoy leisure at home, and that’s been helpful for some parts of the disabled community, because it’s removing barriers for everybody."

Ableism in adland

For Sulaiman Khan, founder of consultancy ThisAbility, the ad industry has always been a pretty hostile environment, hampered by ableism. He says, "Long hours, outdated models of work, lack of physical access, lack of representation, very little support or empathy, inflexible application processes, being made to feel like an inconvenience, the additional financial burden of disability, being the sole representative of disability in an organisation. These are all themes that any person who is adjacent to adland and who has a disability can relate to."

Champions of the disabled community are working hard to build momentum, particularly Sam Phillips, former Chief Marketing Officer of Omnicom Media Group. She says, "People think there’s enough to do around race and ethnicity, which is exactly why we have to keep the disability conversation dialled up – it’s so easy for people to think they do enough stuff. But it’s not a cookie-cutter world, and you can’t pit one area of diversity against another. That’s not what it’s about. We’re all humans."

Mike Alhadeff, Senior Strategist, AMV BBDO, admits he finds it frustrating that he’s so regularly approached to talk about disability, due to a dearth of industry role models.

I’ve stuck my head above the parapet and, as I’ve grown older, I realise there’s a responsibility to be open about it, because hopefully it will help other people to be more comfortable with disability. There should be more disabled people in adland and although I’m not sure you can ever put a number on it, I guess KPIs can set a tone.

Mike Alhadeff

Role models

Phillips insists there are more role models than we realise. "The reality is that huge numbers of people who are already in our agencies have got some sort of disability, but they are often not declared, and very few companies measure this. I measured across Omnicom Media Group and 11% of the workforce has a disability."

In 2019 Omnicom started the Open Disability Plus Allies group, and at the launch a panel of five CEOs all spoke for the first time about their disabilities, ranging from dyslexia and cerebral palsy to organ disease and deafness. "I can’t tell you how it changes things," Phillips says.

Under-representation in advertising

In terms of the advertising product, disability is badly underrepresented, Phillips argues. "I’m constantly pushing to get this considered and on the agenda in terms of outputs," she says. "The truth is that, although there have been some instances of really good work in the area of disability, the only one people can recall is Maltesers, which was brilliant and brilliantly effective".

In the UK there are 14 million disabled people. Compare that to around 600,000 vegans – and look at the number of products and services targeted at them – and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

Martyn Sibley

Even when they do feature in ads, disabled people are often given token roles but as Dr Marie-Claude Gervais, Research Director at Versiti, says, "People want to be part of the story, not a tick box in a montage. It doesn’t matter if it’s their specific group that’s represented – what they want is normalisation, not superhero and victim stereotypes."

Sibley agrees. "Vulnerable might be relevant in terms of COVID-19, but I don’t want to be defined that way. We are valuable, not vulnerable. We are citizens, voters, and customers, and we want to be treated like that. We don’t want people’s sympathy or pity."

Ali Hanan, founder of Creative Equals, points out that the 2019 Innovation Lions were dominated by projects focused on accessibility, including Ikea’s ThisAble by McCann Tel Aviv, which introduced affordable add-ons to make Ikea products more user-friendly and increased sales by 37%. "Smart agencies know how big the brand-inclusion space is,” Hanan says, “and if culture isn’t going to motivate agencies, maybe Cannes Lions will."

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Last updated 01 May 2024