The power of positive representation
When we talk about diversity in advertising, our first thoughts turn to gender, sexuality and cultural diversity. But with around 20% of Australians living with a disability (that’s more than four million people), there’s a huge segment of our community whose lives and needs are underrepresented in the country’s media and design landscape.
By Jess Lilley
In 2012 I was living in East London when the city was awash with Olympic fever. Streets that usually saw nothing more active on a Saturday morning than a drunk office worker stumbling into a gutter, were now filled with people ‘doing sport’.
Even the most cynical among us couldn’t help but fall in love with the spectacle of it all. It was so un-London-like! And as the games drew to a close, there was a collective lament of, ‘what are we going to do now?’
Cue Meet the Superhumans.
The ad for Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympics was tough, exciting and deeply unapologetic. For the first time ever it made the Olympics look like the sideshow and brought the Paralympics into focus as a unique sporting event whose heroes carried their own specialist skills on a par with any other athlete.
This kind of visibility was—and still is—necessary; as exemplified by Dylan Alcott’s powerful Logies acceptance speech this year when he reflected on hating his disability as a kid, partly because, “when I turned on the tv, I never saw anyone like me”.
While Meet the Superhumans shifted the way we saw Paralympians, millions of regular people going about their business still struggled to see themselves reflected in media and culture without needing to be ‘superhuman’. In his Logies speech, Dylan also commented:
“When I did see someone like me, it was a road safety ad where someone drink drives, has a car accident and the next scene is someone like me whose life is over.”
Work like See the Person by Leo Burnett for Scope has disrupted this narrative. In collaboration with the band, Rudely Interrupted, the campaign encouraged people to see beyond the band members’ various disabilities.
But what of big name brands? Arguably there aren’t enough, but there are some, including Kmart Australia. After being approached by Starting With Julius (an organisation committed to promoting the inclusion of people with disability), Kmart began regularly including disability diverse models.
Internationally, the fashion industry has embraced increased representation—including last year’s September issue of American Teen Vogue which was dedicated to emerging talent across the industry. Meanwhile, Australian model Madeline Stuart has walked runways for major labels in New York, London, Paris and China, becoming the first adult professional model with Down syndrome.
That’s not to say fashion can’t get it horribly wrong. Just four years after the game changing Meet the Superhumans, Vogue Brazil unbelievably photoshopped disabilities onto able-bodied actors in a feature promoting the 2016 Brazil Paralympics rather than, you know, feature actual Paralympians.
On the flipside, Tommy Hilfiger has gone much further than talent representation with the launch of Tommy Adaptive, a line of adaptive fashion designed specifically for people with disability.
This is exactly where brands need to be—centring disability in product and experience design. Technology is pioneering new advancements in this space. The Xbox Adaptive Controller from Microsoft is ground breaking design for gamers with limited mobility. And, from Australia, BWM Dentsu’s Project Revoice for the ALS Association uses digital design to allow ALS sufferers the chance to continue speaking in their own voice via text-to-speech devices, even after the disease has robbed them of their speech.
In a more day-to-day capacity, Target Australia have joined the growing trend of brands to feature adaptive fashion. And in 2017, in response to a customer request, Coles partnered with Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) to begin testing ‘Quiet Hour’ in some stores—a low-sensory shopping experience for people who find it challenging to shop in a heightened sensory environment. The program has been so successful, it was rolled out in over 250 stores nationally this year—with Woolworths quickly following suit.
As with much design that centres disability first, Quiet Hour isn’t just good for its intended audience, but also appeals more broadly to other vulnerable members of the community.
That’s the thing about designing from a disability first perspective—it includes everyone. For brands who need a more rational push, it also makes economic sense—in an increasingly tight market, why omit up to 20% of the population from accessing your stuff?
Creatively, it’s a no brainer. We are in the business of bringing our audiences into our worlds—how much more joyous if we collaborate with the people most in need of a world that adapts, so they can move through it fully and freely?
Jess Lilley is a co-editor of Gabberish and a creative director at Leo Burnett, Melbourne.