If you judged the world on advertising, you wouldn’t know disabled people exist

Shannon Murray

Untitled 19 278x300 If you judged the world on advertising, you wouldnt know disabled people existA Spanish designer, Dolores Cortes, has chosen a baby girl with Downs Syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, to appear on the cover of her US catalogue.  It’s a bold move guaranteed to generate a little extra publicity and I welcome her decision; personally I find the image refreshing, it makes me smile to see a cute, happy young child regardless of her disability and it’s constructive to stir up the conversation about disability in advertising again.

I began modelling back in 1994 after winning the UK’s first competition to find a disabled model; this was four years after breaking my neck and acquiring my disability, paraplegia. Though I’ve had countless jobs for dozens of large international organisations and hundreds of press interviews it wasn’t until 2010 that I was finally booked for a mainstream advertising campaign for a high street fashion store, Debenhams, and only then with the backing of Gok Wan and the How to Look Good Naked team.

Advertising and marketing is about generating publicity for a product, encouraging consumers to purchase said product generating income for their client; the industry is about making money, not charity and social change unless there is a possibility to make a profit. Advertisers are generally reluctant to use a disabled model unless the product is targeting disabled customers, disability isn’t deemed suitable or aspirational for mass appeal.

However, they’re happy to take our money; high street stores and supermarkets know they have customers with disabilities, accessible changing rooms and specially adapted trolleys are provided to make our lives a little easier. There aren’t statistics for the number of disabled shoppers online, there isn’t a box to tick upon payment yet a vast number of disabled people shop online for ease; to avoid transport and access issues, to avoid changing rooms being used as hanger storage and to avoid negative attitudes.

Designers and advertisers aren’t naïve, they realise how much free publicity this drums up for their product, let’s be honest how many of us had heard of Dolores Cortes until she used Valentina in her catalogue? Now her brand is being discussed on websites throughout Europe and the US. I don’t know her motivation, extensive publicity, financial gain or promoting social inclusion but I support the decision in the same way that I support most brands that choose to promote equality and inclusivity by using models with disabilities. This week I noticed a wheelchair user in an advert for Barclay’s Bank and a blind woman is currently featuring in a Dove advert; again both positive moves that I welcome, but I ask that it’s consistent, not sporadic, as only then can it bring us closer to inclusion as the norm, not something deserving of press fanfare.

The Paralympics games have made disability very visible throughout 2012, but it’s a particular image of disability, the healthy, athletic hero or heroine; what about those who don’t fit that mould? Where’s the dad with a disability driving his kids to school? The wife with a disability shopping supermarket aisles for dinner? The son or daughter with a disability playing with their computer console?

I accept that people may find it hard to believe that simply including disabled actors and models in advertising could change attitudes, but if it couldn’t then why is it such a lucrative industry which spends millions researching exactly how to change consumers preferences from one brand to another? We are frequently subject to subtle messages from advertisers, everyone can remember an advert that struck a chord, that made them laugh or cry; there are even television programmes dedicated to ‘The 100 Greatest TV Adverts’. We are inundated with advertising all day, on websites, in magazines, on radio, in television commercials, on public transport; yet to see them you would hardly know disabled people existed. Cadbury’s, Sainsbury’s, Kellogg’s, Cow & Gate, Proctor & Gamble, M&S, Johnson & Johnson, Heinz and Ikea; well known brands you’ll find in most homes, but will you find disability in their advertising? No. Yet disabled people and their families are consumers too, we pay to purchase these brands, we eat, bathe and wear clothes just like the rest of the population.

Representation in media is a form of acknowledgement by society; consider Cherylee Houston’s character, Izzy, in Coronation Street or Cerrie Burnell presenting on CBBC, both received press attention because of their difference, but now that is barely mentioned, they are simply accepted by viewers as performers on television like their able bodied colleagues. I welcome the day when we might have a kick ass Disney heroine who just happens to have a disability so disabled children can see representation from a young age.

I hope other brands eventually choose to acknowledge their disabled customers and use disabled models; I had a great time, worked with some amazing people and hopefully changed a few attitudes along the way. Did I ever harbour ambitions to roll down the catwalk in couture week in Paris? No, I’m disabled, not deluded.

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  • hayneman

    ‘It’s a bold move guaranteed to generate a little extra publicity’
    No it’s not. It’s yet another demonstration of the cynical depths to which the advertising industry will stoop. It’s the same as politicians wrapping themselves in the flag – if you criticise them, you criticise the country. Similarly, those who criticise Cortes will be accused of hating disabled people. These b*ggers will sell their grandmother for a headline…

  • leeblued

    Heavens , the crap these journos come out with ! Judging the world by adverts ? you can’t get much sadder than that !

    As for this pic of a beautiful little girl with DS , what about pics of double handicapped people wearing nice clothes ,oh no thats too much for “public ” to stomach !

    More media BS !

  • Victoria Wright

    Great article and very glad to see the Independent hired a disabled person to write about this issue. As a disabled woman myself with a young daughter, I would very happily buy baby clothes from a company that included disabled children in its models. I DO notice their absence.

    Lots of comments have talked about how advertising is aspirational – of course it is. But many shoppers also care about spending their money on ethical companies, and in the same way that I choose not to buy food from Macd’s or clothes from companies that have been investigated for using child labour abroad, I would choose to buy products from companies that have been proactive in being inclusive and diverse in their marketing.

  • leeblued

    @twitter-341077151:disqus so you would probably be conned ! using a very beautiful little girl with DS is just “Faking it” as the marketing /sales BS’ers do !

    The reality is there are many people with huge handicaps ,multiple handicaps and they are not necassarily pretty ! USE THEM if you wanna be really honest ,show the reality of how to buy clothes for a person who is so deformed it takes an hour to dress them !

    Sorry , I have a daughter of 32years old that is severely handicapped and I just get fed up with this sort of marketing dishonesty !

  • Victoria Wright

    Actually, the reality is that disabled people, just like non-disabled people, come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be considered beautiful, some may not. That’s life. It wasn’t that long ago that Frankie Boyle was making jokes about the appearances of people with DS. Yet a few years ago I met a young woman with DS who was stunningly pretty. Using ‘beautiful’ disabled models is not about denying the real life experiences and challenges that disabled people experience every day – it’s about making people aware that we exist in the first place, that we are more than just the tragic pathetic creatures that people think we are, and recognising that many of us, myself included, are interested in things like fashion, make up etc. I don’t think it’s fair that you should dismiss other disabled people’s views on this matter, just because it doesn’t compare with your experience as a parent of a disabled woman. We all have different experiences of what it’s like to be disabled, and personally, I think having more disabled models in advertising would be great.

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