Disability: The Forgotten “D” in Diversity

Photo of a woman with a prosthetic leg holding an iPad

By Tristen Norman, Head of Creative Insights for the Americas, Getty Images

This weekend, we celebrate and honor International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3). For the last thirty years, observance of this day has focused on promoting the rights and well-being of people with disabilities in all spheres of society.1 The sentiment is a beautiful one, and yet, obscures some of the realities that continue to persist for the disabled community around the world. People with disabilities are still excluded, underrepresented or misrepresented in the most important arenas of life and this is especially true within the advertising, media and marketing industry.

One billion people around the world live with some form of disability2 but according to Getty Images VisualGPS research, they are depicted in less than 1% of visuals chosen by brands and advertisers.3 In the United States, more than half of people with disabilities surveyed, are frustrated that brands treat “people like me” as an afterthought.4 It was this insight that led us to explore how disabilities are represented around the world through our work with Citi on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Imagery Toolkits. What we discovered surprised and confounded us to continue pushing for radical change.

Beyond visible disabilities

Living with a disability can mean a variety of things – some disabilities impair physical or mental functions, others limit the types of activities that people are able to do themselves or participate in and while some are visible, others are only known to the person themselves.5 The reality is that this is a diverse community with a wide range of needs and lived experiences. However, brands and advertisers tend to focus on a single type of disability when depicting this population. From VisualGPS we found that 41% of visuals show someone with a physical disability as either in a wheelchair or living with a mobility related disability.6 What is not being reflected are people who are Deaf or have hearing loss, have low vision, live with a developmental disability or are living with chronic conditions or mental health challenges. These visual choices exclude large portions of the community and can perpetuate misconceptions about who is valued in disability conversations.

An archetype of dependency

For people living with disabilities, there are often significant impacts on their employment and educational opportunities, as well as their earning potential, where they can live, whether they live independently and so much more due to the lack of accommodations within existing institutional structures worldwide.

In Canada, more than half of those living with a disability are unemployed. If they are employed, they tend to make less money than their non-disabled counterparts ($9,200 less on average).7 And in Singapore, less than 5% of people with disabilities are employed. This is one of the lowest rates amongst developed nations.8 The rate of employment for people with disabilities is substantial in Mexico, however the rates of poverty are disproportionately higher for those with disabilities (45%) versus non-disabled people (11%).9

This sort of systemic exclusion often shows up in the visuals chosen by brands and advertisers to reflect people with disabilities. VisualGPS indicates that only 13% of visuals show people with disabilities in the workplace. Additionally, instead of working or living independently, nearly half of visuals show people with disabilities receiving assistance with daily activities and 1 in 3 visuals, show them as a patient in a healthcare setting.10 Visual tropes like these can unintentionally contribute to preconceived notions of what people with disabilities are capable of, how they live their lives and what opportunities can and should be made available to them.

Missing out on intersectionality

When people with disabilities are included in visuals, certain backgrounds and identities are more frequently represented than others. Worldwide, we’ve observed that people with disabilities are most often depicted as white. This is especially pronounced in countries where white people are a minority group. For example, in Mexico, Singapore and Hong Kong, white people account for less than 10% of the population, however they are most frequently seen in visuals featuring a person with a disability.11 Even more racially and ethnically heterogenous countries like the United States predominantly feature white people with disabilities over people of color. However, it’s not just about race and ethnicity; disabled people are most frequently represented as young adults, as heterosexual, as cisgender and thin-bodied. This leaves out many communities who are doubly impacted by the intersection of their disabled identity and another often marginalized identity. According to our consumer survey within VisualGPS, this sort of compounding bias is widely noticed, with 94% of people who report experiencing bias based on having a disability also report experiencing bias on more than one other aspect of their identity.12

Making the change

Diversity, equity and inclusion in all forms of media can no longer be a special project or initiative, it must be the norm. People desire change that they can see from the brands they engage with – they want diversity of all kinds, all of the time. Moreover, younger generations expect the world around them to be a place where people of all backgrounds and abilities can thrive and be celebrated. Visuals must reflect the moment – showing people with disabilities of all kinds, from all backgrounds, breaking free from stereotypes and focusing on authenticity and realness. The disability community deserves to be represented fully, thoughtfully and consistently in advertising and media. The time for change is now!

As brands prioritize diversity and inclusion, they need to ensure intent and education converts to action. With resources available like the DE&I Imagery Toolkits created by Getty Images and Citi, as well as The Disability Collection created by Getty Images, Verizon and the National Disability Leadership Alliance (NDLA), brands can help create authentic and multi-faceted depictions of people, as well as help accelerate inclusivity in their global marketing and advertising more broadly.


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