We’ve seen brands responding to calls for greater diversity when it comes to gender, race and body shape. But it seems there’s still a long way to go when it comes to representing those with physical or mental disabilities.
There are 13.9 million people with disabilities in the UK, yet we rarely see disabled people portrayed in the media. A recent survey by media agency UM highlighted the scope of the problem, with 66% of disabled people surveyed saying they felt ignored, and 54% of respondents saying they want to see more people with physical disabilities in ads. Michael Brown, Head of Insight at UM, said disabled people are “the last remaining major consumer group in need of a more positive approach and less stereotyping”.
There has been some progress: M&S and Tommy Hilfiger have launched adaptive clothing lines and ASOS worked with GB Paralympic hopeful Chloe Ball-Hopkins to create a wheelchair-friendly jumpsuit. But we also need to see more brands including disabled models and actors in their campaigns and communications if we are to challenge stigmas and move towards better representation.
CHALLENGING THE SUPERHUMAN NARRATIVE
Stocksy contributors Dijana Toliki and Marko Arsic of Studio Firma are always looking to make their work more diverse. Their latest shoot, Limitless, addresses the disability gap and captures athlete Nemanja Tadić as he works out at his local gym.
When developing the shoot, Toliki and Arsic were mindful of the media’s propensity to frame disabled athletes as fundamentally heroic – something we’ve seen in numerous campaigns focused on the achievements of Paralympic athletes.
“Most often we notice great effort when it’s crowned with great success,” Toliki explains. “But people rarely see the daily activities of ordinary people with added challenges.”
Limitless tells the story of an athlete’s daily routine. Tadić happens to have a prosthetic leg, but that’s only part of the story. The central theme of the project is determination. By placing Tadić in an ordinary setting, Limitless bypasses the popular but problematic “superhuman” narrative favoured by brands and shows that – no matter who you are – going to the gym every day can be a challenge. We all need some motivation, whatever our physical or mental condition.
Visual techniques such as framing and colour grading can help normalise diversity and avoid a sense of novelty. In Limitless, camera movement, focus and colour grading all help communicate the idea of determination and self-discipline. The combination of static and moving images conveys a sense of calm, rather than something that feels epic or dramatic, and the muted palette reinforces the ordinariness of Tadić’s routine. The film reel establishes a few frames before revealing Tadić’s prosthetic leg, introducing the subject to the viewer as athlete rather than a para-athlete.
Most of the time, disability is invisible in advertising – except when it’s the focus of a campaign. Maltesers’ ad featuring a young woman with cerebral palsy (created in response to Channel 4’s diversity initiative) became the brand’s most successful in a decade, but even that focused on the experience of being disabled. If brands really want to be more inclusive, it’s important to also show people with disabilities in a wide range of everyday situations.
Through their choice of location and filming techniques, Studio Firma was able to create a visual story that speaks to the everyday activity of working out. But fitness and training is only one part of Tadić’s story. When asked about his goals for the next five years, he responded: “To finish my studies and to graduate, to participate in all big para-athletic championships, and to have a family, like any other human being.” Here, Tadić reminds us that creating inclusive visual stories about career and family are just as valid as those that involve physical feats.
CASTING: AUTHENTICITY IS KEY
When finding a model for Limitless, Toliki and Arsic were determined not only hire someone with a disability, but someone who could convey the right “vibe” – just as any brand would when casting able-bodied actors or models.
But imagine how you’d feel if you discovered that Tadić’s disability was an after-effect created in Photoshop. Imagine how that would make people with disabilities feel – and how it would reflect on the creator and the brand that used those photographs.
It might seem obvious, but hiring models and actors with actual disabilities is vital to creating an inclusive project. Some brands have made attempts at participating in inclusion, but missed the mark entirely by failing to hire disabled people (see Brazilian Vogue’s controversial cover for the Rio 2016 Olympics). The key lesson to learn from their mistakes is to hire appropriately: if you’re looking to incorporate disability diversity in your photo or video shoot, cast talent with those disabilities. Agencies Zebedee Management and Mediability offer a great place to start your search.
As media continues to create more positive representations of disabilities, perceptions will evolve. High-profile campaigns like Microsoft’s 2019 Superbowl ad have made an impact, and we need more of these kinds of ads to increase public awareness. As Jennifer Mizrahi, president of disability awareness nonprofit RespectAbility says, “changing hearts, minds and behaviours takes great messages, delivery systems, and message repetition”.
But the next step for creators and advertisers is to initiate projects that normalise disability – making an effort to include all minorities into the fold, not as the story but as part of a broader narrative.
As creators learn to capture more accurate portrayals of the world, we will make mistakes along the way – but with awareness and perseverance, we inch closer to achieving real representation.
Stocksy United is a multi-stakeholder co-operative home to a curated collection of royalty free stock photography and video footage; stocksy.com. You can view Studio Firma’s Limitless project in full here.