While the disability rights movement has made great progress in recent years, the advertising industry has a ways to go to catch up. When not completely overlooked by marketers, disability has most often been used as an easy path to pathos. Truly inclusive marketing must represent people with disabilities not as a means to an end, but proportionately, authentically, and with the respect they deserve.

Insights & ideas

The forgotten 15

Globally, 15% of us experience some type of disability,1 as do 26% of US adults.2 Yet marketing communications and the media seldom feature those with disabilities. This demographic has been grossly overlooked and underserved for too long. By taking steps to ensure your marketing is inclusive to those with disabilities, you can open the door to a traditionally underserved audience.

Man with a physical disability is using a digital tablet while examining shoes on shelf.

More than meets the eye

Many physical disabilities can be visualized with things like wheelchairs, service animals, or other aids to assist with vision, hearing, or mobility loss. But the types of disabilities vary greatly, and not all of them are so easy to portray. Cognitive or psychological disabilities like autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are difficult to communicate through visual cues. Psychiatric disabilities, such as depression, and other invisible disabilities and diseases, like chronic pain or diabetes, are harder still. While it may take more effort—and creativity—to accurately represent this broad range of disabilities in marketing, it’s a critical step toward greater inclusivity.

Disability ≠ inability

It’s important to not only feature people with disabilities, but also to think about how they’re portrayed. All too often, people with disabilities are treated as objects of pity or, conversely, celebrated for completing basic tasks. Inclusive marketing represents an accurate and balanced portrayal of people with disabilities as a part of everyday life. By doing so, marketers can take an active role in dispelling negative stereotypes and promoting the dignity of people with disabilities.

Nobody’s victim

People with disabilities are often depicted as needing help or charity, or as the beneficiaries of miraculous cures. Such depictions reinforce stale stereotypes and disregard the rich and varied lives of people with disabilities. Avoid victim stereotypes in your marketing. Better still, portray people with disabilities in roles that don’t single out their disability.

Disability is personal

When it comes to connecting with people with disabilities, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Different disabilities have different impacts and shape different life experiences for different people. Inauthentic representation can do more harm than good, so be sure to research a disability before you portray it in your marketing. It’s also a good idea to keep up with preferred terminology and assistive devices, like mobility aids, as they evolve.

Inspiration porn

Disability rights activist Stella Young coined the term “inspiration porn” in 2012 to describe the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. When featuring people with disabilities, create a realistic picture of what it’s like to have a disability without overdramatizing to provoke an emotional response. Better yet, recruit actual people with disabilities to help you do this.

  1. The World Bank, “World Bank’s Disability Inclusion Overview,” The World Bank, updated Mar 19, 2021.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic,” CDC, Sep 16, 2020.