July is Disability Pride Month and there’s no better time to familiarize yourself with disability theory, which refers to examining disability in different cultural, historical, and social contexts. Between a new generation of COVID-19 long haulers who must now cope with a long term health condition, and the rising awareness surrounding invisible disabilities and conservatorship exploitation as the #FreeBritney movement continues to gain traction, marketers now need to go beyond practicing basic accessibility in the workplace and in product design if they want to uplift the disability community. By understanding the role of disability theory in today’s world, we can celebrate people living with disabilities and fight for disability rights while simultaneously strengthening the impact and reach of our DEI efforts.
The Immediate Need for Disability Representation
People with disabilities and their loved ones make up a considerable amount of the population, yet disability representation is minimal. 1.3 billion people in the world have a disability and control as much as $2 trillion in income, with friends and family of people with disabilities controling $6.9 trillion in spending. Yet only 2.2% of characters in advertising in 2019 had a disability, with 1.5% having a physical disability, .5% having a cognitive disability and .2% having a communication disability. Advertisements disproportionately rely on physical identifiers when portraying disability.
In general, people with disabilities are often alienated from conversations about them. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a disabled scholar, says that “ability and disability are not so much a matter of the capacities and limitations of bodies but more about what we expect from a body at a particular moment and place.” When we can’t fulfill some task because of our impairment, “we are expected to look, act, and move in certain ways so we’ll fit into the built and attitudinal environment,” otherwise we run the risk of appearing disabled and suddenly being perceived as inferior. We’re already under a microscope and receive so little representation as it is, but even the little representation we do have contributes to ableism in society.
Objectification is not Inclusion
Objectification can no longer be an acceptable standard for disability inclusion. Objectification is described as “the act of treating someone as though they are an object to be used by another person. The objectified person is merely seen as an instrument,” or a mere means to an end. Rather than be seen as an independent subject with thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and contributions, people with disabilities are often objectified and infantilized even in efforts that appear inclusive.
Take the case of the Nike Go FlyEase shoe. Since 2012, Nike had been working with Matthew Walzer, a then teenager with cerebral palsy, to make shoe designs more accessible and helped produce the Nike Go FlyEase, a hands-free accessible shoe design. Despite a member of the disability community playing an essential role in the shoe design, Nike’s advertising campaign for the shoe “promotes the accessibility of the design but hardly mentions the disability community or the man who initially called for more accessible footwear.” Given that disabled people are twice as likely as nondisabled people to be living in poverty, the shoes are also unreasonably priced for their target demographic, retailing for $120 USD.
Rather than being truly inclusive of people with disabilities, Nike chose instead to pursue profits, objectifying disabled people by attempting to cash in on their need for accessibility while minimizing the efforts of the individual who brought their lived experiences of disability to the collaboration.
Tropes Perpetuate Ableism and Objectification
Previous attempts to be more inclusive of disability have not only missed the mark but have perpetuated stereotypes and worsened ableism. One trope we see too often is the wheelchair user, or otherwise visibly disabled person. When we rely on visual markers to identify disability, we alienate those with invisible disabilities. Most wheelchairs in advertisements are meant to be used in hospitals and aren’t true representations of what wheelchair users experience. It reduces a mobility aid that can give someone more independence to a transactional symbol that panders to able bodied people.
Another trope we see often is the neurodiverse genius. Characters with disabilities are also far more likely to be depicted as “smart” 35.6% of the time while able bodied characters are only depicted as smart 8.2% of the time. The idea that someone is inherently talented mentally at one thing or another due to their brain structuring differently completely disregards the unique life experience that person has as a result of being neurodivergent. It enables able bodied people to reduce a neurodivergent person’s intellectual capacities to however others perceive them.
Most disabled representation isn’t inclusive or intersectional. Even though there is more female representation than ever before, two-thirds of characters with disabilities are male, while 74% of disabled characters are white. A great way to avoid tropes is by having more disabled representation on your marketing team. By bringing in perspectives of those who live with disabilities, you can develop representation that normalizes disability rather than ostracizes it.
#FreeBritney is a Disability Rights Issue
While invisible disability is usually overlooked by the masses, Britney Spears is making headlines for the legal circumstances surrounding her disability. In 2008, Judge Reva G. Goetz granted Britney Spears’ father, James P. “Jamie” Spears, with a permanent conservatorship order, giving him “authority over his daughter’s person, as well as her financial assets, including her property, bank accounts and credit cards. Spears would not only lose custody of her children but of herself.”
Though we don’t know Spears’ medical history, most of the Americans living under conservatorships come from “groups who [may be] indefinitely unable to provide for themselves.” Meanwhile, Spears was not only able to provide for herself but “allegedly forced to work seven days a week, given lithium when she refused to work, denied a lawyer of her choice and not permitted to marry or remove her IUD to bear children,” all while earning millions of dollars under the control of her father.
Disability rights activist S. E. Smith says that the debate around #FreeBritney shouldn’t be about whether or not Britney Spears is disabled but instead should be about protecting the basic rights of people with disabilities. “There’s this pervasive attitude that we don’t deserve civil rights,” says Smith. “It doesn’t help when people argue, ‘Britney’s not crazy. She’s not disabled.’ Whether we think so or not, the court decided that she is.” Still, Smith says, there are countless mentally ill people who could be subjected to abuse just like Spears. “How do we protect them?”
Smith also notes how Britney Spears’ case follows a long history of reproductive abuse in the history of the United States. “Until 1979, California was No. 1 in the country for sterilizing women who were institutionalized, most of them women of color. Restricting the reproductive autonomy of the disabled or mentally ill is still very common, whether it’s by IUD or forced sterilization.” Despite being worth millions and adored by fans around the world, Britney Spears doesn’t even have control of her own body. That is how powerful disability discrimination in our society is.
Celebrate Disability Pride Month With These Tips
Nothing about us without us. First coined during the disability rights movement in the 90’s, this catchy phrase still needs to be said to this day. Many of the most popular movies, books, and shows that feature disabled people are not written or produced by a person with disabilities. Actors cast for roles involving diabled characters are often played by able bodied people who might have little to no understanding of the disability they’re trying to represent. If you want to successfully represent disability, you need to be receptive to the voices of the disability community.
Take the #FreeBritney movement seriously. Britney Spears is among many people who are disempowered under conservatorship exploitation. A 2017 study by the U.S. Justice Department in Minnesota revealed that half of all conservatorship exploitation victims are under age 65. “Britney is a figurehead for an untold number of people the world will never hear about [who are] fighting for their civil rights,” said Patrick Hicks, an estate attorney. For the sake of every disabled person disenfranchised by the system that should be protecting them, let’s say #FreeBritney.
Representations can reimagine disability. If you want to fight against ableism in your DEI marketing campaign, work to have strong disability representation on your next project. This could mean getting more people with disabilities on your marketing team, or collaborating with and promoting disabled influencers like blind influencer Molly Burke or queer, deaf influencer Jessica Kellgren-Fozard. Honest representation can completely revolutionize the way the next generation of disabled people will see themselves.
Bianca Gonzalez is a queer, disabled, Latina B2B writer and social change advocate. She became a brain cancer survivor at the age of 20. Find her on Twitter at @ourstellarwords, Instagram at @ourstellarwords, and on her website, b2binclusive.com.