Though people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world, less than 3% of characters in North American television shows have a disability. (And, of these, 95% are played by able-bodied actors.)
To counter this lack of representation, a coalition of U.S. and Canadian organizations spearheaded by the Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities launched the Visibility for Disability advocacy campaign on International Day of Persons with Disabilities (Dec. 3).
The campaign kicked off with a provocative 3-minute meta advertisement encouraging more screen time for people with disabilities, with the intention of increasing not just visibility but also spreading empathy and understanding.
“Audiences are asking to see more diversity in our media,” said Mickey Greiner, executive director of the coalition behind the video, but “people with disabilities have been largely left out of this important cultural conversation.”
In the commercial, created by independent Canadian agency Wax, three focus groups made up of real able-bodied people were asked to critique two advertisements for fake household products (detergent and cereal) featuring differently abled actors and actresses.
The focus group participants were shown reacting with visible discomfort to the ads. Their comments ranged from “it just rubs me the wrong way” and that the ads may even “detract some people from the product;” one woman even said, “I felt like it was a bit of a stretch—like, do they do laundry?”
Questions like this are the crux of the commercial.
Though the 12 focus group participants (who consented to be filmed and were compensated) began their critiques with negative descriptors, their outlook softened once they were shown the fake ads with a different ending featuring the actors and actresses stressing the importance of disability representation to eradicate misconceptions.
The rest of the world is lagging in representation, too. It was just this year that Burger King released its first video ad in Brazil with audio descriptions for visually impaired viewers.
The commercial made a “profound” impact on Brad Robertson, a Visibility for Disability spokesman who has a developmental disability, because he was able to see his actor and actress friends on screen. “It is important because it portrays a realistic view of people with disabilities, as it highlights abilities and not just disabilities,” he said.
Those ads-within-the-ad that Wax made may have been fake, but they still packed a meaningful, authentic punch, much like another series of fake grocery ads that WAX was behind in 2016.
David Davidson, one of the actors in the fake laundry ad, described the commercial as “super cool,” and that he was “not nervous” during production. “I would be happy to do another commercial,” he added.
The Visibility for Disability initiative is asking content creators from film, television, advertising and marketing to pledge their support for giving people with disabilities more screen time by signing an open letter on the campaign’s site. So far, 100 content creators have come onboard, including celebrities like Danny Woodburn of Seinfeld, Kurt Yaeger of Sons of Anarchy, Eileen Grubba of HBO’s Watchmen, CJ Jones of Baby Driver, as well as major brands like Levi’s and Shaw Communications.
Lauren Applebaum, vp of communications for RespectAbility, one of the U.S-based advocacy groups that comprise the coalition, emphasized that the campaign itself demonstrates how the entertainment industry can help remove the stigma that currently exists around interacting with individuals who have disabilities.
Content creators can also find resources on the Visibility for Disability website for hiring differently abled people to work both in front of and behind the camera. Members of the public who aren’t content creators but would still like to be signatories of the open letter are invited to add their names (and to donate to the society).
Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities
Executive Director: Mickey Greiner
Administrative Assistant: Dallal
Creative Director: Nick Asik
Design Director: Monique Gamache
ACD/Copywriter: Chris Lihou
Copywriter: Jordan Findlayson, Monica Sommerville
Art Director: Brad Connell, Sam Benesh
Production Artist: Thomas Turner, Tina Song
Director, Strategy: Greg Damus
Account Executive: Michala Allen
Production Company: 2 Words Productions
Director of Photography: Jay Lawrence, Tom Acton
Editor: Jay Lawrence
Camera Assistant: Mark Riddle
Audio: Dan Gretton
Audio Production: 6 Degrees
Audio Director: Dan McManus
Sound Engineer: Peter Irwin