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Disability DE&I

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

How visible is disability in the DE&I conversation?

Published 14 July 2023 in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion • 6 min read

Almost one in five people globally live with a disability, yet they make up less than 1% of the people shown in marketing and advertising material. In the latest installment of our visual representation series, Rebecca Swift, VP Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images, discusses how to represent visibility well.

A much-quoted article in Harvard Business Review from 2020 proclaimed that 90% of businesses have DE&I programs, but only 4% of those programs consider disability specifically.  

At Getty Images, we observe these initiatives through shifts in brand focus and the visual choices that organizations make. In other words, if organizations are focusing on maintaining current and attracting new talent from specific identity groups, it is usually represented in the content they choose.  

With all discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), authenticity is key. In recent years there has been some great work done by fashion brands who have expanded their representation to people with disabilities. Gucci advertised in Vogue magazine in 2020 with stunning portraits that received universally positive reviews, and in UK Vogue’s May 2023 edition the magazine created a “disability portfolio” with their cover stars, again featuring beautiful portraiture 

The Antiguan American model Aaron Rose Philips became the first ever black, transgender, and physically disabled to star in runway shows for major fashion labels
The Antiguan American model Aaron Rose Philips became the first ever black, transgender, and physically disabled to star in runway shows for major fashion labels

But it is in our everyday and working lives that representation of disability is still largely missing. The consumer goods company Mars introduced humor into the everyday using actors with disabilities in 2016 with a campaign called “Look on the Light Side”. Yet there haven’t been any significant campaigns since (other than Paralympic campaigns for Tokyo 2020). 

Over the past year, we have seen a small increase in interest in visualizing people with disabilities, but importantly we have seen a bigger shift in searches for people with disabilities in the work environment (+1% versus +5%).  

The representation of people with disabilities is still woefully short of reality though. According to the World Bank, one billion people, or 15% of the population, are living with a disability. Our research across countries shows that it ranges from almost one in five people in the population on the high end (Brazil 24%, Canada 22%, UK  21%, Singapore 17%) to around 10% on the lower end (Germany 9%, Hong Kong 7.4%, Japan 6%) But the inclusion of people with disabilities in marketing and advertising is still below 1%.  

The disability stereotypes 

Any increase in the representation of people with disabilities is a positive step forward, but we have found that caution about getting it wrong – or worse, doing harm to the community – is hindering progress.  

Friends catching up in the park
Friends catching up in the park

Too often, organizations overlook the different identities of people living with disabilities, such as race, sexuality, religion, age, and gender. What’s more, people with disabilities are often portrayed in a way that focuses on their disability e.g., a deaf person with a hearing aid, rather than as a person who just happens to have a disability in everyday life. 

So how do you represent people with disabilities well? Here are some insights on how to move beyond the visual clichés, based on my experience of studying how disability is visualized across industries. 

Show the diversity in physical disability  

When companies or organizations look to represent disability, they will often show a person using a wheelchair or with a visible prosthetic. Yet there is huge diversity in physical disability that has not been represented to the same degree.

Disability is something that is also more likely in older generations since we pick up disabilities as we age, but the visual representation is predominantly young with 75% of visuals featuring people under 40 years of age.

The beauty of the Vogue campaign is that it includes people with cerebral palsy, muscular sclerosis, achondroplasia, and those who are blind and deaf, in a series of stunning portraits that doesn’t put their disability front and center.

Don’t overlook intellectual disability   

Physical disability is shown three times as often as intellectual disability, which accounts for 1-3% of the population – as many as 200 million people worldwide. While neurodiversity such as ADHD or autism is categorized as an intellectual disability, for many it is a divergence from “neurotypical” thinking. 

Disability DE&I
Neurodiverse teens at coffee shop

The current visual language about autism in particular is focused on young boys and their disconnection from their surroundings. So, it is important that imagery shows all genders with intellectual disabilities working in a business environment and socially active.  

Disability is just one of many identities  

There is little gender bias in images with disabilities, with the binary genders of male and female equally represented. However, there is a lack of diversity when it comes to race and ethnic minorities, with the overwhelming majority of people depicted to be living with disabilities shown as white.

The Antiguan American model Aaron Rose Philips, who became the first ever black, transgender, and physically disabled to star in runway shows for major fashion labels, exemplifies the multiplicity of our identities as individuals. 

Disability Young man with laptop using sign language indoors in office video call concept
Young man with laptop using sign language indoors in office video call concept

Disability is something that is also more likely in older generations since we pick up disabilities as we age, but the visual representation is predominantly young with 75% of visuals featuring people under 40 years of age. This swaps around when people are shown in healthcare environments (being cared for), when older age dominates. Older business leaders with disabilities are rarely visualized. 

Show people in groups 

A person with a disability is far more likely to be shown alone or as the only person with a disability, either in a domestic environment or at work. Break that visual cliché by ensuring that you show people in friendship groups (such as the Mars commercial), with romantic partners, and with colleagues in a business environment. It’s important to vary your imagery and show groups of people who all have disabilities or a mix of people who are and are not disabled. 

A group of people shown in the Mars Commercial championing diversity and disability - SolStock

 

Because there has been a legacy of imagery in the media of people who are not disabled playing the part of a person with a disability, we have created a collection of photographs and videos that we know are authentic. We work with the National Disability Leadership Alliance (NDLA) which represents 14 different disability organizations to review the content to ensure we are moving the visual language of disability forward.

The content that has been reviewed is available on Getty Image’s Disability Collection.

Our D&I guides are available to download here while here you can read my previous article on how to improve representation in your visual communication.

Authors

Rebecca Swift

Rebecca Swift

VP Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images 

Rebecca runs the Creative Insights team, who set the content strategy for Getty Images and run global research projects investigating the future of visual communications. She leads the D&I initiatives at Getty Images and is focused on evolving visual representation, leading partnerships such as #ShowUs with Dove (winner of 40+ international creative awards, including a Glass Lion and Effies). Rebecca has a PhD in photography.   

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