Disability action groups call for better representation in media and advertising

People with disabilities are rarely featured in TV ads and other popular media, which has prompted a group of disability-focused organizations from Canada and the United States to publish an open letter calling on the media to be more inclusive in their casting.

Launching on International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December), an initiative and campaign – ‘Visibility for Disability' – aims to change how people see disability by changing what they see in popular media.

The campaign’s launch video sees a focus group reacting to TV commercials featuring people with disabilities, exposing the misconceptions surrounding them.

One ad is for a breakfast cereal and the other for laundry detergent. The reactions from the real focus group show many people have unease and preconceived notions about the disabled, as they make comments like “a bit of a stretch" and “it just rubs me the wrong way.”

Once the organizers explain why the disabled people are in the commercials, the attitudes turn positive.

The campaign drives to a website, VisibilityForDisability.ca, where people can pledge their support by adding their names to the open letter, while finding resources for hiring people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.

Currently, fewer than 3% of characters on North American television have disabilities and of these, 95% are played by able-bodied actors, according to the Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities (CSPD).

“Audiences are asking to see more diversity in our media. Despite being the largest minority group in the world, people with disabilities have been largely left out of this important cultural conversation.” said Mickey Greiner, executive director of the CSPD, the organization spearheading the campaign.

The Visibility for Disability initiative is asking content creators to pledge their support towards giving people with disabilities more screen time. So far, 100 content creators from film, television, advertising and marketing have signed the open letter; including celebrities such as Danny Woodburn of Seinfeld, Kurt Yaeger of Sons of Anarchy and Eileen Grubba of HBO’s Watchmen, CJ Jones of Baby Driver, as well as major brands like Levi’s and Shaw Communications.

The groups behind the Visibility for Disability movement, including CSPD, The Easter Seal Society, RespectAbility and the Media Access Awards, hope their efforts will have a larger impact on how people view disability and inclusivity in all aspects of society.

“Changing the way people view disabilities begins with shifting the culture around on-screen representation of this minority group, and continues by opening doors to opportunities to ensure inclusivity,” said Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker, co-chief executives of the Media Access Awards.

Lauren Appelbaum, vice president, communications for US-based advocacy group, RespectAbility added: "What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. The entertainment industry has an opportunity to help remove the stigma that currently exist around interacting with individuals who have disabilities.”

The BBC has promised a more "authentic and distinctive" representation of disabled people on screen, according to a release by the company.

See the focus group and the ads by clicking on the Creative Works box below.

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