The craft of empathy: what people with disabilities taught me about copywriting

My experience writing for Tommy Adaptive, Tommy Hilfiger’s line of clothing for people with disabilities, has been humbling, to say the least.

Like most writers, I consider myself an empathetic human being. I blubber easily. I flinch when someone gets a papercut. I’m that weirdo staring at you on the subway, trying to imagine what it’s like to live a day in your shoes. But the key words here are imagine and day. Imagination and experience are two very different things. Beyond a day, I can’t fathom what it’s like to live a week as another individual, much less a lifetime.

So, then what? Should we profile and segment all copywriters and propose that they write exclusively for their own demographics?

Of course not. Because, essentially, every demographic is your own. Whether you’re able-bodied, use a wheelchair, Gen X, Gen Z, Asian American, Latinx, rich, poor, whatever, there are so many ways to cut and divvy up the world. But at the end of the day, we’re all simply writing for people—members of this whackadoodle human race.

With that said, here are a few of my takeaways:

Don’t hide behind words

You know that feeling when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, so you just start rambling and hope no one notices? Yeah, don’t do that. On the flip side, copy shouldn’t be an opportunity for you to show off what you think you know.

In the discovery phase of writing for Tommy Adaptive, I did a lot of reading around inclusive design, so much so, that the nerd in me wanted to spout off everything I had learned. But being didactic (e.g. using words like “didactic”) instantly puts a wall up between you and your reader. As much as words have the power to bring people together, they can also create a false sense of power and control.

If you want people to connect to your copy, it has to feel like a genuine conversation—not a teachable moment.

More than political correctness

It can be easy to roll your eyes about staying current with the most politically correct terms. But as writers, we should know more than anyone that the details of language and syntax matter. The words we use have an impact far beyond basic comprehension. I first started writing for Tommy Adaptive using the term “differently-abled” as this was what was used by a partner nonprofit. I quickly learned, however, that the more widely used term is “people with disabilities.”

Take note, it’s not “disabled people” or “the disabled.” The person always comes first. The focus is on the individual. The order of your words reflects a belief. While there are still proponents of the term “differently-abled” who look at the word “disabled” in a negative light, the majority of people have moved away from a term that seems euphemistic. This leads me to my next takeaway.

Just say it

Knowing that there are so many varying opinions on one term alone didn’t calm my anxieties about misspeaking. I’ll admit that I erred on the side of caution in the beginning. I didn’t want to speak out of turn and I definitely didn’t want to offend anyone. I quickly learned that language that tiptoes is almost more offensive.

If you’re writing for a person with a disability, don’t write around the disability, address it directly like any other unique characteristic. The worst thing that could happen is that you get called out during a client presentation by a Paralympic athlete, blush furiously, learn from your mistake, and move on.

It isn’t your place to empower

We had to be careful never to suggest that Tommy Adaptive is responsible for empowering people with disabilities. This might seem counterintuitive but it’s a key distinction for the attitude of the brand. When writing for people with disabilities, the first impulse may be to focus on how inspiring or heroic they are. But calling someone a hero just for going about everyday life, only creates an “us versus them” tonality.

None of the people with disabilities I worked with needed my help feeling empowered. They definitely didn’t need an orchestral soundtrack and dramatic lighting either. Our challenge was creating a voice, look, and feel that struck a fine balance between being bold and being lofty.

By far, the greatest lesson I’ve learned from working on Tommy Adaptive is that empathy is less about thinking you’ve been gifted with the deep emotional capacity to understand what it’s like to be someone else, and more about getting comfortable with the fact that you can’t. What you can do is ask a lot of questions—both the right ones and the wrong ones—because the most meaningful insights will come from talking to people.

Kiyomi Dong is a copywriter at Possible

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