In midst of the debate on diversity— in and amongst the angry cries of #BlackLivesMatter, a quieter conversation, but no less powerful, is gathering momentum. It concerns the disabled community, a fact recently highlighted by Laura Johnson, co-founder of Zebedee Management, when she popped in to see GOOD.
In 2017, Laura— along with sister-in-law Zoe Proctor, set up a talent agency for models and actors with physical and learning disabilities. Today, business is booming.
‘We say at Zebedee that disability is diversity’s poorer cousin. It’s usually the last to get noticed. But the demand for our models by high-street brands just confirms that representation is still badly needed.’
Some of the issues raised in our chat and my subsequent research made me wonder just how much the debate has progressed. Inevitably, when exploring the issue more widely, I found myself lifting the carpet on the past.
THE DARK HISTORY OF LEGISLATION
Our history and prejudice against the disabled community is dark.
The Mental Deficiency Act in 1913, categorised people with learning disabilities and mental health issues as ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘moral defectives’. This led to many people with learning difficulties being incarcerated.
Later in 1935, Dr. Alexis Carrel, a Nobel prize winner on the staff of the Rockefeller Institute published ‘Man the Unknown’. He proposed that those ‘mentally ill’— including disabled people, be disposed of via euthanasia and that institutions be equipped with suitable gases.
Historical disability legislation in the Western world is riddled with nasty acts, designed to shut the door on disabled people.
In the UK, it was not until The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act introduced in 1970 by North West MP Alf Morris— and the first in the world to give rights to disabled people in a form deemed acceptable, that things began to change.
Today, according to the Equality Act enforced in 2010, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of their disability either at work, in education, as a consumer, when using public services, when buying or renting property, or as a member or guest of a private club or association. But until attitudes and behaviours change towards the disabled community, words enshrined in stone are meaningless.
Fundamental issues remain, no matter how many years have passed.
THE ISSUE OF VISIBILITY
According to disability charity Scope, there are approximately 14 million disabled people in the UK. Not all of them are born disabled. Some are disabled due to a degenerative illness or because of an accident. Importantly, numbers are rising.
Disabled people now make up 22% of the UK population— that’s more than one in five. Yet according to Scope’s research, half the population do not know a disabled person.
Something doesn’t add up.
The reality is, many disabled people continue to be excluded from parts of society, and many of them remain invisible. Unsurprisingly, The Office of National Statistics reports that 13.3% of disabled people feel lonely often or always. One in three disabled people still feel there is a lot of disability prejudice.
And it would appear disabled people remain locked out of many employment opportunities, too.
Labour Force Survey (LFS) data reveals that disabled people are over a third less likely to be employed than non-disabled people, with an employment rate for disabled people (aged 16 to 64 years) of 53.2% in 2019, compared with 81.8% for non-disabled people.
No surprise then, that Zebedee is enjoying extensive PR coverage. Their work is focused on celebrating more representative faces and ensuring they are ‘out there’ in media.
‘Brands have no idea what they’re missing out on,’ laughs Laura. ‘It’s about time they woke up.’
THE POWER OF THE MEDIA & POSITIVE REPRESENTATION
At a time when 63% of people with physical disabilities think that seeing more disabled people in advertising would help to remove stigmas and stereotypes, Brands play an important role in driving change. In addition to exposure, Brands can contribute to the disability movement narrative via Purposeful communications. We’ve seen evidence that when they do— and get the message right, they enjoy incredible success.
In 2017, a campaign for Maltesers, ‘Look on the Light Side of Disability,’ featured disabled people in everyday situations. It portrayed their real (and awkward) encounters and experiences in a way that both celebrated and normalized them. As a result, the campaign proved to be their most successful campaign in more than 10 years, helping to grow the brand by 8%.
This year, Ali Goldstein, an 18-year-old woman from Essex with Down’s syndrome became the face of a Gucci Beauty campaign, featured online by Italian Vogue. Her picture on Instagram has been one of the brand’s most popular post to date; liked by more than 860,000 people.
Brands would do well to address more provocative stories, too. As Judy Heumann, the American disability rights activist states in ‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,’— a groundbreaking documentary on the US disability rights movement and now airing on Netflix, topics such as sex and sexuality are just as important for the disabled community as they are to any other community.
All too often, disabled people are considered asexual objects rather than fully rounded sexually active individuals, for example. It is down to our own ignorance and prejudice that this remains the case.
It is vital that we allow the disabled community to tell their unique stories in their own words without applying able-bodied bias filters. A sad reality of living a disabled life is that many die young. It is important their stories, told in their own words, live on.
Some progressive Brands have already understood the power of the disabled community as a consumer group whose collective spending power is worth £249billion to the UK economy and which, in the US, is expected to grow to $400bn by 2026.
M&S offers an Easy Dressing range including hip dysplasia clothes and feeding tube wear.
Zappos now sells individual shoes and mixed-sized pairs to cater for consumers with different-sized feet, and those with prosthetics.
REDESIGNING THE FUTURE WITH DISABILITY IN MIND
Brands and businesses are key in helping us to redesign a future with disability in mind.
Charities— still major providers of support to the disabled community, are in desperate need of funding to continue their services. Brands could start with partnerships, foundations, fundraising and cash injections. Then over and above this, they could make more tangible differences— by activating meaningful and impactful Purpose-led initiatives beyond headline-grabbing marketing campaigns. Statistics suggest that consumers are demanding it.
But for those intent on running a campaign, remembering a few basics such as accessibility on shoots would be helpful. Laura Johnson of Zebedee told us: ‘Our people have been left out of casting because they cannot physically enter the building. Children in a wheelchair couldn’t get in because a ramp had not been provided. You’d think they would have thought of that.’
Around us, there’s strong evidence that much practical change is needed in society to better integrate our disabled community.
The London Underground, the world’s oldest Metro, still only has approximately 71 out of 270 tube stations accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Paris is even worse. Just 15 out of 303 stations are listed by operator, ATP, as wheelchair accessible.
And whilst the government has pledged to get a million more disabled people into work, we still need to see genuine initiatives by businesses to make this actionable. The current climate of remote working presents a tremendous opportunity to reach out to those individuals who would normally struggle with access to opportunities.
As businesses re-build in the aftermath of COVID-19, a unique opportunity exists to reconfigure things to be more inclusive; to think of diversity more widely than say, BAME issues.
There is still so much work to do to help make our disabled community feel visible and to integrate them more fully into society. All too often, they are shoe-horned to fit into a world designed for others; one that overlooks their existence.
Things can only change if we open our eyes more fully and redesign a world we can— and want to live in, together.