Best Practices for Portraying People with Disabilities in Advertising

October 28, 2020


How are brands depicting and including individuals with disabilities in their communications?

Portraying, upholding, and prioritizing diversity in advertising isn't just about "doing the right thing" or appealing to different people to increase revenue, but a corporate social responsibility that makes a true difference to equality. Creating and fostering inclusivity helps bring greater social change and opportunity for all.

It's not just about the messaging or models in the ads, but also starts from a product and packaging standpoint. For instance, as ANA reported, "the firm eSSENTIAL Accessibility reported that 1.3 billion people globally have a disability and that this group controls $2 trillion in income — which illustrates that this demographic not only has tremendous spending power that businesses can't ignore."

In the U.S., there are 56 million people with disabilities, according to the U.S. Census; moreover, friends and family of People with Disabilities (PWD) control over $6.9 trillion in spending, according to Samsung Canada. While targeting such a large group across vast demographics can be a challenge, it also represents an opportunity to unite people and create connection across various groups, and thus, illustrates that providing accessibility and inclusivity through ads and products helps everyone.

People with disabilities and differently-abled people deserve the same resources everyone has. Microsoft, for example, designed the first controller for gamers with limited mobility that enhances the gaming experience and empowers people of all bodies to compete in new ways.

Carmen Daniels Jones, president and CEO Solutions Marketing Group, stated that a marketer's "ability to reach people with disabilities – as customers or candidates – relies heavily on C-suite support, organizational will, focus and consistency." Jones also noted that brands need to keep "consistently connecting with the audience in the right place and at the right time, with resonant messaging" on and offline.

Below are case studies, brand examples, and best practices. 

Trends and Best Practices

  • Disabilities in Advertising: Representation is On the Rise. Ace Metrix, March 2020.
    Brands have expanded their casting to include those on the autism spectrum, to amputees, and almost everything in between. Tech brands like Google and Amazon as well as non-tech ones including Target, Nike, and the NFL have led the charge (in terms of number of ads) in the past year with the "intensity" of portrayal ranging from simple inclusion to creating an ad centered around the narrative of someone's disability. Whatever the intensity, Ace Metrix examined ads dating back to Q1 2019 that represent different disabilities to see how consumers respond to these inclusive efforts from brands. The matrix chart below provides a visual representation of where each of the ads are positioned in terms of our Cultural Perception measure:

  • COVID-19 Advertising Has Had a Glaring Lack of Disability Inclusion. Adweek, April 2020.
    Before COVID-19, disability in advertising was on a positive upward trend, with creative recognition at Cannes and brands formalizing inclusive efforts for the 2020 summer Paralympics Games. But over the past several weeks, the exponential upward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, state lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, industry furloughs and layoffs have seemed to create a downward spiral in momentum for disability in advertising, and it couldn't come at a worse time.

    Most, if not all, of the precautionary measures we are taking — from simple handwashing to sheltering in place and social distancing to facemasks — help prevent the spread of the virus to populations that may be more susceptible to contracting it. Here are six tips for implementing immediate disability inclusion in advertising:
    • Include user-generated content from brand ambassadors with disabilities: People with disabilities are sheltering, working, and parenting from home just like everyone else. If you're capturing content by reaching out to brand ambassadors, consider connecting with someone in the disability community.
    • Consider disabled influencers and actors: There are amazing disabled influencers and talent available to work with. Blind influencer Molly Burke and Paralympian Amy Purdy are just two examples among thousands of talented disabled influencers, actors, and athletes ready to add their voice to your brand message.
    • Use appropriate disability stock photography: If you don't have the budget for influencers or the time to research brand ambassadors, consider using stock photography featuring authentic disability representations from Getty's Disability Collection.
    • Ensure your digital ecosystem is accessible: During these challenging times, more than ever, people are embracing social media and getting information online. Digital accessibility needs to extend beyond your brand's website to social media and email to ensure that people with disabilities can connect with your brand and important information where and when you need.
    • Be informative to everyone: Brands that are essential businesses and organizations need to be informative to all audiences, including those with disabilities. If there is a press conference, video or other messaging platforms, be sure to incorporate alternate forms of messaging. Interpreters and closed captioning allow D/deaf to connect; live text across digital platforms support screen readers; audio captions allow blind and visually impaired users to gain information; and alternate forms beyond digital, such as phone messages, support those that may not have internet access.
    • Plan ahead: As creative teams, agencies and advertisers look ahead, everyone needs to ensure strategic planning efforts as we emerge from the crisis include diversity and disability representation. Just because the Paralympics are postponed for a year doesn't mean disability in advertising should be postponed. If your is brand trying to better understand the mood and momentum of customers, bring people with disabilities into that research.
  • How to Reach Consumers with Disabilities. Disability Marketing, February 2020.
    According to the U.S. Census, there are 56 million people with disabilities in the country. Targeting this market can be challenging since disabilities are diverse, individuals don't always disclose they have one, and there's no residential segregation or concentrated areas in cities and towns where people with disabilities reside. Your organization's ability to effectively reach candidates for employment or as customers depends on how well you understand the needs of people with various disabilities. If you want to elevate brand affinity, drive business growth and shareholder value, and have a wider talent pool, there are a few actions yo can take:

    • Create the Candidate/Buyer Persona: The strongest personas are based on market research and interviews you gather from your actual customer or employee base — through surveys, interviews, and so on.
    • Go Where People with Disabilities Are: Begin by identifying organizations to build relationships with that are trusted voices or influencers; reach/serve a large number of PWD, their families and allies; and, want to build a relationship with your company beyond a donation or contribution.
    • Develop a Disability Inclusive Team at Headquarters and Beyond: Many organizations focus disability inclusion from the headquarters office. This team will have senior leadership support, and is responsible for providing the vision, resources and guidelines for disability inclusion, throughout the enterprise. Regional teams should be established to implement the vision, as well as build and maintain relationships with disability organizations in the region.
    • Develop and Implement a Digital Marketing Strategy: A few tactics to consider are content, social, and email marketing.
  • The Golden Benefits of Disability Inclusion and Accessibility: Why We Cannot Afford to Ignore the Untapped $21 Billion Dollar Market. ANA, July 2020. 
    What if we saw people with disabilities as a valuable audience for business? 55 percent of people think there aren't more people with physical disabilities in ads because they make "people uncomfortable." In this video, Storm Smith, producer at BBDO, discussed the power to change the table around to educate ourselves, normalize the story as whole, less about their ability, and elevate the new standard practice of accessibility across all digital platforms.


  • Four Companies That Are Inclusive to People with Disabilities. ANA, March 2020.
    People with disabilities and differently-abled people deserve the same resources everyone has. To highlight how many large companies have worked to become more inclusive, this rounds up a few that have made strides within the past few years, including examples from Samsung, Wavio, Microsoft, and A&W Restaurants.

  • A Target Ad Celebrating Inclusion and Representation Hits the Bullseye. Forbes, February 2020.
    Research shows that 70 percent of millennials are more likely to choose one brand over another if that brand demonstrates inclusion and diversity in its advertising. And the power of relevancy and diversity in advertising was driven home by this poignant moment: Two-year-old Oliver Garza-Pena went on shopping at Target with his mom when something stopped him "dead in his tracks," according to his mother. He saw an ad featuring a boy that looked just like himself. The boy was in a wheelchair, as is Oliver.

    The ad itself is incredibly inspiring and powerful because it straightforwardly normalizes just how we look at people with a disability. It does so simply and forcefully. It doesn't make an issue of featuring an accessible model and it avoids boasting. In fact, it's unexceptional attitude is what makes it exceptionally powerful.
  • How John's Crazy Socks Spreads Happiness and Inclusion Through Purpose. ANA, June 2020.
    Co-founders of John's Crazy Socks and father-son dynamic duo Mark and John Lee Cronin shared the journey of how they built a multi-million-dollar business while spreading happiness and shattering stereotypes about people with differing abilities. Together they built a social enterprise where their business and social missions feed off each other. They hire people with differing abilities and give back to the community to make for a better place to work and a better business. An interview with Mark and John is also available here.

  • How Top Brands Are Including Disabled Representation in Their Marketing Campaigns. Skyword, March 2019.
    Before brands go overhauling their strategies to include disabled representation in advertising, there's one critical aspect to consider: the products, services, and experiences targeting disabled consumers should not be limited in their relevance to disabled consumers alone. Friends and family members of disabled people, as well as workplaces and venues that are disability-friendly all have a vested interest in solutions that improve the quality of life, living and working conditions, and entertainment experiences of the people they care about and employ. This looks at how brands are addressing this area of need, without singling out the disabled community.


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"Best Practices for Portraying People with Disabilities in Advertising." ANA, October 2020.