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Why we need to stop sweeping people with disabilities under the rug

Updated: May 14

It doesn’t take a huge investigation to realise that the marketing and advertising industries need to diversify. It’s why we exist. Within this, one of the most underrepresented (and less talked about) minority groups are people with disabilities.

There are almost 14 million disabled people in the UK, and two thirds of those with physical disabilities feel “swept under the rug” by society. What role can marketing and advertising have in solving this issue? Perhaps the industry needs a shift in attitudes.

Looking from the inside, out

Do people with disabilities have the same opportunities within the marketing industry as non-disabled people? It’s hard to tell. With a 31.4% employment gap in the UK across all industries, it seems unlikely that our industry is any different.

Unfortunately, industry specific data regarding disability employment is hard to come across. For example, 80% of disabilities are hidden, so the collection of accurate data is reliant on complete self-disclosure, which can be sensitive to so many. According to Scope, 1 in 5 people actually take to hiding their disability from their employer, while over 50% of disabled people in the UK feel they have been refused a job interview because of their disability. We need to keep talking about this.

The shift in how people with disabilities are viewed will come from understanding how to change the workplace. There are campaigns that bring more equal employment opportunities to disabled people. #WorkWithMe is one example. It’s project started by Scope, bringing businesses together to create inclusive workplaces for those living with a Disability.

The government’s Disability Confident scheme (which began in November 2016) helps employers realise the talent, skills and opportunities which can be gained by creating a more inclusive workplace for disabled people. However, within the 5,000+ organisations signed up to the scheme, it’s very hard to ignore a worrying lack media and communications as a result and look at signing up as ‘virtue signalling’ rather than meaningful change.

Creating campaigns with a difference

In order for campaigns to be more representative of disabilities, agencies need to strive to become more inclusive and accessible workplaces in the first place. From a diversified workforce will come diversified content. Luckily, the need for companies to be more representative of disabled people has not been completely overlooked. As Channel 4 has demonstrated, media platforms are capable of causing a tidal effect in the pool of diversity.

In 2016, the broadcaster launched its ‘Superhumans Wanted’ competition, which offered £1m in airtime to the best ad campaign to accentuate diversity. The winning brand was Mars, which consequently released three Malteasers adverts; each with a narrative focusing on a humorous inconvenience caused to people due to their disability. According to Michele Oliver, VP of marketing at Mars UK, the 3 advertisements proved to be the brands most successful campaign in 80 years. The TV spots generated a 8.1% uplift in sales, which was double the original target of 4%. This is an example of where diversity doesn’t just make moral sense, it makes sound business sense.

Initiatives like the ‘Superhumans’ contest are fantastic, but we need to continue to push for meaningful solutions. There are a wealth of consultants out there who are able to offer sound advice on understanding people with disabilities. Steve Lacey and Sulaiman Khan are two people out there who are pushing for more inclusivity in the industry and we would encourage you to take a look at the work they are doing.

We need wake up to seeing all kinds of difference as a benefit. Together we can push for organisations that better reflect society both inside and out.


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