Growing up in a nonprofit career-oriented family, I’ve found myself working with, interacting with, socializing and learning from people with disabilities throughout my life. One summer I found myself one of the few hearing children at a camp for the deaf in Baxter, Maine. The next year I was shadowing my mother at a day-program for children with Autism and other developmental disabilities. I continued this trajectory in college and in my early career, working with children and adults in community integration day programs in Virginia and New York City.
Over the years my career path shifted away from clinical care to focus on research, consumer insights and strategy. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects to develop messaging, positioning and communication plans for different patient groups and treatment interventions. But one of my greatest experiences to date was personal, not professional. Joining training sessions with Achilles International (an athletic group comprised of athletes with disabilities) inspired and prepared me to complete my first half marathon. Over the miles of running and chatting, I learned a great deal about how these individuals wanted to be viewed and talked about by the “non-disabled” population.
So in recent years, as I’ve started to notice more and more people with disabilities appearing on television and advertisements, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I see it as a positive sign, that individuals whose amazing potential I have personally witnessed are finally enjoying the spotlight. On the other hand, there’s a fine line between celebrating and exploiting people with disabilities.
While there is certainly still progress to be made and missteps will undoubtedly happen along the way, a few recent cases make me hopeful that there will be more positive representation of people with disabilities in media.
Celebrating the Ordinary
One of the most impactful requests I’ve heard when talking to people with disabilities is the desire to be seen as ordinary people. This surprised me at first, since many of these individuals had accomplished things that I considered extraordinary. But what changes the mainstream perception of people with disabilities is introducing us to individuals living their lives, rather than only focusing on the exceptional cases.
Microsoft’s “Empowering Us All” commercial, which aired during the 2014 Super Bowl, made several lists for the best spots of the year. The ad pulls on the heartstrings while showing how technology advancements help people, many with disabilities, accomplish what many of us take for granted. Cochlear implants help a woman hear for the first time, prosthetic limbs giving the a young boy the freedom to play, a voice reader letting a father talk to his son. By celebrating these ordinary accomplishments, Microsoft’s ad subtly changes the conversation around disabilities.
Focus on the Individual, not the Disability
Along with most fans, I can find a great deal to talk about when the conversation turns to the series Breaking Bad. Most conversations seem to focus around shocking plot developments, talented character portrayals and the generally accepted greatness of the series finale. I’ve been a bit surprised about how little has been mentioned of the disability that actor RJ Mitte and his character of Walt Junior lives with – which is the reason why this example has a spot on my list. Walt junior is an important character throughout the five seasons, but the focus has never been around his disability. This is a deviation from other shows, where the central defining characteristic is how the character lives with and overcomes challenges created by their disability. The creators, writers and directors of Breaking Bad maintained a graceful balance of keeping a character with a disability integral to the story, without making the story about his disability.
RJ Mitte has also recently been showcased in Gap Ads, part of a series celebrating emerging artists. He is certainly one to watch, and hopefully will help pave the way for more inclusion of individuals with disabilities, showing how character and talent can over shine a disability.
Behind the Scenes Support and Commitment
Since 2008, health insurance company Cigna has partnered with Achilles International to support their shared mission of helping people with disabilities return to a life of health and productivity. Over the past couple of years, Cigna has also undergone a great deal of rebranding. The “Go You” campaign focuses on the uniqueness of individuals. The values that they express publically run parallel to the support they contribute behind the scenes (which includes financial support, programing for their members, and even employees running as guides for Achilles athletes). Cigna is a strong demonstration that support does not always mean exhibition.