By Catia Malaquias
A few days ago, an article appeared in the online publication “Mamamia” titled “The models with Down Syndrome we’re seeing all have one thing in common – Are child models with Down Syndrome really a great win for diversity?” You can read the article in full here.
I read it with interest, of course, and I agreed with some of the points that it makes. The article also linked to several videos of the late Stella Young, the Australian disability activist, speaking about the portrayal of people with disability, especially in the media, which so frequently stereotypes, objectifies and exceptionalises.
I wholeheartedly agreed with the point that the representation of disability in advertising must extend to representing the diversity among people with disability – including by representing both children and adults. It is the same point that I recently made here and also similar to the points made in an article in The Guardian.
But the Mamamia article goes on to single out models with Down syndrome and, unlike the above articles, makes no mention of Madeline Stuart, the Brisbane teenager with Down syndrome who will be following in the footsteps of Jamie Brewer, an American actress with Down syndrome, by walking the runway at New York Fashion Week next month. While these examples are far from sufficient in terms of the representation of adults with Down syndrome in advertising, they are a beginning worth noting.
What I found troubling about this article however was that, in calling for more disability diversity in advertising, it does so in a way that resorts to what appears to me to be criticism of children’s advertising becoming more inclusive of children with Down syndrome notwithstanding the fact that, proportionately speaking, children with Down syndrome as a group are still significantly under-represented in children’s advertising.
While approximately 1 in 900 babies are born with Down syndrome, how many children represented in mainstream advertising have Down syndrome? At a guess – judging by the latest Myer, David Jones, Pumpkin Patch or almost any Australian advertising catalogue – hardly any. I know this because I watch this space closely and have campaigned for the last few years to add disability as diversity to mainstream advertising in Australia.
My son Julius has featured in 6 consecutive advertising campaigns for Australian children’s fashion brand eeni meeni miini moh and, while in the last few years I have seen a few more children with Down syndrome appear in advertising, it’s still hardly commonplace or representative. The author mentions a handful of names in a handful of advertisements that have appeared overseas and that have hit the international media because, well, they are only a handful. And while there are valid criticisms of how the mainstream media in particular covers stories about models with disability – and disability generally – the exposure it generates arguably assists ideas around disability as diversity and social inclusion to penetrate the public’s consciousness.
What I also found far-fetched was the implication in the Mamamia article that a consequence of children’s advertising becoming more inclusive is the infantilization of adults with disability because it somehow reinforces depictions that ascribe people with disability with “child-like qualities”. I just don’t see how depicting a disabled child as child-like infantilizes adults with disability. The relevant question would seem to be how are children with disability depicted in relation to their non-disabled peers and are they being exceptionalised because of disability? I’m usually more troubled by children’s advertising that depicts children – any children – with “adult-like” qualities.
Wouldn’t a better premise for the Mamamia article have been that there are too many non-disabled children in advertising given that recent statistics in the context of education suggest 1 in every 6 school aged children have a disability? Or alternatively that there are too many non-disabled people in advertising given that approximately 1 in 5 have a disability?
It’s true that advertising imagery representing disability is far from perfect – and I would like to see broader diversity in child models too, with children with different disabilities and disabled children from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds but why does that take away from a positive (if insufficient) move towards greater inclusion?
As American media and disability scholar Beth Haller has noted in her research into disability in advertising, there has been a shift towards better and increased representation of disability in advertising imagery and messages and this shift in the US and UK can be tied to important anti-discrimination legislation and suggests the potential of advertising to stimulate attitude change toward disabled people.
What is also vital to understand in relation to the representation of people with disability of all ages – and what the article seems to miss – is that its significance isn’t simply the broadening of “beauty” or “appearance” ideals in society. More importantly in my view, it is about imagery and messages that undermine social stigmas and normalise the participation and inclusion of people with disability and difference in society on an equal basis with non-disabled people.
In particular, the author’s suggestion that representing people with Down syndrome “establishes a type of hierarchy within the community where those who have more ‘normal’ bodies which can ‘pass’ as able-bodied are given higher status compared to others”, overlooks the fact that the stigma and marginalisation that people with Down syndrome have experienced historically isn’t simply on account of looking “different”. People with Down syndrome have facial and physical characteristics in common that identify them as a group that is also associated with non-physical characteristics such as intellectual disability. In that sense, the stigmatisation of people with Down syndrome isn’t simply based on appearance and its divergence from accepted “norms” and neither is the significance of representation in advertising just about broadening beauty ideals. It is about broader social acceptance and challenging historical exclusion.
It is undeniable that people with Down syndrome and intellectual disability have been, and continue to be, among the most excluded and marginalised in society. Not too long ago, most people with Down syndrome were routinely institutionalised from birth and for the entirety of their lives, denied access to family, friendship, love and community, to an education and in violation of just about every fundamental human right. Babies with Down syndrome were among the first to be murdered under the T4 program in Nazi Germany that resulted in the murder of approximately 200,000 people with disability. Today, we are continuing to develop earlier and less intrusive methods of diagnosing Down syndrome in the womb to facilitate selective termination and it is estimated that over 90% of pregnancies where Down syndrome is identified are terminated. While I support women’s choices about their bodies, those statistics undeniably reflect how we as a society value people with Down syndrome. For children with Down syndrome, they still face significant barriers in accessing education in mainstream schools. While 20-30% of all children with disability are educated in segregated educational settings, the rates of children with intellectual disability, such as Down syndrome, attending segregated education are closer to 50%. This also translates into employment – recent statistics in the UK indicated that only around 7% of people with an intellectual disability are in any form of employment. In Australia we know that many people with intellectual disability in segregated workshops are working for as little as $1 per hour. Further, figures indicate that a staggering 90% of women with intellectual disability have been sexually abused.
As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, I am keenly aware of the barriers my son faces and will continue to face but I am also encouraged whenever I see people with Down syndrome and intellectual disability of all ages challenging stereotypes and low expectations by striving for inclusion in every area of life. I particularly welcome the increasingly loud voices of self advocates with intellectual disability and applaud the strides made by young adults with Down syndrome like Jamie Brewer, Sarah Gordy, Madeline Stuart and aspiring model Jack McKevitt who are making their presence felt in the public eye because I am convinced that it is they who hold the greatest power to shift people’s thinking and the discriminatory burden of history. We should support them in every way, including by acknowledging the significance of what they are doing and by denouncing all forms of exclusion, in advertising and everywhere else.