“… Or we could do nothing”: Why business can’t be “neutral” on disability

By Catia Malaquias

I recently met with the marketing team of a large Australian business.  I had reached out to them and we had arranged to meet over a coffee to discuss how their advertising could be more inclusive of people with disability and, from my perspective, why it should be more representative.

Towards the end of our discussion, sensing the marketing team’s reluctance, I began to try to explain that there are only two pathways when it comes to representing your customer base:

You can either be part of the solution and reflect disability as part of the diversity of your customers and their communities or you can be part of the problem and continue to exclude people with disability from your advertising and reinforce exclusionary attitudes to disability.”

The response from the marketing manager was blunt:

 “… or we could do nothing.  We can continue business as usual – without including models with disability in our advertising”.

The difference in our viewpoints was as to the consequences of not reflecting people with disability in advertising and mainstream media.

Doing nothing” is not passive or neutral.  It is not like walking by and side-stepping disability prejudice.

Deciding not to reflect people with disability in advertising and mainstream media continues and reinforces the attitudinal barriers that stand in the way of people with disability participating with equal opportunity and without discrimination in education, employment and every other aspect of life.

As most disabled people will say – the primary barrier to their full participation is cultural – society’s negative and prejudicial attitudes to disability and its low-expectations for people with disability.  Those attitudinal barriers operate as an invisible exclusionary wall – denying people with disability equality of opportunity, devaluing them as members of society and creating the circumstances that lead to discrimination.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, drafted by people with disability, doesn’t describe “disability” as many would expect – as a medical condition or physical or cognitive impairment.  Rather, the Convention says:

“… disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

“Disability” is not about “deficits” inherent in the individual – it is about the denial of equality of opportunity and discrimination that arises from attitudinal prejudice and the failure of the relevant environment or setting to adjust or accommodate for an individual’s physical, intellectual, cognitive, sensory or other impairment.  It is really about “deficits” in social attitudes and the environmental setting.

But if we as individuals or as businesses “do nothing”, isn’t our impact “neutral” on cultural and environmental barriers? We simply don’t make things better or worse for people with disability.  How can it be said that we contribute to the “problem”, to reinforcing and perpetuating attitudinal barriers and the exclusion of people with disability?

The answer is that the invisible attitudinal wall is not built from intentional bias and conscious prejudice to disability.  Very few people would think that they themselves are biased or prejudiced against people with disability.  Most people think that they can counter or overcome any prejudice that they may have.  They trust in their capacity to be unbiased – to control any bias.

The reality is that attitudinal prejudice and bias also operates at a subconscious and uncontrollable level – this is called implicit bias or implicit prejudice.  Implicit bias and prejudice is something that all members of society carry depending upon their life experience – being formed from as early as 3 years of age from the family environment (e.g. listening to conversations at the dinner table and from the back-seat of the car) and importantly exposure to the media.  Media stereotypes impact upon implicit bias, as well as the devaluation or lack of depiction of minorities in the media.

It is for this reason that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities expressly states, in Article 8, the need to combat stereotypes and prejudice and promote positive perceptions and respect for the rights of people with disability, including by encouraging all media organs to portray people with disability in a manner consistent with the Convention’s purposes.  No other human rights convention contains such an explicit statement about the impact of media.

Excluding the representation of people with disability in advertising and mainstream media – “doing nothing” – sends and reinforces the subconscious message that people with disability do not belong and are not valued.  That is the message that underpins the invisible cultural wall that stands in the way of people with disability accessing our society and participating equally in education, in employment and in our communities.

The invisible attitudinal barrier built of implicit and subconscious bias, prejudice and low-expectations is the exclusionary wall that each of us – community leaders, businesses, the media, teachers, doctors, neighbours, friends and even parents of children with disability – must learn to see and to acknowledge.  Only then can we dismantle that invisible wall.

Against a long history of excluding and segregating people with disability, continuing to exclude disability in advertising and other mainstream media is not “doing nothing”.  It is very much affirming the cultural legacies of that history of exclusion and reinforcing implicit bias and prejudice in our society.  It is in effect maintaining and reinforcing the invisible attitudinal wall.

Similarly, continuing to exclude disability from our regular school classrooms, from our workplaces and our communities is not “doing nothing”.

The corporate business community has the capacity – through advertising and media and its employment practices – to advance the realisation of the human rights of people with disability to fully participate in our society.  But we need business to recognise that the representative inclusion of people with disability in their workforces, advertising and media is a part of their corporate social responsibilities – as well as being good for their business in connecting them with the largest minority group in the world.

Click here to watch “Kmart and Target’s inclusive advertising – changing society’s attitudes around disability”.

You can also read our report on inclusive advertising and corporate social responsibility here.

There are a number of websites that offer “implicit association tests” designed to reveal the presence and degree of an individual’s implicit prejudice towards particular social concepts and minority groups, including people with disability. See for example Project Implicit (Harvard University).

[Cover photo © Hunters Race]

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