Academics, Graphic Design

Mastering The Conversation Around Advertising & Disability

It seems like in our industry marketers and agencies often clamor to be the first-to-market or the next big thing or want to ride the newest trend where CMO’s and creative directors will pontificate all day long on generalist statements about content being king and that we need to move on from millennials to a younger, hipper audience, but conversations are quieted within the industry when disability is brought into the mix.

This isn’t just my opinion that people with disabilities are rarely seen in advertising, it’s now, in part, academically proven. Tim Cox, MFA and adjunct faculty at Harding University recently published his Master’s thesis, The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design, which can be found in more detail here.

Recently I had the good fortune to interview Tim, learn more about his work and connect with another passionate advocate!

What got you interested in design?

As a child, I loved to draw and my parents encouraged my interest in arts mostly because it kept me entertained, kept me quiet during church services and kept their refrigerator well decorated. At eleven-years-old, I was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and my love of drawing became my escape from the tests, the waiting rooms and, most of all, the pain.  During my battle with cancer, my parents and other mentors emphasized the idea that  “attitude is everything,” which helped me develop a slightly off-center sense of humor. Despite the fact that I became a paraplegic and double leg amputee, these traits helped me discover that with my natural creative talents coupled with my faith I did not need to escape from this world but could indeed excel in it.

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Tim Cox, MFA, thesis author of The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

What were your thoughts on the current state of advertising and disability before you wrote the thesis, and did any thinking change afterwards?
My friends and I came up with the term “token crip” because the only time I usually saw a person in a wheelchair or with a disability in a commercial or on a show it felt like they were just thrown in there to say, “there’s one.” Or if they were on there then it was to be some kind of inspiration for non disabled people to feel good about by including them. I didn’t see me, I saw races, genders, different ages and socioeconomic levels but no one like me.

Why can’t a person in a wheelchair sell a vacuum or be seen helping kids get ready for school or any number of other advertising uses?

Were there any hurdles you encountered in developing your thesis?
One part was my own hurdle of realizing that my voice was unique as a paraplegic graphic designer. I was also told by the thesis review group that the topic was far too narrow but my committee chair and other students encouraged me to move forward to highlight the problem from my perspective and how it fits well with the ideas of inclusion. The final hurdle was that most of the academic work that had been done was on television advertising and/or industrial design with the work on prosthetics and I was wanting to focus on print and or web advertising so I had to look at the reasons behind why the disabled were not included.

Were there any surprises, aha moments, or interesting insights for you as you developed your thesis?
I found that though I was concentrating on my disability for the main part of the thesis that it opened the door to researching the impact on other disabilities and how we might have lots of different disabilities there is so much that brings us together. I think the thing that has stayed with me the most is that the idea of normal and perfection are constructs that help create the disparities between the non-disabled and the disabled. Anyone can become disabled at anytime and for a plethora of reasons so there are far more similarities to look to for all of us vs. the differences. This was hit home with the theory of aesthetic nervousness of when a non-disabled person meets a disabled person there is a nervousness of how to act and what to say because of the limited interaction and visual disparity that exists keeping the disabled on the fringes of the “normal.”

You also do some teaching as an adjunct faculty. How do you bring the conversation on advertising and disability into the classroom?
I think first and foremost by being in the classroom and exposing the next generation of designers to being around a disabled person creates a comfort level and allows for knowledge to be gained in the similarities that exist between us. Secondly I have an Olympics project and the students must also do a parallel Paralympics project. It gets them out of their comfort zone and educates them on the high level of competition that exists.

Best case scenario, what would be your vision for advertising and inclusion of people with disabilities in 5 years?
I would love for stock photo companies to see that putting a pretty model in a chair is not the same as using real disabled people in their photos. Plus the number of photos needs to increase so it is at least equal to the percentage of the largest minority of the US. Using services like www.photoability.net that use real disabled people in real life activities is a great way to start this. Designers guide their clients and if they can show them alternate designs including the disabled is a great way to educate the client to see that inclusion opens up an untapped market and helps in acceptance of the disabled.

What barriers are there to achieving that vision?
I would say early on education to get rid of the idea that the disabled are broken, weak, non-sexual beings but that they enjoy life as anyone else does. The disabled need to be included in any and all talks when diversity is the subject. Yes, there are barriers that can make it more difficult in some element but again to accept those differences and concentrate on the similarities can open a lot of doors.

Finally, do you have a favorite ad, brand or campaign that is inclusive of people with disability?
One of the first things I found in my research was the accessible icon movement to change the existing accessible icon that looks like it is part of the chair and is stiff and unmoving to the more forward moving person that is using the chair on their own. It shows possibilities and more importantly creates discussion about the disabled. Does it incorporate every disability? No, but hopefully it starts discussion of inclusion. An actual ad that I found at the end of my research is for EAS supplements. A company that focuses on health and fitness had a banner in Spotify of a fit guy doing battle ropes. He is also a single leg amputee. The prosthetic is not the focus but his fitness and pursuit of being healthy is what is taken from the ad. The prosthetic does not define him but is a tool to having the life he wants. That is what including the disabled into society does, it allows them to have an equal opportunity to pursue the life they want to have.

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