You may be wondering how making apple and cheddar melts in a Honey Maid commercial ties into greater inclusion of people with disabilities in media, but if you read on, you’ll know that it does. Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Stephanie Woodward, J.D. disability rights lawyer and activist who is currently director of advocacy at The Center for Disability Rights on her role as advocate and about her involvement in the Honey Maid commercial. If you haven’t seen the ad, here it is, and read on to learn about Stephanie and what she believes is in store for advertising, media and disability.
Mondelez International, maker of Honey Maid graham crackers, has added layers into brand messaging that goes beyond consumer packaged goods features and benefits to how the brand fits into inclusive families. With no spotlight or significant focus on the person with disability, the narrative for this ad quietly conveys normalcy of the reality of a family made up of people of differing abilities.
Gary Osifchin, portfolio lead for biscuits at Mondelez International shared in an Adweek article “the ‘This Is Wholesome’ campaign launched in March 2014 and has been committed to featuring a cross-section of the American family, from a same-sex couple and single dad, to a mixed-race military family, a blended and an immigrant family, the sweet moments between a disabled aunt and her niece ar just another example of Honey Maid’s commitment to feature real American families and the wholesome connections they share.”
Grab some Honey Maid graham crackers for a snack and read on for some powerful insights from my interview with Stephanie Woodward, JD.
What are your thoughts on the current state of broadly defined media (TV, movies, advertising, journalism) and inclusion of people with disabilities?
“Frankly, I think it is terrible. We all throw a celebration when we see one disabled actor get a small side-role in a television series or a movie. However, in reality, 1 in 5 people have disabilities, so we should be represented in the media so frequently that celebrations are not needed because disability representation is so common. Beyond that, our REAL stories should be told. Over 1 million people with disabilities are in nursing facilities or other institutions across our nation – where is that story in the media? Many disabled people rely on attendant services to live happily in the community, where’s that story? Women with disabilities are at least twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence than women without disabilities, how come I haven’t seen that story on my TV? I don’t want to just see someone who looks like me on my TV, I want them to be speaking my truth.”
More specifically, what are your thoughts on the current state of advertising and disability?
“I have seen a few advertisements that have been making a specific effort to include people with disabilities which makes me happy, but I don’t think we’re represented enough, or with enough variety of disabilities and ages. I’m mostly seeing disabled kids in advertisements, limited to kids with Down Syndrome, a few kids in wheelchairs, and one with crutches recently. I’d like to see more diversity. Where’s the blind adults or the autistic teenager? Where’s the mom with anxiety and depression? There’s a lot of us missing.”
How did you get involved with the Honey Maid marketing team and be in the commercial?
“I work for the Center for Disability Rights, http://www.cdrnys.org/, we’re a nonprofit independent living center that serves the Disability Community. The casting agency for the commercial sent an email to all of the directors of our organization informing us that they were looking for a family with a parent who uses a wheelchair and a child between the ages of 4 and 12. They asked us to spread the word to our consumers, so I did. Then I thought about my niece and me as a possibility. I’m obviously not her mom, but I yell at her enough that I feel like I am sometimes. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to throw us in the mix. I didn’t think they’d actually pick us, but I was wrong.”
Best case scenario, what would be your vision for advertising and inclusion of people with disabilities in 5 years?
“Disabled people are everywhere, so we should be everywhere in advertising. We are children, teens, young adults, middle aged, and elderly. We should be in your children’s toys paper ads, we should be in your “Don’t smoke” PSA’s directed at teens, we should be the glamourous mannequins at H&M and Forever21 and Ann Taylor (and all of the other stores that take so much of my money!), we should be in mortgage commercials buying homes, we should be everywhere. We do everything every other person does, and we buy the same things as everyone else, so why aren’t we represented like everyone else?”
What barriers are there to achieving that vision?
“I think there’s this ridiculous stereotype that disabled people don’t buy things, or we only buy “specialized” things for disabled people, so advertisers shouldn’t waste their time trying to target us. That’s crap. My pots and pans aren’t specialized (unless you count the fact that their purple as being “specialized.”), neither is my couch or my food or my clothes. I buy the same damn things as my nondisabled friends, but because I’m a shopaholic, I often buy more. When advertisers include disabled people, I tend to throw a lot more of my money their way. Honestly, Target has gotten a lot more of my money lately because of all the disabled kids I’m seeing in their ads.
Beyond the stereotypes, I think advertisers often don’t have accessible sets for people with physical disabilities or are not willing to be patient with individuals who have intellectual, physical, psychological or other disabilities who may need more time to prepare or may need to take breaks due to overstimulation or, in my case, an obscene amount of bathroom breaks.”
As an advocate do you have any suggestions on ways for advertisers or agencies to become more open to the possibility of inclusion?
“Let go of your stereotypes. Be more patient. Also, don’t tell us how to “act” like our disabilities. As a wheelchair user, I know what it’s like to use a wheelchair and how to act as a wheelchair user. If you ask me to do something that no average wheelchair user would do, I’m going to say no. If you want authentic advertisements, trust us. For example, many wheelchair users don’t have full control of their legs (which is exactly why we use wheelchairs.) Many of us have legs that flop either left or right, so if an advertiser wants us to position our legs perfectly center for a photoshoot, you lose the authenticity and, often, the relatability to the disabled people viewing the ad. So, in the end, I guess I’m saying use us in your ads and trust us to represent our community appropriately. We don’t need nondisabled people telling us how disabled people would act.”
Are there any similar advocacy initiatives you’re personally involved in or others you are familiar with that you would like to share?
“Yes! My Advocacy Team is focusing in on representing real disability stories in the media. I have one part time Media and Entertainment Advocate and will be hiring another very soon! Their main focus in not just to have people with disabilities play characters with disabilities, but to get shows to cover the institutional bias that many disabled people experience. This institutional bias is the bias in our insurance system that forces people with disabilities into nursing facilities or other institutions simply because they need assistance with everyday tasks. People with disabilities should have the same right to live in the community as everyone else, but our system discriminates against us. There are hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities trapped in institutions, and even more at risk of being forced into a nursing facility, simply because they have disabilities and need assistance. We want this story to be portrayed in the media. We recognize societal change doesn’t happen without society being on board, but most of society isn’t aware of this issue. We want to see this story in the media so society can see the problem and be part of the solution.”
Finally, other than Honey Maid, do you have another favorite ad, brand or campaign that is inclusive of people with disability?
I enjoyed the Disney commercial of the family with Deaf parents and two little girls (one who was deaf) meeting Tinkerbell and being thrilled that Tinkerbell could sign her name. Access to communication is so critical and seeing a company illustrate that in a commercial made me very happy, because they’re educating society. It’s not about being touchy-feely to me. Disabled people aren’t here to be an inspiration for nondisabled people, so I hate advertisements that have disabled people serve that purpose. But I love advertisements where we’re portrayed as everyday people, and more so, I love ads that educate society about our issues.”
Great pick for a commercial Stephanie! I grew up in Anaheim, CA, attended Walt Disney Elementary School and spent many, many days at Disneyland and I’m a huge fan of the theme parks and what the Disney brand does to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Be on the lookout for a post coming up dedicated to Mickey and his friends.