Where are the disabled in TV ads?

By | 2017-01-13T20:42:20+00:00 August 20th, 2014|
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Nordstrom has long used models with disabilities, such as this one in photo from the Associated Press.

Nordstrom has long used models with disabilities, such as Jillian Mercado, who is shown in this photo from the Associated Press.

A friend tells me I go out of my way to make things harder for myself, so when I recently needed a new washing machine, I purchased a front-loader. Believe me, it makes doing laundry almost bearable. So, if it works for me, wouldn’t many others benefit — disabled and non-disabled alike (i.e., short and older folks)? So, why haven’t I seen a person with a disability in a television ad for front loaders?

Major appliance makers spend millions advertising the machines, and it makes marketing sense since using a model in a wheelchair — a real disabled person, not a fake — might net them some new buyers. I won’t hold my breath because a new study says that only 2.5 to 3 percent of all aired commercials feature characters with disabilities and during TV sweeps period, when networks compete intensely for ratings, commercials featuring people with disabilities drop to practically zero.

Olan Farnall, a professor of advertising at Texas Tech, conducted the study titled “Where Have All the Wheelchairs Gone?,” which focused on physical disabilities like people using wheelchairs or missing limbs.

The professor found that “although characters with physical disabilities appeared 200 times more often in 2009 than they did in 1999, those numbers still do not accurately represent the 20 percent of Americans living with a disability,” according to an article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

“For some reason, we still don’t want to put images of disabilities in our advertising,” Farnall said. The reasons for that vary, but “most of the time it was accredited to the fact that individuals, not disabled individuals, were uncomfortable with how to react. How do you respond in an appropriate manner? Uncomfortableness was not something the entertainment industry was going for,” Farnall told the newspaper.

When advertisers do include people with disabilities, it seems more like a gimmick to get media attention. For instance, this month JC Penney store in Manhattan is featuring mannequins of a woman in a wheelchair, a man with dwarfism and a double leg amputee as part of its “When it fits you feel it” campaign. The models, a statement more about body image than disability, were given lots of airtime on the Today Show last spring.

On the other hand, Nordstrom has been using models with disabilities since 1997, and its current fall fashion preview catalog includes a woman in a wheelchair modeling boots and a man with a prosthetic leg modeling Nike running shoes.

“Identifying companies that utilize models or actresses with disabilities has been like finding a needle in a haystack,” Meg O’Connell, of the consulting firm Global Disability Inclusion, told the Associated Press. Nordstrom, she added, “is a leader in this space and has been a long-standing supporter of disability inclusion not only in their advertising but also in employment and accessibility in their stores.”

That’s one company that seems to ‘get it’ when it comes to customers, advertising and disability, but what about the other big-hitters in the retail world? Won’t it be nice when there are so many people with disabilities in print and broadcast ads that it won’t be news anymore.