Ad Council Cannot Rethink its Disability Bias

You may have seen the recent Ad Council ads championing their message that love has no gender, race, religion, or disability, or as they put it, “love has no labels” and “rethink bias.”  The one-minute ad, which takes place on Valentine’s Day 2015, features a screen behind which individuals, who appear as though they were moving skeletons, dance, kiss, or move around while Mary Lambert’s “She Keeps Me Warm” plays in the background. These individuals then move from behind the screen to present themselves to a crowd. The commercial concludes with a voiceover from one or more of the participants. There’s an interracial couple (“My heart doesn’t see race”), a same-sex couple (“love is love”), a same-sex couple with a child (“our family is no less than any other family”), two men of different religions (“we are neighbors and best friends”), and an able-bodied girl with her disabled sister (“I love my sister”).

The message is clear with four out of these five cases: relationships that previously have been considered taboo should no longer be viewed as such. It’s a necessary message, particularly given the systemic racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia that are still present in our society.

But what was the point of the able-bodied girl and her disabled sister? I understand that the commercial is meant to promote inclusion and diversity, and so there was likely pressure to show someone with a disability among other marginalized individuals.

The other individuals presented in this ad, however, serve to highlight relationships that our society has found objectionable. But when has society been opposed to a girl saying that she loves her disabled sister? By focusing on a child’s familial relationship, rather than on an older individual (it is worth noting that the able-bodied and disabled sisters are the only individuals to share the stage without an adult) with a disability’s friendship or relationship, Ad Council ignores an opportunity to address some of the negative stereotypes pertaining to individuals with disabilities, and instead perpetuates some of these stereotypes.

It is unfortunate that Ad Council chose a child to represent their disability demographic, particularly when adults represented every other demographic. An adult with a disability with an able-bodied or disabled partner could have dispelled some stereotypes about disability and relationships. As any individual with a disability, particularly a highly visible disability, will tell you, the stereotype that individuals with disabilities are either asexual or “undatable” is not only harmful, but also still strongly prevalent. According to Stephanie Woodward, a disability rights activist and attorney, women with disabilities experience the highest rate of personal violence of any group in our society. Some of the reason for that, she explains, is due to low self-esteem – individuals with disabilities are rarely portrayed in the media as attractive, desirable, or datable. As a result, a number of women with disabilities stay with any partner who shows them affection, even if the partner is abusive. Ad Council missed an opportunity to show a healthy relationship for someone with a disability, and show that such a relationship is possible.

Questions of disability and sex have made their way to some media, such as the YouTube series “My Gimpy Life.” In an episode entitled “Inspirational,” disabled actress and activist Teal Sherer opens the episode with her character running a perfectly mundane errand – getting money at the ATM. An able-bodied man who is in front of her on line says hello and asks if he may ask a personal question. The question? “Can you have sex?” Teal, who uses a wheelchair, stares at him and laughs awkwardly. “Um, yeah, I guess?” she replies. “So everything works down there?” Once Teal affirms that yes, everything works down there, the able-bodied man asks her if she wants to get coffee with him. She turns him down, which is likely because asking someone if “everything works down there” is a terrible pickup line. Speaking as a wheelchair user, the exchange between these two characters feels uncomfortable and all too real. It is often the opinion of able-bodied individuals that they have a right to ask individuals with disabilities any personal question that comes to mind, and that we must answer.

While a romantic relationship for an individual with a disability could not have been highlighted in Ad Council’s ad due to the young girl’s age, that girl could still be filmed with friends. What would have prevented Ad Council from replacing the girl with a disability’s sister with a friend? Presenting a girl with a disability with an able-bodied friend could have encouraged other able-bodied children to socialize with disabled children, and thus strengthened the overall message of the ad. Ad Council, however, overlooks the friendships that people with disabilities are capable of having.

Ad Council decides instead to focus on the girl with a disability’s relationship to her sister. Has society actually been opposed to this or any other familial relationship? Generally, no, but there are, heartbreakingly, recent cases where a parent murdered their disabled child. And let’s not forget that it is possible to screen a fetus for Down syndrome, and that there are human rights groups around the world urging pregnant women not to abort their pregnancies, regardless of disability. Others recognize that raising a special needs child is costly and difficult, and those who choose to have an abortion do so for their own reasons. But I strongly doubt that Ad Council meant to send a pro-life message along the lines of, “Don’t abort your Down syndrome fetus because their siblings will love them!”

Still, it appears as though while Ad Council focuses on relationships when it comes to religion, gender, and sexuality, the focus is primarily on personhood where disability is concerned. Upon visiting Ad Council’s campaign site, which features stories from marginalized individuals, the story provided for an individual with Down syndrome was entitled “I’m Not Weird,” and it describes how someone stared at that individual. Obviously, staring is rude, but the main point of the story was to confirm that the individual with Down syndrome is a person (and “not weird”). I fear for the state of disability rights when, not stereotypes, but the mere fact of personhood needs to be discussed on a “rethink bias” campaign. Individuals with disabilities deal with a number of issues in addition to staring, not the least of which includes discrimination in the workplace, lowered expectations in schools, and widespread economic problems that stem, in part, from these issues. (As a side note, I looked through Ad Council’s website to see if disability was mentioned elsewhere, and found a section on Autism that is sponsored by Autism Speaks, a problematic charity. Ad Council may need to work on their disability approach.)

Ultimately, the message that Ad Council (and any similar group) ought to deliver is one of inclusion – that various races, genders, sexualities, religions, and disabilities are normal. We need to rethink bias regularly, and be an ally to not just one marginalized group, but to all whenever possible. We can start by assuming right off the bat that everyone is a person, which is probably the most irritating part of the Ad Council campaign. They do not make this assumption with regard to individuals with disabilities, evidenced by their choice to show a family member accepting her disabled sister (which feels like a half-assed attempt to be inclusive, because seriously, who at any point in history objected to an able-bodied person saying, “I love my sister”?).

Rather than show a young disabled girl with her able-bodied sister (which unnecessarily makes one question familial relationships for the disabled), why not show a couple that includes a wheelchair user? Why not a group of wheelchair-using basketball players? Why not friends or partners speaking to each other in ASL (American Sign Language)? Rather than show a girl with a disability alongside her loving sister (which virtually says, “If I can accept my family member as a person, you can too!”), why not show that a person with a disability can have relationships beyond those at home, and can find acceptance among their fellow peers? Until Ad Council decides to show individuals with disabilities as functioning members of society, instead as those for whom personhood is still a battle, I am not convinced that they have rethought their bias.

3 thoughts on “Ad Council Cannot Rethink its Disability Bias

  1. What about the history of separating children with (typically mental) disabilities from their families and institutionalizing them, out of the notion that having a child with a disability was a sign of sinfulness or moral failing in some way and needed to be hidden from society? People with disabilities living within families and communities is still relatively new, I would argue.

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