Huge Demographic Virtually Invisible in Media Wants to be Seen

PHOTO: Deborah Davis
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Characters with disabilities have been featured on TV shows including "Private Practice" and "Glee."

A blind woman was featured in an iPhone commercial using the voice recognition system Siri to confirm dinner plans and a young boy with Down syndrome was featured among other children in an online Target ad.

Paralympic champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius was used to market Nike shoes before he was charged with murdering his girlfriend.

But outside of these and a handful of other moments, people with disabilities are largely invisible in the media, and are particularly absent when it comes to marketing campaigns.

Supporters of the disabled say that there is a lucrative opportunity for marketers that is being disregarded out of a combination of ignorance, caution and fear. And just as there used to be a campaign to have minorities included in media campaigns, there is a budding effort to have people with disabilities be part of the media scenery.

It is not only altruistic, it would likely be good business, advocates argue.

Almost one in five Americans -- 57 million people -- have some sort of disability. By some estimates, they have a spending power of $200 billion to $500 billion. For some industries, pitching to the disabled is a unique opportunity, while for others simply including them in ad campaigns could tap into a reservoir of good will that will pay off in brand loyalty.

"In general, nobody is really doing a great job," Nadine Vogel said of the current business landscape. "We could go through every single industry and we could pinpoint where the opportunities are in each and every one and that's just being ignored."

Vogel is the president and founder of Springboard Consulting, a company that consults on how to market to people with disabilities and helps recruit and support people with disabilities in the work force. She is also the mother of two daughters with disabilities.

"The assumption is the segment doesn't have money, that the segment doesn't have the same interests--such as maybe going on vacation--and then what we hear often as well from companies is, 'Well, if I do it 'wrong,' I'll get sued or I'll get in trouble so we'll just avoid it. It's easier,'" Vogel said.

"Disability doesn't discriminate," she said. "It hits all income levels, all nationalities, all races. We tend to separate it, but you can't."

Vogel said businesses are not capitalizing on a demographic that very much wants to be treated like any other.

"People with disabilities are not a cause," Vogel said. "Say it like it is. This is a market that spends money and you want their business. Nobody is going to be offended by that. People with disabilities and their families want to be seen as contributing members of society, just like anyone else."

Deborah Davis, who lives in Miami-Dade County, Fla., is trying to help achieve that mind shift. She is the founder and co-owner of PhotoAbility, an "inclusive images" photo agency that hopes to provide stock photos that feature people with disabilities doing every day activities, from exercising to traveling.

She hopes that the images will be used not only for marketing products specifically for disabled people but also in marketing campaigns for any products.

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