Huge Demographic Virtually Invisible in Media Wants to be Seen

About 57 million Americans have disabilities but few are included in marketing.

ByChristina Ng
May 29, 2013, 12:31 PM

May 29, 2013 — -- 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.

"We have beautiful girls who happen to be sitting who are wearing prom dresses. Why not show inclusivity?" Davis said. "We're not saying every ad has to have it, but we would like to see it become more normal and something that you see more often."

Adweek staff writer Robert Klara said there's "no way this hasn't been on the table" with companies, but believes companies worry about conjuring fears that able-bodied people have of becoming disabled or aging and fear appearing like they are exploiting people for profit.

"I think for those who decide to be pioneers, the risks and rewards are theirs. But let's face it, most established brands are risk averse," Klara told "It may very well be that many brands just simply decide that they're not going to inch too far out on that limb to get that money."

Members of the disabled community say that inclusivity pays off since the community talks among themselves about brands and companies that are inclusive, according to Lawrence Carter-Long of the National Council on Disability.

"They're starting to recognize that if they provide good customer service not only are they catering to people with disabilities but they're catering to the friends and families of people with it's one of those things that fans out exponentially," he said.

Still, taking note is not the same as making moves to change the status quo.

Out of 639 of the largest United States-based public companies analyzed, 31 percent indicated an interest in the market of people with disabilities, but only 7 percent of those backed up that interest with measurable efforts, according to an annual report done by Fifth Quadrant Analytics, a New York-based ratings company that focuses on the disability market.

"You see brands trying this out--they'll try it online, on some specialty channel to see how it goes--and eventually I think it will go mainstream," Klara said. "The question is, how long will it take? I think right now it's safe to say that we're not near it quite yet."

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