I don’t remember seeing disability on television when I was growing up. I remember glimpses at Christmas, though they were rare and confined to being examples of tragedy or charity: teary-eyed celebrities giving presents to sick children in hospital on Christmas morning. I never saw a disabled child depicted as “normal” or happy. I never saw any disabled person in an advert, trusted to sell something pretty or special or wanted. I assume that is because those aren’t words associated with disability.
If you’re trying to present a product as the ideal, it would seem self-defeating to use people who are widely perceived as inferior. Until now. Marks & Spencer’s Christmas advert – one of the most prominent in the retail calendar – includes a model with a learning disability. M&S is the first mainstream British brand to ever have done so. Not simply in a Christmas advert, but any advert.
Marks & Spencer didn’t think of the idea itself (Seb’s mum got in touch after noticing the dearth of disability in advertising) but to its credit it said yes when it was presented to the company. It says something about British advertising, or indeed, popular culture generally, that when one company includes a disabled child in a TV advert it is worthy of attention.
Earlier this year, a 10-month-old, Miami-based baby with Down’s syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, appeared on the cover of a US catalogue for Spanish designer Dolores Cortés. It raised a lot of questions about whether this was a step forward for disability rights or just pure tokenism.
But perhaps if we consider where we are and not just where we want to be, steps like this should be acknowledged and, yes, even praised.
Advertising doesn’t just sell a product, after all, but a lifestyle. And, put bluntly, disability isn’t a “lifestyle” many want to buy. For reasons simultaneously based in logic and prejudice, in most people’s minds, it’s the lifestyle they’d pay not to have. With this thought, the advertisers steer clear.
In some ways, disability isn’t unique in this. If white faces, heterosexual couples, and flawless bodies are the cashmere jumpers of retail, everything else is a second-hand sweaty sock. If we based our perception of the world on what we saw in adverts, the majority of us wouldn’t exist.
In some ways though, disability is alone. While some groups, such asblack people, make progress, disabled people have to wait for a Christmas miracle. We’ve barely reached the level of tokenism: it would be a start if it was even noticed we were missing from the shot.
Disabled people are still widely seen as too different to be accepted, disability too complicated to not be shut out. Whether it’s an image on a screen or a human being in the street, when the public are confronted with disability, it still widely results in discomfort, disgust or fear. Onesummer of sport could not wipe out that.
In an ideal world, the man using the wheelchair will be depicted as successful, the woman with the amputated arm beautiful. Today, as a start, we have the little boy with Down’s syndrome shown as a happy child just like yours.
Change is going to be circular: adverts including people with disabilities will alter perceptions of disability that will in turn make their inclusion second nature. It takes one big brand to start things moving but many to continue it – to get to a point where exclusion is unrealistic and not accepted. Only then will disability not just be on screen for Christmas; it will be for life.