Leaders With Disabilities Urge Brands and Agencies to ‘Let Us Tell Our Own Stories’

What it means to have authentic representation at Adweek's Disability Inclusion Summit

Eight professionals with various disabilities from agencies and brands took part in Adweek's first Disability Inclusion Summit. Adweek
Headshot of Heide Palermo

“Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Let us tell the stories of our lived experiences.” This advice from Becky Kekula, director of the Disability Equality Index at Disability:IN, echoed across panelists during Wednesday’s Disability Inclusion Summit.  

The event is part of Adweek’s ongoing DEI series, with past events featuring Black leaders sharing how they are coping in the midst of social unrest, Adweek’s LGBTQ+ Pride Stars reflecting on progress and what’s next, Asian American leaders on overcoming stereotypes, and Hispanic/Latinx leaders on owning their individuality while finding their common voice.  

For the Disability Inclusion Summit, eight leaders in marketing and advertising brought their hearts and perspectives forward, sharing the virtual stage to open up about their personal experiences and unifying sentiments around areas for advancement. 

The Panelists included: 
Becky Kekula, director, Disability Equality Index 
KR Liu, head of brand accessibility, Google’s Brand Studio 
Josh Loebner, director of strategy, Designsensory  
Christina Mallon, global head of inclusive design and accessibility, Wunderman Thompson
Russell Shaffer, director of global culture, diversity and inclusion, Walmart
Storm Smith, producer, BBDO LA 
Bryan Stromer, product marketing manager, Microsoft 
Tiffany Yu, CEO and founder, Diversability 

The conversation began with the current state of disability portrayals in marketing and advertising. BBDO LA’s Smith shared how “55% of people feel uncomfortable when they see people with disability in advertising or on the screen.” She went on to say how the significance of portrayals comes with large responsibility for marketers and advertisers today.  

Mallon, who’s also chief brand officer of inclusive clothing company Open Style Lab, noted that while disabilities don’t always have to be the focal point in your storytelling, there’s a way to do it that challenges the standard narrative.  

“There’s really two representations that we see in advertising: the superhero… or highlighting someone doing an average thing despite their disability,” she explained. “The second one is the victim.” She went on to advise that you can create advertising all about someone with a disability “but it needs to be aspiration, not inspiration.” 

Stromer of Microsoft reminder attendees that accurate portrayals starts from within. “My No. 1 piece of advice is to hire more people with disabilities,” he shared. “We need people with disabilities to write their own stories and not have it written for them.” 

The notion of truly collaborating with members of this community jumped to the forefront of the panelists’ advice. Diversibility’s Yu noted how even the term “inclusion” can be limiting: “It’s inviting me to move into a space where the norms and the culture are already set, rather than actually co-creating and co-building something together.” 

The group shared a few campaign and brand examples of authentic portrayals, including a New York City subway campaign by wedding planning website Zola, Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive line and Aerie’s ambassadors/models.  

Google’s Liu expanded on what representation looks like by saying how the people behind the camera are just as critical as those on-screen. “[We need people] not only like myself as a white, queer, hard-of-hearing woman; I cannot speak for a Black disabled woman, [and] I cannot speak for another race or as somebody I don’t identify with,” she explained. “I need to use my seat at the table to bring those people a seat at my table to help in the conversation.” 

The topic of recruiting and elevating people with disabilities within advertising and marketing careers arose. Designsensory’s Loebner mentioned how people with disabilities can have a major impact on marketing, no matter what their role is in the organization: “I do not have in my title a connectivity to disability, but I am an advocate for it.” He added, “Where do people with disabilities belong in advertising? They belong everywhere.” 

The group also touched on the impacts of Covid-19 on the community and implications on the future of work. Shaffer of Walmart noted that he’s optimistic about more companies being open to flexible and remote work arrangements, which would enable more people with disabilities to be employed from anywhere.

@heidefaith heide.palermo@adweek.com Heide is the senior director of brand community at Adweek and Editor of the Inside the Brand series, including the CMO Moves and Gen ZEOs podcasts, Innovators, Challengers, and Women Trailblazers. She also leads Adweek's Innovators Council.