Accessibility Of Disability

A deaf teenager shopping with his dad gives a Wal-Mart ad a warm and fuzzy feel. A champion Alpine skier without a foot scores points for inspiration in a spot for Home Depot. Upscale professionals, in commercials for Bank of America and Kohler, turn out to be blind. Welcome to the hot new world of disability marketing.

Like African Americans, Hispanics and other once-marginalized minority groups, people with disabilities have become an increasingly visible fixture of mainstream advertising. At one time, companies looking to woo disabled consumers concentrated on publications, Web sites and events tailored to that community. But lately, AT&T, Target, Avis and Nordstrom are among the major marketers to reflect the lifestyles of disabled people in their national campaigns, in an effort to appeal to this growing—and deep-pocketed—constituency. Furthermore, by putting characters who are blind or use wheelchairs front and center, big brands have found an opportunity to tout their social conscience and generate goodwill among nondisabled consumers.

It’s no wonder companies are advancing such images. About one in five adults in the U.S. are disabled, according to 2000 Census data. Nearly one in three Americans will experience a disability between the ages of 35 and 65, predicts the American Council of Life Insurers. And it’s a demo with deep pockets: The discretionary spending power of the disabled—at $220 billion in 2002, per the National Organization on Disability—outshines that of even the revered teen market, which laid out $170 billion in 2002, reports the market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited.

Disability marketing is “an idea that is catching fire now that people with disabilities are not some small subgroup,” says Jim Tobias, president of Inclusive Technologies, a consultantcy specializing in accessible products. “A large group of consumers have some physical limitation or care about someone who does.”

The issue of disability hits closer to home than many of us realize. Tari Hartman-Squire—whose Los Angeles-based marketing firm, Ein Sof Communications, focuses on disability issues—demonstrates the point to clients, opening meetings by asking executives what font size they use on their computers. Graying execs tend to sheepishly admit that, yes, the typefaces they use are bigger than they used to be. Aging eyes and failing eyesight are indeed disabilities, Hartman-Squire says, and reading glasses and bigger typefaces “are what an accommodation for a disability is all about.” It helps clients to understand that the disabled world and that of the (supposedly) nondisabled are one in the same. “The ‘us and them’ paradigm,” she says, “is obsolete.”

Call it the accessibility of disability.

A common theme in much of the recent crop of mainstream ads, in fact, is that the disability is virtually an afterthought. A recent New York Marathon-themed print ad for car rental company Avis features an image of a marathoner in a wheelchair, but the copy—”We honor participants of the New York Marathon for spirit, courage and unrelenting drive”—addresses the racers at large.

AT&T’s “Spread the Word” spot, which broke in January, is composed of a series of vignettes, one featuring an ordinary-looking office scene with a business-attired deaf woman using sign language—a scene that “reinforces the ad’s message that communication is a fundamentally human thing and people around the world communicate in many ways,” explains Wendy Clark, AT&T’s director of advertising. “The power comes from people seeing themselves in the ads and how the brand will help them do what they want to do.” (While the company will not provide official numbers, a source says that some 15 percent to 20 percent of AT&T’s customers have disabilities.) The AT&T ad has the added advantage of creating a halo of goodwill among the nondisabled. “The message to our nondisabled customers is that our brand … is deliberately inclusive and recognizes that we are all human after all,” Clark says.

One marketer finds itself connected to the issue of disability in a particularly personal way. In a spot that debuted in mid-January, mass retailer Target spotlights not only its own wares but one of its most recognizable product designers, as well as the subject of disability. The ad features über-designer Michael Graves, who was paralyzed by a spinal infection three years ago, seated in his wheelchair. This is not new territory for the retailer. For 15 years, Target’s newspaper circulars have included images of adults and children with disabilities as a way of letting customers “see themselves in our advertising,” says Tamika Curry, the company’s director of diversity. “We believe in showcasing their diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, and we want to be known as an employer committed to accessibility and acceptance.” It’s been good business for Target—ads featuring disabled models have led to positive feedback as well as a spike in sales, insiders report.

Some marketers have gone so far as to make the inclusion of disabled people in ads company policy. High-end retailer Nordstrom insists that one-third of the models in its marketing pieces must be racial minorities or have a disability. Its October 2005 catalog, for example, included a shot of a hip young man who happens to be in a wheelchair. “It’s a business decision for us,” explains Linda Finn, Nordstrom’s evp, marketing. “We want to reflect the people in the community and to be inclusive and approachable in everything we do.”

Disability certainly is a growth market for corporate America. Both the size and spending habits of the disabled population will swell as affluent baby boomers increasingly encounter age-related physical changes, researchers concur. The American Association of Retired Persons reports that as the over-50 set begins to experience such infirmities, they will seek out businesses that accommodate them—even if they themselves do not consider their limitations “disabilities.” Again, it’s a demo that spends—to the tune of $400 billion in 2003, reports AARP. The most recent Census data further strengthens the evidence that the disabled are an increasingly important constituency: The percentage of the population aged 16 to 64 defined as disabled grew to 18.6 percent by 2000, up from 12.7 percent in 1990.

Fierce brand loyalty and word-of-mouth further sweeten the potential for marketers. As consultant Tobias points out, those with disabilities and their families tend to be brand evangelists for products they love. Whereas consumers typically may tell 10 friends about a favorite product, people with disabilities might spread the word to 10 times that. “So hungry are they for products that work for them,” Tobias says.

As the disabled community grows, some blue-chip marketers are digging for more insight into the group. In 2004, Ein Sof teamed with New York-based NRGi, a division of Nielsen Media Research, for an ongoing disability market research study on behalf of financial, travel, retail, pharmaceutical and telecom companies. What they are learning? “This market is not fully ripe yet, but will be soon,” says Ein Sof’s Hartman-Squire.

Wal-Mart most definitely understands what’s at stake. Even though it has included employees and customers with physical limitations in TV and print ads since the ’90s, the retail giant found itself having to win back a disenchanted disabled market after a controversial document about hiring practices was leaked late last year. In it, a management committee suggested that Wal-Mart could curb rising health-care costs by ensuring that “all jobs be made to include some physical activity (e.g., cashiers to do some cart-gathering).” The goal, said the committee, would be to “dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart.”

Advocates for those with disabilities moved into action, calling the proposed policy an attempt at avoiding the hiring of people with physical limitations and mounting an unofficial boycott. For its part, Wal-Mart management rejected the committee’s recommendation and reaffirmed its commitment to diversity.

“The truth is, we have thousands of our associates who have a diverse array of disabilities. We need to tell that story in our advertising and marketing,” says Deidre Davis, Wal-Mart’s newly hired Americans with Disabilities Act services director. In March, Davis, who uses a wheelchair and worked in the Clinton Administration, participated in strategic sessions with Wal-Mart marketing execs. Their goal: to generate straightforward, unsentimental ad concepts to help undo damage done by the memo. “I’m here to push the issue of showing disabilities as integrated, not separated,” Davis says.

When it comes to disability marketing, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the elephant in the room. The 1990 law forbids public and private institutions from discriminating against physically and mentally disabled people in employment, public services, transportation, public accommodations and telecommunications. With its introduction, the ADA triggered public attention about disabilities and initially prompted a volley of disability-themed ads.

But a wave of ADA-related lawsuits, beginning in the mid-’90s, changed all that. In 2000, America Online settled a suit by the National Federation of the Blind over the accessibility of its online software. A year later, Wal-Mart paid $6.8 million to settle 13 suits brought by Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions in 11 states over an illegal questionnaire that asked job applicants for information about disabilities. Most recently, Kmart Corp. agreed this month to the $13 million settlement of a 1999 class-action suit over access for the disabled.

The idea of including images of people with disabilities in their ads suddenly began to make some marketers nervous. Fear of ADA-inspired lawsuits had them worried about associating themselves at all with the subject of disability. Commercial casting director Sheila Manning of Sheila Manning Casting in Beverly Hills, Calif., saw the change firsthand. Whereas it had been a more common practice for some clients to ask for disabled actors for casting calls, those requests abruptly came to a halt, she says.

Now, the pendulum is swinging the other way, with ADA lawsuits in decline, corporations hiring disability-access managers, and images of disability popping up all over the place.

Using people with disabilities in campaigns can have its downside. For some companies—notably in the technology sector—disabled customers are welcome, but images of disabilities in ads certainly are not. Explains consultant Tobias, “There is a sense that to show your tech product being used by people with disabilities would stigmatize it” as a gadget made for the blind or deaf. Tech marketers believe that a product identified by its accessibility is “death” in the general market, confirms a source. Rather, those advertisers craft their messages with code words and imagery to attract those with disabilities and their friends.

Take Microsoft’s “Realizing Potential” campaign. The ads, which feature line drawings of everyday people fulfilling their dreams, include language and ideas associated with empowerment, elements “that resonate strongly among the disability consumer base,” Tobias explains—even though none of the ads actually features people with disabilities. Mike Lucero, group ad manager at Microsoft, says while he’s “pleased” to learn that the campaign resonates with consumers who have disabilities, the company’s outreach to the disabled community is centered around “grassroots public relations and public service activities.”

Marketers can learn from TV shows like NBC’s My Name Is Earl, Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle and Comedy Central’s South Park, which have done a much better job than advertisers of “including physically disabled characters and treating them with the same irreverence and wit as other characters,” says Anthony Tusler, an author and disability advocate who has worked with Microsoft, AOL and Bank of America. The Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball, which detailed the lives of rugby players in wheelchairs, “was great because everyone seemed to get that it was a sports movie” rather than a film about disability, says Tusler, who himself uses a wheelchair.

And that’s the key, according to Tusler. Forget the admiration. Forget the pity. No more pulling at heartstrings or romanticizing the disability. “Remember,” he says, “we are not all super-gimps.”