FEATURE

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.”