Is Accessibility Just the ‘Cause du Jour’ at This Year’s Cannes Lions, or Is Real Change Ahead?

Advertisers are doing more than ever to address the disabled community, but there’s a long way to go

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Perhaps the biggest discernible trend at this year’s Cannes Lions is accessibility. Take a look at the short list for this year’s Innovation award and you’ll see that nearly half (12, to be exact) of the 25 campaigns in the category address the issue in some capacity.

The nominees span the globe, each attempting to solve a problem or address a particular need for people with disabilities, a community that is large and diverse. According to the World Health Organization, more than a billion people—about 15 percent of the world’s population—have some form of disability.

One of the most notable campaigns on the list is McCann New York’s “Changing the Game” for Microsoft, which made a splash during this year’s Super Bowl. The effort features the stories of young gamers who use the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was designed to meet the needs of people with limited mobility, to play their favorite video games.

Others are smaller efforts with no major brand name attached to them but still pack a punch. Take See Sound, a smart-home device created by Area 23, an FCB Health Network company and Wavio, a company that specializes in sound recognition. Created for those who are hard of hearing, the device uses machine learning to identify sounds around the home (such as a fire alarm) and alerts the user via a mobile app.

Some are less tech-savvy but revolutionary in an industry that often neglects this segment of the population. For instance, Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive clothing line, which was created by and for people with disabilities, uses closed captioning and audio descriptions in its marketing for those who are hearing and visually impaired. Created by Wunderman Thompson’s Possible, the agency’s work for the brand is up for a Titanium this year at Cannes.

Why exactly we’re seeing a spike in campaigns this year aimed squarely at the disabled community is up for debate. Josh Loebner, disability advocate and director of strategy at Knoxville agency Designsensory, thinks it’s partly because both advertisers and agencies are taking a cue from pop culture, where more and more disability narratives are cropping up.

“Major characters in TV shows, such as Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones to The New York Times’ regular series exploring disability through essays, art and opinion to Ali Stroker’s shining Tony Award moment to people with disabilities creating content across social media, podcasts, YouTube and other platforms, together elevate disability visibility and voice,” Loebner said.

Others believe that as the industry continues to grapple with issues surrounding gender inequality, sexual harassment, diversity and LGBTQ rights, it only makes sense that those living with disabilities are finally getting the attention they deserve.

“First it was women, then it kind of blended into diversity,” said Danielle Hawley, who helped lead the Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive work as chief creative officer of the Americas at Possible. “The natural trajectory was for it to get to the nth degree of inclusivity.”

Modern technology is also playing a role, as brands and agencies increasingly leverage it to solve problems disabled people have historically faced. For example, the creators of “Deaf 911,” an app for the hearing impaired that connects users with 911 operators through speech-to-text and text-to-speech technology, admit that it was only made possible thanks to recent technological innovation.

“If we needed to build it 20 years ago, it would have been cost prohibitive,” said Ellery Familia, vice president and director of digital solutions at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, the agency behind the app. “Now we can tap into technology that has matured.”

There’s also the reality that companies are finally waking up to the fact that disabled people are also consumers with extensive purchasing power. According to Rob Reilly, global creative chairman at McCann Worldgroup, Ikea Israel’s ThisAbles, a line of products that make it easier for disabled people to use the retailer’s furniture, stemmed from an employee with cerebral palsy at the agency’s Tel Aviv office who wanted to be able to buy products from mainstream stores.

“If you do something that will benefit them, they will buy your product,” Reilly said.

Despite some progress, the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to incorporating this community into the actual campaigns and the teams that work on them. While one-off innovations and tools that address the needs of a particular disability are certainly helpful, they only scratch the surface of what can be done.

“We are still somewhat at a foundational point of simply getting creative directors, digital developers and agency management to just consider including people with disabilities as part of a narrative,” Loebner said. And while some of the accessibility work seen at Cannes this week might be award winning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s guaranteed to meet the needs of the audience it’s targeting.

“Few of the ads that are in consideration for a Cannes Lion have corresponding websites that meet Americans with Disabilities Act compliance,” Loebner said. “So, potentially someone with a disability that connects with an ad campaign may come across barriers online.”

As is the case every year, there’s also always skepticism around which campaigns were genuinely created to spur change and which ones are out for awards. Tim Hawkey, chief creative officer at Area 23, said that while products like the Xbox Adaptive Controller are “clearly projects that have taken several years of software engineering, patent application and significant investment,” others in this category ring hollow.

“My cynical side observes that the majority of these campaigns are coming out in April and May, and the world does have to be cautious of award bait,” Hawkey said. “Is disability the cause du jour?”