child with Down syndrome

Mother Was Furious After Rejection Of Her 15-Month-Old Son From Ad Campaign “Because He Has Down Syndrome”

A Secret Life of Mom Highlight Story: Sometimes there are stories that can help raise and maintain awareness of important subjects. That’s why we scour the archives and bring some of them back to help keep parents in the know. They may be touching, and even make you shed a tear, but the health and wellbeing of our children are what we value most.

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Over the last several years, advertisers have felt the push from the public to include more diversity in their campaigns. While this has tended to include people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, they still manage to fall short in people with disabilities. In 2016, a mom found this out first-hand when he submitted some photos of her baby boy with Down syndrome to an adjacency. She began advocating for change, and slowly we are starting to see that.

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Baby With Down Syndrome Becomes Face of OshKosh

When Meagan Nash’s son Asher was just 18 months old, she knew he belonged in front of the camera. Whenever he was in front of a group or the camera, he would light up. She says it was as if he knew he was supposed to put on a show. For this reason, she decided to send photos to several talent agencies. Not long after, however, each one of those agencies rejected Asher. Why? Because he has Down syndrome. (1)

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Meagan says that the agencies told her that this was because none of the advertising agencies were looking for models or actors with special needs. Her response was, “well, did they say they weren’t looking?”. She was upset by the discrimination her son faced and wanted to help make a change, so she decided to take to social media. She submitted adorable photos of a bow-tie-clad Asher to the Facebook page Changing The Face Of Beauty. In the post, she called-out OshKosh B’Gosh children’s wear asking them if they wanted to help her change the face of beauty.

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Read: Dad without Arms and Legs Raises 2 Daughters after Their Mom Abandoned Them as Babies

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A Face Gone Viral

Asher’s adorable photos quickly went viral. His photos began appearing in places like the Kids With Down syndrome and even on CNN News. OshKosh reached out, and Asher was quickly included in their spring/summer campaign. They made him a key part of their next holiday campaign.

Meagan says she didn’t do all of this because she desperately wanted her son to model. Instead, she did it because she realized the lack of representation was hurting thousands of kids across the country and millions worldwide. In addition, her fight to have Asher included brings up the topic of disabilities in advertising and discrimination in general.

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Disabilities in Advertising

Even though those with disabilities are the largest minority group globally, they are still grossly underrepresented in the media and advertising. When they are included, they are often “tokenized” or represented in a way that is supposed to make the public feel sorry for them. Instead, what we need is the inclusion of people with disabilities from the very beginning and in ways that we would include anybody else. Not in some ‘hero format,’ but rather just as they are: People going about their day just like everyone else.

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“At the point an agency would go out and gather customer insights, that’s when you should be engaging with the disabled community because they are your customer base too,” says Alison Kerry, head of communications at disability equality group Scope. “advertisers are doing a disservice to themselves by excluding disabled people … you are locking out a huge part of your customer base.” (2)

Ads Often Don’t Depict Those With Disabilities In The Right Way.

Other experts agree and say that advertisers need to include people with disabilities more and be careful in how they include them. If they are not careful, they will slump into the already exhausted category of what is known as “pity porn.” This is damaging to those with disabilities and brands. Many people now view ads such as this as a disingenuous ad tactic for the brand. For the disabled, it paints them as living less fulfilled lives, which is not the case.

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“You might have an ad that represents a person who has visual impairment enjoying life and being successful, yet hints that their life and experiences would be improved if they were able to see, or there might be the assumption that their visual impairment poses a hindrance in their life,” explains Dr. Ella Houston. “It leads to metaphors like ‘seeing is believing’ or ‘going in blind’, which equates blindness with ignorance. As the women with visual impairments who participated in my research pointed out, people who have visual impairments do not live in a ‘world of darkness’, not knowing what’s going on around them. That notion is completely false.” (3)

She says that these kinds of ads turn people with disabilities into objects of charity. Dr. Houston, who lectures about disability studies, says that those with disabilities don’t want to be represented as sad, charity cases. Instead, they want to be depicted just like everyone else: As cool, trendy, and a part of the social landscape. 

Read: Dentistry Student Shares Touching Story of Being Raised by Father with Down Syndrome

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Don’t Just Have A Token Disabled Model or Actor.

Advertisers must also not fall into the trap of selecting one actor or model to represent those with disabilities. Every disability is different, and each person’s story is different. On top of that, if you continue to put usual beauty standards over everything, where have we really gotten?

“Advertisers must bear in mind the diversity of disabled audiences and avoid suggesting that one disabled person’s story represents the lives of many people with impairments,” says Dr. Houston. “Including disabled people in advertisements only because their impairment is perceived as ‘risky’ or a sign of ‘difference’ in and of itself is problematic and runs the risk of focusing on impairments alone, rather than on the person as a whole. Advertisers should consider various aspects of disabled people’s characters, and think about why they might be a good fit for a brand and advertising campaign.”

Things Might Get Uncomfortable At First

Of course, many companies are worried about getting it wrong and ending up in hot water. This fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, particularly in today’s ‘cancel culture,’ can be immobilizing. Advertising creative director James Embry, who also happens to have a son with Down syndrome, says that this is no reason not to try. (4)

“Things might need to get a little uncomfortable before we get to a point where it’s typical to have people with disabilities in adverts. There needs to be some freedom around brands getting it wrong,” he says. “Clients and agencies should understand that they could get in some hot water but that’s OK. Because that conversation is an important conversation to have. They should stand up to that conversation and say, ‘We’re including people. That’s what we’re doing. If you don’t like it, tell us how you would like to see it and we’ll remember that for next time.”

Of course, brands and marketers will need to talk to the people they depict. In addition, focus groups and organizations that advocate for people with disabilities will help them avoid some significant pitfalls. But, as Embry said, if they get something wrong, it doesn’t mean it should be a reason to give up. On the contrary, the more we see people with disabilities in advertisements, the better their lives – and ours – will be.

Keep Reading: The Story of the ‘World’s longest Down’s Syndrome marriage’

Sources

  1. “‘No kids with special needs?’ Mom fights talent scout who rejected son” CNN. October 26, 2016.
  2. Agencies need to involve people with a disability from get-go, urge campaigners.” The Drug. Hannah Bowler. December 6, 2021.
  3. “‘Pity porn’ and disability tokenism rife in ad campaigns.” Decision Marketing. December 14, 2021.
  4. Advertising Industry Must Overcome Its Anxiety Around Disability Representation.” Forbes. Gus Alexiou. July 26, 2021.
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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