Why are disabilities still not represented in advertising?

Image credit: Stefan Gosatti

When my daughter Emily was around eight years old she asked me a question that I struggled to answer truthfully and without causing her to be devastated by the answer. She needed to hear the truth but at the same time, I didn’t want to answer, and I didn’t know how to answer her question. As we were sitting looking through some catalogues, she turned, looking at me with her big blue eyes and a puzzled look upon her face, and asked, “Why are there no disabled models like me in here?”

My heart broke with the realisation that she had already, at the tender age of eight, recognised the very exclusionary messages in advertising and this was clearly having a significant effect on her self-esteem, her sense of belonging and her identity.

She didn’t see herself being represented, she didn’t see disability being represented, she only saw that the world around her was telling her she didn’t belong. We are all very aware that the influence media has over society is not always used to benefit society and especially in relation to disability. The media can add to the discrimination by continuing to reinforce disability stereotypes or by not including disability at all. We know Advertising is an incredibly powerful medium as it has the ability transform and shape the behaviour of individuals. Statistics show that approximately 1.3 billion people globally (or 1 in 5) are living with a disability, yet this does not translate across to mainstream media. Models and actors with disabilities often find it difficult to access representation by Casting and Modelling Agents who see "disability" as "a look" they can't market. Disability is not "a look", it's an experience and an identity. These attitudes and unconscious bias means Emily (and others like her) are often denied opportunities and access to participate in the Advertising, Film and TV industry. I am mindful that this is not my journey, it is Emily’s. I am merely her parent, trying hard to provide her with the access to opportunities to be included. When I ask her why it is important for Disability to be included, she answers simply “it’s important to represent people with a disability because “it’s who we are”.

Emily aged two years

Advertising needs to reflect the world in which we live in and Emily needs to see herself and kids like her being represented. When brands are inclusive they are sending messages to their customers, including disabled customers and others who have strong connections to someone with a disability, that they recognise and value diversity, inclusion and human rights. Emily (now 11 years old) has become somewhat of a “poster girl” for Cerebral Palsy, Disability and Ad Inclusion.  She featured heavily in disability related marketing, however we began to question why this wasn’t also happening in mainstream media. How can a child be a “model” in one platform but not the other? To enable conversations about disability and inclusion to occur (because these conversations need to happen) we began to use Instagram to share photos of Emily to change and shape thinking around disability. It provided an opportunity for Emily to have control of her own images.  It enabled us to connect with brands and organisations (and people) that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able too. Instagram has helped Emily, one photograph at a time, to show what her disability looks like and how it can be included. She has become her own Media Advertising “Agency” and has control over the entire process, from choosing locations, clothing choice and styling (with some help from me) and most importantly choosing the photographs she wants posted on Instagram.

Emily recently told ABCME presenter Grace Koh, that the most important thing in this world is your voice. “the more you talk about something, the more people are going to listen.” So, with that in mind, it is important that it’s Emily’s voice you hear. I asked Emily some important questions about disability, modelling and her ambitions.

Why it is so important to include Disability in Advertising, TV and Film?

“People have disabilities. It is who we are. People with disabilities do the same things as everyone else. They go shopping, they play sports, they go to school, the beach but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at catalogues or on TV or movies. We all need to be included.”

What is your biggest challenge within the Advertising, Film and TV industry?

"When I don’t get castings or jobs because I have a disability."

[We also find that our location, living in Perth, makes modelling for Emily incredibly difficult. Modelling and Casting Agencies are reluctant to put us forward for any castings. Even when we offer to fly (at our own expense) Emily is often denied opportunities and access to participate in the industry. You can’t claim to be inclusive, if you aren’t including the whole of Australia when casting! In our technological age, with the ability to Skype, record castings, Show Reels etc, it is particularly frustrating.]

What has been your favourite experience so far?

"Seeing myself on the front cover of a Target Catalogue for the first time was AWESOME. The second time I was on the cover for Target (for the Back to School Catalogue) was even better because I was in the front window of every store too! My photograph is still in the girl’s section in Target, I love going in and seeing it or when people send me a picture of themselves next to my photo.

Emily featured in the girls section of a Target Australia store

I also loved filming for International Day of the Girl with ABC Me with Grace Koh. She is my favourite ABC Me presenter and she got to come to my house and talk about everything I have been doing." 

[You can watch the program here.]

I know there is something else you would like to do along with modelling, tell us about it. 

“I would like to be an actor as well because I think that people with disabilities should be acting the roles of people with disabilities on TV and in the Movies. I would like to be on Home and Away or Neighbours or even a film. I recently did my first music video and it was really exciting!”

[It is important that casting directors cast authentically (choosing disabled actors to portray the character with a disability) and to include disabled actors. People with disabilities want genuine and accurate representation in the entertainment industry and the opportunity to be included.]

What is your goal, what are you trying to achieve? 

“I am trying to make sure that people with disabilities are seen in advertising, TV and film and that everyone is being included. I like that people can see what my disability looks like because I am proud of my disability.”

What advice would you give to others? 

"Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, instead show them that actually you CAN. I don’t like it when people assume I can’t do something because I have a disability. I normally tell them ‘I can do it but I just need to do it differently to you. I hate being excluded, so I just keep showing people how disability CAN be included.”

Emily with her twin sister, Reese

As Emily’s mother, I am incredibly proud of her and for her. I see a little girl who is immensely proud of her disability and she is changing the way disability is seen and represented in the media, one photograph at a time.

You can follow Emily on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.


Jen Prior

Mother to Four. Coffee lover, chocolate addict. Teacher then nurse, now neither. Instead she is a “wanna be” photographer with a passion for writing, fashion and anything that keeps her occupied. She is the mother of young disability advocate Emily Prior, who is changing the world one photograph at a time. If she is not at school drop offs, pick ups or afterschool activities, you will find her behind a camera documenting life.

1 Comment
  1. Yes! I’ve been saying for years People with Disabilities are the last group of world citizens to be treated as equals. Most are hidden away. People still do not know how to see the person behind the disability. The more exposure we have, the more normal things become. My teenage friend who had mild Cerebral Palsy recently passed away at 56. I think life was challenging for him, but he never complained and he swam with dolphins and hiked mountains and had good friends. Thank you for your article. Many blessings to you and your beautiful, wise daughter.
    Vicki Young

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