Everyone’s a little bit disabled?

Black and white photograph of a young woman dressed in a checked=A recent article in the New York Times highlighted a paid advertising campaign being pushed by agencies in 30 states that work with employment, health and human services aimed at citizens with disabilities (thanks to my friend Lindsay for passing it along!).

With an estimated $4 million budget, and hoping to raise $10 million for services, the ads are markedly different from traditional PSAs. Rather than moralizing, they use the humor of “normal” people’s eccentricities to argue that companies already hire people with various differences or disadvantages – so why not hire someone with a disability? There’s an emphasis on rejecting labels or stereotypes, as evidenced by the campaign’s website, Think Beyond the Label. The spots themselves show individuals including a girl who is “Pattern Deficient,” as well as a dancing man who is “Rhythm Impaired,” who are already hired and considered basically “normal. A television ad runs as follows:

a worker in a wheelchair points out her colleagues who “you could label as ‘different.’ ” Among them are a woman dressed in a nightmare wardrobe of clashing patterns, who is “fashion deficient”; a klutzy young man at the copier, who is “copy incapable”; and a shouting man who suffers from “volume control syndrome.”

The punch line of the commercial is that the worker in the wheelchair is different, too: Her skills at a basic office function are so bad that she is labeled “coffee-making impaired.”

The message, it seems, is one of tolerance – everyone is different in their own way, and we must accept others differences as potentially enriching (and at least irrelevant). The spots are aimed at HR professionals, managers, and other (presumably able-bodied) people with the power to influence hiring decisions. Disability, the spots imply, is just another quirky difference.

Though the ads may do a good job of cracking through public ignorance of the employment issues often faced by people with disabilities, and they have gotten positive responses from people with disabilities involved with the campaign, I doubt their potential to ameliorate workplace conditions. By placing disability on a level with various quirks, the realities of disability as a lived experience is erased. How will a hiring manager inspired by this campaign react when they realize that they hired someone who will need significant accommodations to succeed in the workplace? The question of ability or needs is conspicuously absent from the campaign, evidencing the desire to move beyond “labels” but not to address real physical or social challenges. Think Beyond the Label describes itself as “committed to making the business case for employing people with disabilities” – this is really similar to the dominant discourse on web accessibility (it can optimize your search engine results and bring new customers!). Where is the social justice case? The moral argument? The rights-based realities of the ADA and other legislation?

Plus, the ad can easily be read in reverse – rather than “people with disabilities are just different, like everyone else,” it could be seen to be asserting that the girl in mis-matched clothing is “disabled” – a move that minimizes the experience and voices of those who do face challenges due to disability. As Eva recently wrote about her experience being told “everyone’s retarded in their own way” – wow. There’s a sympathy toward disability in both instances, but the expression just doesn’t quite connect.

The commercial is set to run during most of the high-profile Sunday morning news shows, the web ads will appear at CNN.com, ESPN.com and WSJ.com, and the print ads will be in The Wall Street Journal, Time, and HR Magazine among other places. I’ll be keeping an eye out, and if you happen to come across one of these, I’d love it if you could send me a screenshot/video/etc!

P.S. The title is reference to Avenue Q song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” – not a serious question.

2 Comments

  1. “Plus, the ad can easily be read in reverse – rather than “people with disabilities are just different, like everyone else,” it could be seen to be asserting that the girl in mis-matched clothing is “disabled” – a move that minimizes the experience and voices of those who do face challenges due to disability.”

    That’s how I read it, and it’s painfully close to the times when people have told me, ‘Oh, I get a bit of IBS’, as if that’s somehow comparable to me having very severe, aggressive inflammatory bowel disease that has required five major operations in ten years, plus a feeding tube. No, it’s not like ‘a bit of IBS’. I can’t bear this concept of supposed ‘equivalency’ that in reality reduces everything to, as you say, a quirky trait. It’s all about making the temporarily-abled more comfortable around us by making them identify with us in a spurious, superficial way – which in itself is a kind of denial of the deeper and more important similarities we share. The more I look at it, the more bizarre it seems, and it just reminds me that society as a whole isn’t even at the Disability101 stage yet.


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