Channel 4’s new spot for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio features 140 disabled people from around the world. There are dancers, swimmers, gymnasts, fencers, a brass band, a rock climber and a rally driver as well as a mum, an office worker and children with prosthetic limbs.
Some are doing extraordinary things – from wheelchair stunts to competing in the Paralympics – while others have found extraordinary ways to do everyday tasks. The film’s aim, says 4, is to challenge negative perceptions of disability and show that disabled people from all walks of life can be just as talented and capable as those who are able-bodied.
Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer at Channel 4, thinks there might be more disabled people in the three-minute spot than in all the ads ever shown on British TV.
“I can’t prove it … but the feedback we’re getting from disability charities who are close to all this is that this is the first time disabled people have been portrayed in this way, and certainly all together in this one triumphant place,” he adds.
UK broadcasters have all made increasing diversity a priority but while positive steps are being taken, disabled people remain woefully underrepresented on screen. Until 1992, there was not a single disabled actor in a UK soap and even now, there is rarely more than one disabled character in any one show. In 2014, the BBC revealed that just 1.2% of the people it represents on screen are disabled, yet in the UK, around 6% of children, 16% of working age adults and 45% adults over State Pension age have a disability.
In advertising, too, disabled people are equally hard to find. Channel 4’s 2012 Superhumans spot was praised for its portrayal of disabled athletes, and the number of ads featuring disabled people has increased since – Smirnoff launched an ad featuring deaf dancer Chris Fonseca earlier this year, while Axe’s Find Your Magic campaign featured a man in a wheelchair dancing at his wedding, and Guinness launched an ad starring wheelchair basketball players in 2013 – but ads featuring disabled people remain far from the norm. Often, representation is either ‘tokenistic’, using one disabled person in an ad that aims to reflect diversity, or stories are focused solely on disability and inspirational tales of overcoming adversity.
This kind of storytelling – such as Duracell’s spot from last year featuring blind NFL player Derrick Coleman – has been dubbed “inspiration porn”, leading to criticism from disabled people for presenting a somewhat patronising or reductive view of disability. It remains almost unheard of to see an ad with disabled people where disability isn’t the main focus or the crux of the story – and where the people in it just happen to be disabled, rather than being chosen on the basis of their impairment.
Brooke believes this is partly due to a lack of awareness around disability, which has led to brands and agencies being wary of “doing or saying the wrong thing” when representing disabled people. For this to change, he believes the industry needs to make a conscious effort to cast more disabled people and educate themselves by getting out and talking to people with different disabilities.
“There is nothing like awareness and understanding – once you’ve learned things, you can’t unlearn them and you become more committed