Why positive representation should be a part of accessibility

Published January 20, 2023

You won’t find a success criterion in the WCAG guidelines about representation, but your company should take the representation of people with disabilities into account when producing digital content. The goal of accessibility is for people with disabilities to have equal access to the world. Following digital accessibility guidelines is essential to guaranteeing people with disabilities have that access. People avoid places where they feel unwelcome. So it is also important that people with disabilities feel welcome in a virtual space and representation is key to making them feel welcome.

Welcoming people with disabilities into your digital spaces isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good for business. People with disabilities represent a large portion of the market of potential customers. This article will discuss why representation matters and how to get started in improving representation in your digital content.

Representation matters

Many groups of historically oppressed people, such as people of color, immigrants, women and queer people, are underrepresented on tv and in movies. A 2021 study by The Rep Project found that:

  • Only around a third of movie characters are female

  • The percent of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) characters in movies is 33%, compared with 40% of the population

  • LGBTQ+ characters are 1.7% percent of movie characters, compared with 4.5% of the population.

This underrepresentation has consequences. But perhaps more importantly, including positive representation has positive consequences. Recently, videos of young black girls excited reactions to seeing a trailer of the little mermaid played by a black actress went viral. And the huge success of films like Black Panther show that representation is good for business.

Representations of disability

Like other groups of historically oppressed people, people with disabilities do not often see themselves reflected in media such as TV shows and movies. A study by the Rep Project found that while approximately 30% of people in the U.S. have a disability, less than 5% of television characters have a disability. A study by Nieson found only 4.2% of movies and television shows from the last century had disability content or themes. 

How movies and television shows portray people with disabilities also matters. Shows frequently connect disability with villains. The villain’s disability visually represents their broken soul. People with disabilities are also often represented as bitter or objects of pity. They can also be used as inspiration for other characters instead of as people with their own rich and full lives.

Like positive representations of people of color, positive representations of people with disability are good for business. A study by Nieson found that people with disabilities are 17% more likely to interact with a brand if that company’s ads featured people with disabilities. When your business’ digital content has representations of people with disabilities, they feel welcome in your digital spaces.

How to digital welcome people with disabilities to your business

The first step is simply to include people with disabilities when your digital content has images, video or stories. Remember that the disability community is large and diverse. You should try to branch out from the disabilities we see most often in images and stories. For example, you could include images and videos of people with albinism, significant scarring or speech difficulties like stuttering.

Including a full spectrum of disabilities can be somewhat difficult, as not all disabilities are visual. Consider images of people using assistive devices, which can also serve to underscore your company’s commitment to accessibility. Again, try to branch out from the devices we see most often in images and video. In addition to things like wheelchairs, white canes and sign language interpreters, consider augmentative and alternative communication devices, communication boards, or Alternative Access Devices (mouth stick, head wand, sip and puff system).

Also make sure to think carefully about word choices. You could consider person-first language. There is some disagreement on the use of person-first language, but if you take the time to explore its nuances, you can successfully navigate it. You should avoid outdated and offensive terms. Also avoid patronizing phrasing like “handicapable” or “differently abled.”

If your digital spaces or advertisements include stories, whether in videos or stories, include people with disabilities in those stories. This can be an opportunity to more easily include people with invisible disabilities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, depression, or chronic pain. It can be tempting to center people with disabilities as inspiring. Doing this uses their story for others rather than making it about the person with a disability that you’re including. Comedian Stella Young popularized the phrase “inspiration porn” to describe this phenomenon. 

Conclusion

Full accessibility includes people with disabilities feeling welcome. To feel welcome, people need to see themselves reflected in the images, videos and stories they encounter. Making sure to include the images and stories of people with disabilities helps them feel welcome. Make sure that your representations are positive, diverse, avoid offensive language and avoid using people with disabilities as inspiration for others. 

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