Ali Hanan
Apr 27, 2023

Why is there still such chronic underinvestment in disabled creative talent?

Adland's slow awakening to the commercial benefit of inclusivity feels surprising.

Why is there still such chronic underinvestment in disabled creative talent?

It's no secret that the creative industry has long underinvested in disabled talent. In fact many haven't just underinvested, they've silenced the disabled community altogether.

Consequently, disabled talent is chronically underrepresented (9% versus 20% working age population), with 22% likely to leave their organisation – compared with the industry average of 9% – according to the latest All In Census.

It's little wonder that the Advertising Association has highlighted disability as a critical area for change.

Locking out disabled people from the industry is hugely detrimental not just for individuals but for creative output too. Lloyds Bank found only 0.06% of ads in the UK featured individuals with disabilities, despite disabled people accounting for 20% of the population.

For an industry where the motive is to sell products, its slow awakening to the commercial benefit of inclusivity feels surprising.

I recently spoke to four industry leaders with lived experience of disability to help shed light on why there is still such chronic underinvestment in disabled creative talent (pictured above, clockwise from top left): Bryony Moss, disabled actor, model and advocate; Dr Josh Loebner, global head of inclusive design at Wunderman Thompson; Sulaiman R. Khan, founder and chief radical officer at ThisAbility Limited; and Ben Mottershead, founder and creative director at Studio BND.

Here's what they had to say.

Disability – an agenda pushed aside

Despite many organisations claiming to prioritise diversity, very few actually consider disability in those initiatives. It is an agenda that has been rendered somewhat invisible.

Khan suggests the underinvestment in disabled creative talent is because there is no one type of disability or singular experience. "Disabled people are not a monolith," Khan says. "Supporting disabled talent is complex and not a one-size-fits-all.

"But because things are difficult, it doesn't mean we shouldn't amplify, invest in, and champion the people who can transform the creative industries. If the creative industries can't use their creativity to learn how to hire, invest in and promote disabled talent, then there's a problem."

While Mottershead believes this is down to where social activism and businesses have been focused in recent history. He says: "For years the attention has very much been on gender and ethnicity disparity. Both are equally important conversations and worthy agendas.

"However, in the process of this, the topic of disability has been left outside in the cold with nobody answering the door. It's understandable. Visibility is the thing that has been lacking. Without visibility, why would anyone think it's a problem?"

Ableism is still a construct to inclusivity

There's no doubt a lifetime of deeply embedded discrimination against disabled people still lingers on in our workplaces and societies.

Moss, who feels that her disability has affected her professional progression and opportunities, acknowledges that disability representation is slowly getting better, but it has a long way to go.

"Dare I say it, as a society I think we still may have views that are ableist at times," she says. "For example, a disabled person can't be in a relationship. That they can't or want to look nice. That they can't be 'sexy'."

In Moss' view, disabled talent is also lacking because society is scared when it hears the word "disabled".

Without question, society's ill-founded "fear" of disabled people has deep and lasting consequences. "The world we live in was created absent of us in mind," Mottershead says. "We work with systems and structures that make us feel like outsiders or battle with architecture and products that left us as an afterthought. This has to stop."

There is no diversity without disability. Period.

There should be no question over the importance of disabled representation in the creative industry. Afterall, the best work will come only if the creatives reflect the world's full diversity of people, experiences and approaches.

As Loebner explains: "Working with disabled creatives expands ideas to include different perspectives based on authentic and genuine lived experiences, both positive and negative. These individuals will be at the table to advocate and ensure accessibility.

"Disabled creatives have the power to reframe accessibility from a baseline and disjointed addition to already created content, and instead weave in accessible elements that sublimely elevate narratives."

Moss believes the void of people like her on TV has had an impact on her mental health. "Everyone should be made to feel part of society and that they matter," she says. "The gifts you have can positively change the world.

"We [disabled people] think outside the box, we can adapt, we can help the business/company tackle issues to make advertising more inclusive, bold, powerful."

Performative activism is lose-lose

As an industry, we must acknowledge that we have not moved fast enough and have not done enough to move the needle on disability.

It's time for agencies to step up, take accountability and commit to investing in disabled creative talent.

Loebner says: "We need to push conversations and commitments surrounding disability and creativity to go beyond how to make creative more accessible for disabled communities, to how we make the industry more accessible for disabled creators."

Khan argues that disability representation in the creative industries is critical because being heard and seen is the first step to breaking down negative attitudes and beliefs about disabled people.

It is essential agencies protect their diversity, equity and inclusion budgets and ensure commitments to drive positive change for disabled creatives are completely genuine and not performative.

Khan adds: "Hiring, investing in, and promoting disabled talent and disabled creatives is not about another unhelpful PR story or a luxury, but it is a business necessity."

Creative Equals is hosting a free webinar on disability on Wednesday 3 May. Tickets are available from here.

Ali Hanan is chief executive and co-founder of Creative Equals.


Campaign UK

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