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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inclusive-communication/portraying-disability
Consider these guidelines when communicating with or about disabled people. Some of these guidelines are aimed at government communicators but could also be useful to other communication professionals.
Portraying disability and disabled people positively is critical in changing and improving services.
A positive image of disability is a fair, creative and stimulating portrayal of one or more disabled people. It should be based on the social model of disability rather than medical model of disability. It could be anything from a photo, graphic or character in a storyline, to a visual or aural cue.
Positive portrayal will help to change public attitudes and raise expectations of what disabled people can achieve. It will also help disabled people to connect and associate with your communication or campaign.
2. Raising expectations
Many government objectives rely on communicating with disabled people and their families. Currently there is inequality for disabled people in terms of healthcare, education and employment opportunities and government recognises a real need for change.
By including disabled people in its creative output, government advertising can help to shift the idea that disability is a tragedy affecting a small minority. Instead we can show that it is a normal part of life, and that disabled people can be successful in a range of roles.
The more positive representations of disabled people are produced, the easier the task of changing attitudes becomes. Every campaign which includes positive disability messages will help achieve this.
3. Getting your audience’s attention
The presence of disabled people and way in which they are portrayed in communications will also influence how much attention disabled people and their families, friends and representatives will pay to your messages.
For example, a communications campaign encouraging people to work in social care should include content that assumes that disabled people will give as well as receive care.
4. Portraying a range of disabilities
Try to represent a wide range of disabilities or impairments, including non-visible impairments and health conditions.
5. Hero characters
Use hero characters sparingly. They don’t reflect the everyday reality of all disabled people. Bear in mind that:
- a gold-medal winning disabled athlete is no more representative of disabled people than Usain Bolt is of non-disabled people
- constant depictions of very high achievers can lower the self-confidence of some disabled people
- some people may interpret the heroic achievement as compensating for the disability
6. Victim characters
Generally speaking, avoid presenting disabled people as victims or being passive.
It is important to reflect reality – for example, disabled people may be at greater risk of crime than non-disabled people. However, anyone may be vulnerable or feel fearful of crime.
Many UK carers are family members of disabled people. They are also under-represented in the media. When including characters who are carers be wary of portraying them as martyrs or angels – but don’t reduce their importance. Show them and disabled family members as equals.
Humour can be a very powerful creative tool. Advertising agencies regularly use it to push at boundaries and make unusual connections while selling messages or products.
Humour invites participation rather than passive reading, watching or listening. It can juxtapose similarities with differences and can force you to make the jump between two often contradictory ideas.
9. Casting disabled actors and models
Always use disabled actors for disabled roles.
Be prepared to be flexible. There may not be an actual person with the particular combination of disability, age and gender that has been scripted.
Ask casting agencies specifically for disabled people. When casting agencies become aware of the demand they will put more disabled actors on their books.
Look in as many places as possible for the right person.
Work creatively with your disabled actor’s impairment or health condition. There may be room for humour or surprise.
Don’t automatically cast beautiful or aspirational people. Challenge yourself to cast on other criteria than aesthetics.
Sometimes disability has been successfully introduced to a campaign during the casting and pre-production stages, for example if an actor with a hearing aid comes to a casting.
Ensure that your model release forms are accessible.
Where to look:
- Graeae Theatre trains disabled actors and has a database of many actors who have a disability
- Equity has a list of actors with disabilities
- Channel 4 has a website dedicated to disabled talent.
- VisABLE People is the first agency in the UK with the sole objective of supplying professional models, actors and presenters with disabilities to the television, film and advertising industries
- mind the gap represents actors with learning disabilities
- Spotlight is a large UK casting agency with over 30,000 performers