Using a range of communication channels to reach disabled people

Updated 15 March 2021

1. Introduction

This guidance was written for government communicators but may also be useful to other communication professionals.

We absorb a wide range of information every day through different communication channels, for example, radio, television, newspapers, advertising, internet and word of mouth. Some of these methods may be out of reach or inaccessible to some disabled people.

Using a range of communication channels will help to maximise the number of people you reach.

Disabled people are likely to have a below average level of access to information. This may be due to financial reasons, limited mobility or because absorbing information can require extra effort.

Planning the right range of communication channels to use will help you reach the maximum number of people in a cost-effective way.

For more information about the take-up and use of communication services and devices amongst disabled people, read the Ofcom research report Disabled consumers’ ownership of communications services: A Consumer Experience report.

Making your communications available in accessible formats will also help your messages reach disabled people.

2. Advertising

Including disabled people in advertising helps to show that disability is a normal part of life.

The government produces a considerable amount of advertising in the UK through multiple channels including press, outdoor, TV, radio and digital media. It makes sense to represent disability in government advertising, since:

  • disabled people are a significant part of your audience
  • disability can provide a striking or memorable way of getting a message across
  • representation will attract the attention of disabled people and help you meet government objectives about communicating with disabled people and their families
  • advertising that depicts disabled people positively can help you meet government objectives about challenging low expectations of disabled people

2.1 Portrayal of disabled people

Remember that most disability is not visible. This is an issue to consider in portrayal of disabled people, to make sure there isn’t over-representation of, for example, people who use wheelchairs. Print and poster advertising tend to overuse this example. Television, film and radio offers greater scope to include forms of disability that are not visible.

Read more guidance on portraying disabled people.

2.2 Conflicting messages

Images of Disability research has found a conflict exists for many communications experts between wanting to do the right thing and being concerned that including disabled people will overcomplicate the campaign message and compromise their communication objectives.

Certainly using disabled people in adverts can bring both added meaning and at other times be distracting.

For example, an advert for teachers with a wheelchair user was easily understood as meaning that disabled people were wanted as teachers. However, a drink drive campaign focusing on the risk of injury could be compromised by including a disabled person as the driver or even in the background because the message of the campaign is about driving injuries.

2.3 Best practice

If you have a disabled person in a pivotal role, you need to decide whether the disability is central to the idea or beside the point creatively.

If you are communicating a message without reference to the disability featured in the advert, you should probably take extra care that the disability itself (or the way the disabled actor plays the part) doesn’t trigger the viewer or listener to assume a connection.

Be clear

Problems arise if the creative idea is unclear. If people don’t understand, they will decide for themselves why advertising features disability and this could lead them to make incorrect assumptions about the message.

Be natural

Aim to generally include disabled people in a natural way, where they are part of the story without their disability being the focus of it. Avoid being tokenistic – make sure there is a point to the disabled character rather than simply being there to represent disability.

For example, a 2001 Teletext TV advert featured a football fan in a wheelchair. The character celebrates a goal by taking a beer from the fridge and cheering. The camera makes good dramatic use of the momentum of the wheelchair but there is no attempt to use the disability to bring additional meaning to the message – it is incidental.

Be positive

Depicting disabled people in responsible jobs or senior positions can change negative or limiting assumptions and expectations. Avoid representing disabled people as victims. However you should also avoid representing disabled people as heroes.

3. Direct marketing: communicating your message to specific targets

3.1 Direct mail

Direct mail is one option to consider if you want to target disabled people. This could:

  • accompany other information
  • be distributed by disability organisations
  • be inserted into disability publications
  • be sent to an existing of your target audience

You could consider face to face marketing and telephone marketing as an alternative to direct mail, however this can be expensive.

3.2 Multiple channels and accessible formats

The following campaign examples demonstrate using different channels and accessible formats to communicate directly with your target audience.

Multiple channels example: Department of Health: anti-smoking campaign

Department of Health recognised that it needed to make its anti-smoking campaign as accessible to disabled people as to the rest of the population. The campaign used a variety of media channels in order to get the message across to the widest possible audience. This was backed up by extensive research.

Publicity included:

  • a number of TV commercials (with subtitles for people with a hearing impairment)
  • a wide range of printed material including leaflets, outdoor posters, small posters and postcards targeted at different sectors of the population
  • material on CD-ROM so that local groups could produce their own publicity using the national branding
  • a website
  • 2 telephone helplines
  • braille, audio and large print versions of the main booklet
  • 3 specially written and designed booklets for people with learning disabilities
  • an item in the Central Office of Information audio magazine ‘Sound Advice’

The accessible format versions were well-publicised in the press, at day centres and elsewhere. This resulted in a high demand and reprints in 2 media were required within a few months.

Accessible formats example: Inland Revenue: tax credits

HMRC was keen to ensure that its campaigns for self-assessment, the Working Families Tax Credit and Disabled Person’s Tax Credit (DPTC) were accessible to disabled people and to minority language users.

They subtitled all their TV commercials (in English and Welsh) and produced and distributed leaflets and posters in minority languages for use at post offices and other outlets. The Inland Revenue website, which won an RNIB Accessibility Award in 1999, actively encourages people to file their self-assessment return online.

Posters and factsheets about DPTC and the DPTC Fast-Track were also produced in accessible formats – the factsheets being displayed in around 4,500 doctors’ surgeries.

Other initiatives included articles on DPTC and DPTC Fast-Track in the regional press with an accompanying advert for Fast-Track, and an article in HMRCs ‘Employer’s Bulletin’ directing employers to the employer’s helpline to order an information pack including posters, factsheets and leaflet (also available in accessible formats).

4. Hosting accessible events

Consider accessibility requirements for every aspect of your event, from publicity to venue facilities. This includes thinking about your delegates, event staff, the chair, speakers and exhibitors – all of whom may be disabled.

It will be more expensive and difficult to meet audience requirements and your legal duties if you only consider them at the last minute, so plan for accessibility from the start.

Accessibility modifications will help everyone who attends your event. For example, new visitors and non-fluent English speakers will benefit from clear signage as much as people with learning disabilities.

4.1 Publicising your event

If you mention facilities for disabled people in your publicity, they will know that you want to include them.

When planning and publicising your event:

  • mention facilities for disabled people in your publicity
  • use inclusive language
  • check your venue is accessible and compatible with the specialist access hardware and software used by some disabled people
  • provide a contact point
  • if you give a telephone number as your contact point, give alternatives such as a textphone, email address, fax number or postal address
  • make sure that staff at your contact point can answer questions about access
  • use the accessible print publications guidance for all your printed material

4.2 Event application and reply forms

You can use your event application form to let people know what adjustments are in place for disabled visitors, for example sign language interpreters, deaf-blind communicators and large print materials. In addition:

  • give disabled people the opportunity to specify anything else they may need, for example by saying: “Please let us know any additional requirements you may have.”
  • ask for a contact telephone, textphone number or an email address so that you can discuss any requests
  • make the form accessible

Remember that all information you receive on application forms is subject to the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

Booking forms should be available in easy read format.

4.3 Accessible communications

Think about how you will produce written information for your event, like programmes, promotional material, handouts, agendas, tickets, posters and application forms in a range of accessible formats including digital. This includes making sure your event web pages are accessible.

There should always be information in Easy Read at events for disabled people. This should be on paper and also on audiotape or CD-ROM.

4.4 Attendees with hearing problems

Deaf and hard of hearing people can be supported by language support professionals (LSPs). They include:

  • British Sign Language interpreters
  • deafblind communicators and guides
  • lip speakers
  • note takers
  • speech to text reporters (palantypists)
  • speed text operators

Consider booking LSPs provisionally as soon as you have an event date and venue, as there is a high demand for them. The more notice you give the better chance you will have of meeting your attendees’ requirements. Agencies and freelance language support professionals contact details are given on the National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People website.

LSPs will be able to advise on the best position for them to work in relation to the speaker and the audience and environmental features such as lighting, which can affect the service they give to deaf people.

They will welcome being briefed on the content of the event in advance. Include copies or details of:

  • presentations
  • video material
  • unusual words, including medical or legal jargon

4.5 Attendees with learning disabilities

For attendees with learning difficulties:

  • provide written communications in easy read format
  • put the number of the agenda item that any paper relates to on the paper
  • consider putting a picture of each agenda item on the wall and take them down as you finish each item
  • for regular meetings, consider colour coding your papers – use the same colour each time you have a meeting, for example yellow paper for minutes and orange paper for questions
  • send people any papers well in advance of a meeting (2 weeks if possible)

4.6 Film clips

Film clips on DVD or video can add interest to presentations. Audio-description, subtitle and British Sign Language interpretation increases accessibility.

Check if these options are available on any films that you plan to show. If you are commissioning broadcast material, request these formats if the material are included.

4.7 Chairs, speakers and presenters

Let the chair, speakers and presenters know about access considerations before your event. For example they will need to voice any slides or presentations they use and provide copies in advance to people with visual impairments or dyslexia.

Brief speakers on working with LSPs and any other accessibility arrangements. Explain that they should speak slowly so that lip-readers and users of LSPs can understand what they are saying.

Chairs need to describe exits from the audience’s perspective, for example “your left”, “your right” and “in front of you” and so on, rather than pointing or saying “over there”. They may also need to remind speakers to speak up or speak more slowly. If done politely, it is not embarrassing.

4.8 Meetings

At small meetings, consider outlining meeting rules at the start, for example only one person speaking at a time. Sometimes it is helpful to get the group of people meeting to agree their own rules.

Using ‘traffic light cards’ can be helpful. These are a set of 4 cards that mean “Stop”, “OK”, “Slow down” and “What?” The chair can use these cards to control speakers or attendees can agree how to use them. Using the cards can help people who may be nervous to take part in meetings.

Don’t have too many items on the agenda for one meeting. Put the most important agenda items first.

4.9 The programme

Make sure your audience are comfortable and can engage with the material.

Include regular breaks and make sure these are long enough. People who use assistance dogs need time to take them outside during breaks.

Keep session length to about 45 minutes. If sessions need to be longer, pause for a few minutes to let language support professionals rest.

Consider that people with continence problems may need to visit the toilet every hour.

Make your agenda easy to understand. If people with learning disabilities are likely to be attending, use easy words and pictures.

Think about discussing some topics in smaller groups. This can help people who find it harder to speak in a big group.

Give people the opportunity to write questions down for the chair to read out.

Keep to the timings you have set. In particular, make sure meetings start and finish on time.

4.10 Special effects

Special effects and technology can add impact or overcome issues like the large size of a venue. Consider the effect of any technology for disabled people. Some technology will provide a reasonable adjustment for some disabled people.

Let people know about any special effects before the event, particularly important if your event involves flash or strobe lighting. Give attendees the opportunity to feed back any issues to you. If technology is likely to cause problems for disabled people, consider alternatives.

4.11 Lighting

Dimming the lights in a venue may prevent some disabled people taking part – for example, a hearing impaired person will be prevented from lip-reading. If dimming lights is necessary, make sure speakers and language support professionals are suitably spotlighted and that there is good light for reading.

You may need to dim the lights for presentations involving slides or videos to prevent glare, which can make it difficult for some people to read the text. Check if this is possible when you audit the venue. Closing curtains and blinds and keeping some lights on in the room would also reduce glare.

4.12 Sound systems

Check the quality and the volume of the PA system for clarity and comfort.

Check the loop or infrared systems.

Check infrared or radio systems used for language translation do not affect the radio or infrared system in use for hearing aid wearers. Ask the suppliers of both services to liaise with each other.

If you expect audience members to ask questions from the floor arrange for assisting staff to be equipped with portable microphones.

4.13 Palantype

You could consider using speech to text report, known as palantype. This is can be viewed on a laptop screen or a large screen placed on the stage area. This helps everyone to follow what is being said.

5. Press

To get the best news coverage for a campaign or programme you need to know about the readership of various newspapers and magazines – and which groups of people use them.

In general, disabled people are consumers of mainstream press, so the usual rules of media planning will apply. However, you may occasionally want to target disabled people via their membership of disability or health organisations, or via disability publications.

5.1 Disability and health organisations

Examples include:

5.2 Disability publications

There are a number of disability related and trade publications. These are read by disabled people and those that work closely with them. You can find most publications on the internet.

6. Radio

Although radio is not accessible for people with hearing impairments, many people with visual impairments get their news from radio programmes. You could consider targeting the following stations and programmes as part of your media strategy for particular campaigns:

  • ‘Insight Radio’, the Royal National Institute of Blind People radio station, is an example of a station produced specifically for those with visual impairments

  • ‘You and Yours’, a Radio 4 programme, has a high proportion of stories targeted at disabled listeners

  • ‘See Hear’, a BBC TV programme, is an alternative to radio for people with hearing impairments – it’s presented in sign language with open subtitles

7. TV and film

If you are responsible for commissioning video, make sure you reach all of your target audience by producing versions with:

  • subtitling
  • signed inserts in British Sign Language
  • audio-description

For more information, read our guide on commissioning accessible video.

7.1 Subtitles

ODI research shows that a million people rely on television subtitles, and a further 4 million use them regularly. Many major TV channels already subtitle 80% of their output.

7.2 British Sign Language (BSL)

Signed inserts in BSL produced primarily as TV fillers (content that appears between scheduled programmes) could also be used on a website. Planning this early will save you time and cost you less.

7.3 Audio-description

Producing audio description for your TV or film content increases the impact of your message on people who are blind or have visual impairments. It can convey facial expressions and significant gestures to the listener, which would otherwise be missed.

7.4 Getting airtime for your campaign

Consider targeting disability-related factual television programmes as part of your media strategy, for example, See Hear, which is a flagship BBC TV programme for deaf people and those with hearing impairments.

8. Internet

Although not everyone has access to the internet there are an increasing number of outlets and devices disabled people can use to access the web including:

  • home PCs
  • handheld devices, for example, tablets and smartphones
  • public libraries

8.1 Websites

The use and design of websites is a huge subject which can’t be covered entirely here. However, here are some of the main things you should aim to do when communicating with disabled people through websites:

  • make sure your website design and content is accessible
  • make sure any publications, for example forms and reports, that are hosted on your website are accessible – read the GOV.UK guidance on creating accessible PDFs
  • advertise your campaign on your organisation’s website, or request a temporary page to publicise your information – this can be especially useful for publicising consultations
  • email your audience database to direct them to your campaign web pages
  • include the website address on your offline marketing

If you work in government and are thinking of running a campaign on the GOV.UK website, read Campaigns on GOV.UK: standards and guidelines

8.2 Social media

Good use of social media can help you to better understand, respond to and attract the attention of specific audiences. It enables real two-way communication with people in the places where they are already engaging with their interests.

To be effective social media initiatives must form part of a wider communications strategy and bring tangible benefits. The following outcomes are all benefits of communicating with disabled people and representing disability through social media:

  • increasing government’s access to audiences
  • improving accessibility of government communication
  • enabling government to be more active in its relationships with citizens, partners and stakeholders
  • improving the long-term cost effectiveness of communication
  • using the credibility of non-government channels
  • increasing the speed of public feedback and input
  • reaching specific audiences on specific issues