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If you judged the world on advertising, you wouldn’t know disabled people exist

A Spanish designer, Dolores Cortes, has chosen a baby girl with Downs Syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, to appear on the cover of her US catalogue.  It’s a bold move guaranteed to generate a little extra publicity and I welcome her decision; personally I find the image refreshing, it makes me smile to see a cute, happy young child regardless of her disability and it’s constructive to stir up the conversation about disability in advertising again.

I began modelling back in 1994 after winning the UK’s first competition to find a disabled model; this was four years after breaking my neck and acquiring my disability, paraplegia. Though I’ve had countless jobs for dozens of large international organisations and hundreds of press interviews it wasn’t until 2010 that I was finally booked for a mainstream advertising campaign for a high street fashion store, Debenhams, and only then with the backing of Gok Wan and the How to Look Good Naked team.

Advertising and marketing is about generating publicity for a product, encouraging consumers to purchase said product generating income for their client; the industry is about making money, not charity and social change unless there is a possibility to make a profit. Advertisers are generally reluctant to use a disabled model unless the product is targeting disabled customers, disability isn’t deemed suitable or aspirational for mass appeal.

However, they’re happy to take our money; high street stores and supermarkets know they have customers with disabilities, accessible changing rooms and specially adapted trolleys are provided to make our lives a little easier. There aren’t statistics for the number of disabled shoppers online, there isn’t a box to tick upon payment yet a vast number of disabled people shop online for ease; to avoid transport and access issues, to avoid changing rooms being used as hanger storage and to avoid negative attitudes.

Designers and advertisers aren’t naïve, they realise how much free publicity this drums up for their product, let’s be honest how many of us had heard of Dolores Cortes until she used Valentina in her catalogue? Now her brand is being discussed on websites throughout Europe and the US. I don’t know her motivation, extensive publicity, financial gain or promoting social inclusion but I support the decision in the same way that I support most brands that choose to promote equality and inclusivity by using models with disabilities. This week I noticed a wheelchair user in an advert for Barclay’s Bank and a blind woman is currently featuring in a Dove advert; again both positive moves that I welcome, but I ask that it’s consistent, not sporadic, as only then can it bring us closer to inclusion as the norm, not something deserving of press fanfare.

The Paralympics games have made disability very visible throughout 2012, but it’s a particular image of disability, the healthy, athletic hero or heroine; what about those who don’t fit that mould? Where’s the dad with a disability driving his kids to school? The wife with a disability shopping supermarket aisles for dinner? The son or daughter with a disability playing with their computer console?

I accept that people may find it hard to believe that simply including disabled actors and models in advertising could change attitudes, but if it couldn’t then why is it such a lucrative industry which spends millions researching exactly how to change consumers preferences from one brand to another? We are frequently subject to subtle messages from advertisers, everyone can remember an advert that struck a chord, that made them laugh or cry; there are even television programmes dedicated to ‘The 100 Greatest TV Adverts’. We are inundated with advertising all day, on websites, in magazines, on radio, in television commercials, on public transport; yet to see them you would hardly know disabled people existed. Cadbury’s, Sainsbury’s, Kellogg’s, Cow & Gate, Proctor & Gamble, M&S, Johnson & Johnson, Heinz and Ikea; well known brands you’ll find in most homes, but will you find disability in their advertising? No. Yet disabled people and their families are consumers too, we pay to purchase these brands, we eat, bathe and wear clothes just like the rest of the population.

Representation in media is a form of acknowledgement by society; consider Cherylee Houston’s character, Izzy, in Coronation Street or Cerrie Burnell presenting on CBBC, both received press attention because of their difference, but now that is barely mentioned, they are simply accepted by viewers as performers on television like their able bodied colleagues. I welcome the day when we might have a kick ass Disney heroine who just happens to have a disability so disabled children can see representation from a young age.

I hope other brands eventually choose to acknowledge their disabled customers and use disabled models; I had a great time, worked with some amazing people and hopefully changed a few attitudes along the way. Did I ever harbour ambitions to roll down the catwalk in couture week in Paris? No, I’m disabled, not deluded.