Adland must do more to help employees with disabilities

Meet the Superhumans: C4 Paralympics campaign
Meet the Superhumans: C4 Paralympics campaign

It's been impossible to miss the advertising industry's soul-searching as it belatedly realises that it fails to represent contemporary British society, both in advertising and within ad agencies themselves.

It’s also been heartening to see this conversation translate into action with the launch of so many initiatives to help remedy this.

Particular credit is due to Tom Knox at the IPA for championing this cause. He may, at first glance, seem to be an unlikely flag waver but by pushing the equality agenda, both gender and ethnic, he has made agencies sit up and take notice.

But with progress, hopefully, made on this front, it doesn’t mean that agencies can rest on their laurels, safe in the knowledge that they don’t resemble the accounts department of J. Walter Thompson circa 1950 and their ads don’t look like the output of the same creative department in the same era.

The Invictus Games, currently on the BBC, and the forthcoming Paralympic Games, on Channel 4, are rightly celebrating the athletic achievements of people who, either through battle or birth, have disabilities that make their lives more challenging.

What’s been particularly inspiring in watching their stories is that it isn’t done in a mawkish or patronising way. If anything, these games show that these individuals are, indeed, "superhumans".

Contrast that with the ad industry where, with a few notable exceptions, the use of a person with a disability in an ad is rare and, where they do feature, it’s in order to elicit sympathy. Even more shocking is that the campaign is usually praised by our chattering class as being "brave".

There’s nothing brave about representing an estimated 11 million people who, according to the Department of Work and Pensions, live with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability. But there’s something very negligent about not doing so. While agencies have finally made ground in the representation of women, perhaps their focus could now shift on to this neglected portion of society.

Moreover, as you look around your agency, how many members of staff have a disability? It’s likely to be hardly any. Agencies prefer to turn a blind eye, fearful, perhaps, that disabled staff might somehow be a burden or something that, whisper it if you dare, clients would prefer not to deal with.

Much as the gender and ethnic representation debate is not one that is exclusively affects advertising, so it is with disability. According to the Labour Force Survey, disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.

The most recent figures suggest that 46.3% of working-age disabled people are in employment compared with 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people – a 30.1 percentage point gap. Discrimination would appear to be endemic.

The television industry is finally doing something about this. Channel 4 has announced that it will give away £1m of commercial airtime to the brand that comes up with the best creative idea featuring disabilities, as part of its "year of disability" ahead of the Paralympics.

Equally, the BBC has just declared that it is launching a push to employ more disabled people, with the goal that, by 2020, 8% of its staff will come from this group. It’s great to see these public service broadcasters do something in order to rebalance their staff.

For the ad industry, it’s time that we also seized this initiative in the same wholehearted way we have embraced other minority groups. It’s not just a public service, it’s a moral duty and a commercial imperative.

By Paul Jordan, executive creative director, mcgarry bowen

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