March is National Disabilities Awareness Month, a celebration created in 1987 to promote a discussion on this sizeable group. The month also aims to help our society to become more inclusive of the 61 million adults in the United States who have some disability. To put that number into better scale, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in four adults 18+ and two in five adults aged 65 years and older have mobility, cognition, vision, or hearing disabilities, among other limitations.
Over the past decade, the distinction between multicultural and diverse marketing has been converging under a broader umbrella that advocates evolving our marketing from a segmentation approach exclusively based on demographic or purchasing patterns to incorporate people’s attitudes, values, and behaviors. For instance, organizations like the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) have expanded their multicultural marketing discussions to include People with Disabilities as an important segment.
To learn more about this theme, I spoke with Storm Smith, a marketing and advertising leader and DE&I advocate, who was the first deaf juror at the prestigious Cannes Lions creative festival. I have the privilege to serve at an industry DE&I council with Storm, and below is an edited version of our exchange.
Isaac Mizrahi – Tell us about your journey to get where you are today.
Storm Smith – My life has undergone two significant changes. Originally from Los Angeles, my journey to education and career began at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. as an undergraduate student. Back then, I did not see many opportunities for Deaf BIPOC+ in the creative and media field. Hence, I opted for Psychology, which seemed safe and practical, and aimed to pursue a career as a school counselor or therapist for the community. Despite my commitment to Psychology, my passion for films and creative media continued to stir within me.
It wasn’t until I met my mentor, Dr. Jane Norman, that my life took a new turn. As a professor, founder, and curator of the National Deaf Life Museum, she saw my future before I did. She saw my potential as a storyteller and encouraged me to pursue my dream of filmmaking or media-related work. I decided to pivot my plan and started my marketing, communications, and media career at Gallaudet University. After six years, I was recruited by the award-winning global advertising company BBDO Worldwide as an Art Director, becoming the first Deaf woman to work for BBDO.
My journey has taught me the importance of following my passions, pivoting when necessary, and having a strong support system. While I am still learning as the nature of work in the industries is still evolving, as someone as a Black Deaf woman dedicated to transforming the way we tell stories of disabilities, particularly for BIPOC+ and communities with intersectionality, I am committed to ensuring that these stories are centered around human truths that inspire positive change in the advertising, film, media, and digital industries. Through visual storytelling, we can influence and impact individuals, communities, nations, and the world. Every person has a story that deserves to be told, and we all matter.
Mizrahi – Do people with disabilities want brands to speak directly to this segment? Smith – It depends on the individual and the context. Some people with disabilities may feel more included and represented when a brand speaks to them directly as a segment, as it acknowledges their existence. Others may prefer to be represented more inclusively, with disabilities being normalized as a part of the human experience rather than being singled out as a separate segment.
Overall, brands must engage with people with disabilities and seek their input and feedback. This can help brands to create more authentic and effective messages that resonate with the disability community. Brands should also aim to avoid stereotypes or tokenistic representations and instead focus on portraying people with disabilities as multidimensional individuals/with intersectionality with unique experiences and perspectives.
Mizrahi – How do you see the advertising industry’s response to the segment’s needs?
Smith – It’s heartening to see more tech, fashion, advertising, and entertainment brands promote disability inclusion in their media. For too long, people with disabilities have been underrepresented and misrepresented in mainstream media, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and erasing their experiences.
The benefits of disability inclusion in advertising and marketing go beyond just promoting social responsibility. It can also increase brand loyalty and trust from consumers who value inclusivity and diversity. This would provide high-level solutions and close the gap for more equitable and inclusive work.
Furthermore, disability inclusion in advertising and media is not just a matter of representation but also accessibility. Brands must ensure that their products and services are designed with accessibility in mind, making them available and usable for people with disabilities. By promoting disability inclusion in their advertising and media, brands can create a more inclusive and equitable society for everyone.
Mizrahi – What advice would you give to brands that want to start looking at this segment from the marketing standpoint?
Smith – Despite progress made in recent years, achieving full disability inclusion in advertising and media remains a distant goal. While some brands have made efforts to feature disability talents on screen and behind the camera, many still fall short when it comes to authentic representation and meaningful inclusion in decision-making processes.
To promote intersectional disability inclusion, brands must involve people with disabilities, especially BIPOC+, at all stages of the creative process, from brainstorming to execution. This requires hiring disability talents and consultants, listening to their voices and perspectives, and collaborating with disability organizations and influencers to ensure authenticity and cultural sensitivity. While some brands have taken positive steps in this direction, many have yet to follow suit.
Achieving full disability inclusion in advertising and media requires a multifaceted approach that involves the active participation of people with disabilities at every level of the creative process. It also requires brands to promote diversity and inclusion by hiring, supporting, and promoting people with disabilities in leadership positions.
Mizrahi – How about our industry? How was your experience working in our industry? What learnings agencies, production companies, and media companies could have if they want to increase the number of employees with disabilities in their teams?
Smith – I see the number of talented individuals with disabilities working in front of and behind the camera rapidly increasing, and many are eager to collaborate with big brands. For instance, C Talent agency boasts the largest pool of disability talent and has helped bring many disabled individuals into the mainstream media. Some talent includes individuals from Gallaudet University, one of whom won an Academy Award. While we are everywhere now, the current understanding is that it’s not enough to bring just one talent with a disability into the room; it’s necessary to bring in several talents to effect positive, tangible change.
Moreover, recruiting and promoting people with disabilities to leadership positions within the company and team can make a significant impact. Having people with disabilities in influential roles can help to normalize disability representation and create more diverse and inclusive work environments. By doing so, we can celebrate seeing a broader range of people in the media, including those with disabilities. It’s important to remember that we are still contending with the effects of trauma in our daily lives while society tends to marginalize and neglect us. By working together with a sincere and intentional effort to create meaningful change, we can come together and move towards a healing path.
I believe it is time for marketers to consider people with disabilities an important component of their plans. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it is also good for business since, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, people with disabilities have a combined disposable income of $490 billion. Moreover, according to Gallaudet faculty, the value of the broader American Sign Language (ASL)-based economy has been estimated to be worth at least $3 billion, or maybe as much as $10 billion.
To achieve greater equity and grow business with this segment, it is essential for brands to surround themselves with subject matter experts like Storm. They will benefit when true inclusion is achieved, and everybody’s needs and aspirations reflect how we conduct business, according to Gallaudet faculty.
As we conclude this article, we are reminded of the immense impact that individuals like Judith Heumann have had on shaping the world in which we live. Her tireless advocacy for disability rights has left an indelible mark on our society, and her legacy will continue to inspire generations to come. We dedicate this article to Judith and express our heartfelt gratitude for her remarkable journey and legacy. May her passion and unwavering commitment to equality be a guiding light for us all.