The ROI of Disability Inclusive Marketing

Including disabled people in your marketing and content isn't just 'nice to do.' Read about the real business impact.
a collage of disabled protestors, ugly laws and freak shows
The ROI of Disability Inclusive Marketing

This weekend I had to pay $1300 to update my iPhone—and I was ecstatic. Not because of a better camera. Not because of the improved battery life. It was because of this commercial Apple released on International Day of Disabled People.

Throughout almost all of my life as a disabled person, I’ve rarely seen people like me on TV. This lack of representation (and of course the copious amounts of bullying from asshole kids) wreaked havoc on my self confidence, but it wasn’t until I started working in international activism that I noticed an undeniable correlation between the lack of representation of disabled people in media, marketing and entertainment with the lack of civil and human rights that disabled people are fighting. 

Note: we’re using US-based data here but most developed nations will look similarly.
Despite the ADA (Amerians with Disabilities Act)  being passed over 30 years ago, the issues that disabled people are facing in America have not gotten better statistically, and in some cases they’re actually getting worse:

  1. According to the Bureau of Labor, less than 20% of people who identified as disabled are employed
  2. The National Disability Institute showed that disabled people were over 2x more likely to be living in poverty than non-disabled people
  3. The Bureau of Justice reports that disabled people are 4x more likely to experience violent crimes than non disabled people.
Many people incorrectly assume that because the ADA was passed, disabled people have the same quality of life as non disabled people.

Many people incorrectly assume that because the ADA was passed that disabled people have the same quality of life and access to civil and human rights as non disabled people, but the reality is that the ADA is not a self-enforcing law. The burden of enforcing it is on disabled people self-advocating - there's no check ups to make sure people are adhering to it, and the process to file complaints is so long, emotionally grueling, and expensive that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports less than 13% of complaints of discrimincation are settled.

When the burden of enforcing anti-discrimination laws falls on the marginalized community they are supposed to protect, the law is ineffective because the community being discriminated against also has to hold the discriminators accountable without any support from our legal infrastructure. 

A large part of why complaints of discrimination are not investigated or taken seriously is because of implicit bias. We use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have attitudes towards people, or associate stereotypes with them, without our conscious knowledge. These biases come from a variety of places—what our parents have said, the books we’ve read, what our teachers have said, what the cultural norms are that we’ve grown up with, and of course the media we consume

Our culture has taken drastic steps towards addressing unconscious biases when it comes to race and gender, but time and time again disability is left out of conversation. Despite disability being the largest marginalized community in the world (the CDC estimates 25% of the population), the Harvard Business Review tells us that while 90% of companies have a DEI strategy, only 4% of those include disability within it.

This is an unacceptable microaggression, but also a massive missed opportunity for business and sales. The disability market has over $8T to spend globally every year and we know that companies that employ more disabled people have double the net income, 28% higher revenue, and 30% higher economic profit margins. It’s a win for our community, it’s a win for your business.

So why aren’t more businesses doing this?

I believe the three main reasons are:

1. Fear.

The number one question I’ll get in any session is “what is the ‘PC’ way to refer to disabilities?” Too often, non disabled people are terrified of even addressing the disability community because they don’t want to offend us. Our culture has painted “disability” as a negative thing for so long that this makes sense, but disability isn’t a negative thing. It’s a fact of life. Disability is coming for you if you are blessed enough to enter old age - it is not a matter of if you become disabled but when. Ours is the only marginalized community you can join at any time, so it’s important to demystify disability and talk openly about it.

2. Lack of buy in.

Disabled people make up 25% of the population which is a fact that shocks many people - especially marketers. Disabled people are only shown 3.1% of the time in media, marketing and entertainment so it is understandable that creative leaders believe that the buying power of our community is so low. 

3. Lack of disabled creatives.

Disabled people, statistically speaking, have employment rates at just a fraction of what non disabled people have - due to both systemic ableism (inaccessible housing, lack of accessible public transportation, inability to afford education without forfeiting disability benefits) and implicit bias from hiring managers that believes that disabled people are not capable of being competent in fast paced, creative careers. This leads to both a lack of accountability within creative teams, and a general lack of awareness of how capable we are of using our clients’ products (and therefore, being marketed to).

So what can we do to fix this problem?
Here’s a few tips and tricks to get you started. 

Prioritize Representation in Your Team 

Having a diverse team with members from different backgrounds and lived experiences is one of the best ways to ensure that all voices are represented when making decisions about products, campaigns, or messaging. This includes prioritizing representation from disabled people who can bring their unique perspective to the table. When creating job postings for your team, it’s important to make sure that candidates feel welcome regardless of their disability status.

Having a diverse team also presents an opportunity for disabled people to have mentors or role models within the organization who understand their lived experience and can be there to support them throughout their career.  

Incorporate Accessibility Into Your Processes 

Creating accessible products and services should be part of your team’s core process rather than an afterthought. This means incorporating accessibility considerations into everything you do—from the design phase all the way through to launch and beyond. When designing mobile apps or websites, it’s essential to consider how this technology can be used by people with disabilities before any code is written.

Establishing standards early on will save time in the long run and help ensure that all users get the same experience regardless of any physical limitations they may have.  

When creating job postings for your team, it’s important to make sure that candidates feel welcome regardless of their disability status.

Make Your Messaging More Inclusive 

When crafting marketing messages, it’s important to reflect the diversity of your audience. This includes being mindful about language that could potentially exclude disabled people or make them feel like they don’t belong in your community or customer base. For example, if you are creating visuals for a campaign, avoid using ableist language such as “lame” or “crazy” as well as any slang terms related to disability status (e.g., “retarded”—yes in 2023 I still need to remind people not to say it).

Make sure your messaging reflects an understanding that disability is not something negative but rather something that simply needs accommodation in order for everyone to live their best lives possible.  

The reason I was excited to spend $1300 on basic life maintenance upgrades (i.e. buying a fancy new iPhone) was because Apple got not one of these things, not some of these things, but all of these things right. Not only did I willingly hand over my portion of our mortgage payment to the company, but I now use them as a no notes example of doing this right in every presentation I give, every conversation about disability inclusion I have, and blog posts like this.

By making small changes such as prioritizing representation on your team, incorporating accessibility into your processes, and making sure your messaging is more inclusive of disabled people, they didn’t just gain my business—they turned me into a brand evangelist. Think of the buying power of the disabled community (ahem, nearly $8T just in the US).

You, too, can create a culture of inclusion at every level of your organization and ultimately create more effective products and campaigns that resonate with everyone—disabled or not!

By taking steps toward greater inclusivity today, your team will reap rewards for eons to come. 

{Editor's note: Misfit Media has a training for marketing teams & agencies to create more inclusive campaigns. In the training, they'll co-create a campaign with you. We highly recommend it! Learn more here.}