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djbaxter

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Disability representation in media

by Selma Blair, Think with Google
August 8, 2022

The disability community continues to be underrepresented and undervalued in the entertainment industry. Here, actor, author, and advocate Selma Blair explains why it’s time for media to shift toward a world where everyone sees themselves represented and how to build belonging into media. A version of this article first appeared in Variety on July 19, 2022.

Storytelling is powerful. Stories can ultimately shape your identity and how the world sees you.

Throughout my life, my story has been told by other people: Manic depressive. Drunk. Mean.

In my memoir, “Mean Baby,” I wrote about never feeling a sense of belonging. Throughout my life, I often felt disconnected from my body, out of control, as if I didn’t belong in my own skin. I learned not to show or talk about pain because I didn’t want it to define me, nor did I understand what my pain meant.

In 2018, I was finally able to tell other people how I identified myself: disabled. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and learned it had been attacking my central nervous system for years. Growing up, I didn’t have anyone in the entertainment industry to look up to who had a disability or was open about their diagnosis, and I didn’t see my experiences reflected in the stories being told on screen. Even though it was difficult learning I had MS, at least it had a name now. After being confused about who I was for so long, I finally understood myself — and I belonged to a community. In a way, it was also freeing.

It’s time we shift the story about how disabled people are represented.

I started thinking more about the power of storytelling and why representation in media matters. If I had seen and heard from people who were like me, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone. Perhaps if I’d had more diverse representation to look up to, I would have learned about my own diagnosis earlier on (I was shocked when I learned one of my idols, Joan Didion, also had MS).

Now I truly feel comfortable embracing all parts of my identity — including my disability — and I’ve realized it’s time we shift the story about how disabled people are represented. It’s one of the reasons I started looking at the work Google has been doing to build inclusive practices into its marketing. United by shared values and a vision that authentically represents disabled people’s stories, I want to help the rest of the creative industry use Google’s learnings to build a world where everyone belongs.

Our stories, our voices​

Since my diagnosis, I’ve become close friends with Andraéa LaVant, a leading voice in the disability community and founder of LaVant Consulting, a disability-focused strategy and communications firm. I’ve learned so much from her and her team and the work they’ve been doing with brands, including how they’ve supported Google to bring disability into its advertising and internal programs. All In, Google’s inclusive marketing toolkit, draws on years of internal insights and collaborations to build intentionality into every step of its advertising process.

In partnership with LaVant Consulting and many other leading organizations, Google launched an accessible marketing playbook on All In as a practical guide for every marketing effort. This is such a powerful resource for so many reasons, but in large part because it’s informed by the lived experiences of people with disabilities.
This approach deeply reflects a core principle in the disability community: Nothing about us without us. Who better to build a strong sense of belonging for disabled people than we who belong to the community?

Intersectional representation​

While I want to use my voice to support the disability community, I also strongly believe that I can’t be the only spokesperson for everyone with a disability. Our experience is ours alone. That’s why it’s important to pull in as many people and experts from the community as possible.

Our experience is ours alone. That’s why it’s important to pull in as many people and experts from the disability community as possible.

In addition to LaVant Consulting, Google has worked with Disability:IN, GLAAD, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Ad Council, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (The 4A’s), the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, Cannes Lions, and many other expert organizations across the world to create All In and contribute to Google’s continued inclusivity practice.

This level of collaboration creates space for the more than 1 billion disabled people around the world. It also acknowledges that each person has a unique background and set of circumstances. My disability is just one identity, and my experience is just that — one person’s experience. Disability will touch everyone at some point in their life, whether permanent, temporary, visible, invisible, or age related. Partnering with diverse experts and perspectives also emphasizes the opportunity to consider people’s whole identities, including gender, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and education.

Tear down limitations to build belonging​

This matters beyond advertising, All In’s original focus. There is a movement happening, and the entertainment industry needs to be a part of this cultural shift. Everyone benefits from accessibility, because it opens up work to a wider, more diverse audience.

I’ve already learned a lot through the accessible marketing playbook on All In; it would have been a helpful resource while I was writing “Mean Baby.” For example, throughout my memoir I described people as “wheelchair-bound” or “in a wheelchair.” The playbook suggests that a more inclusive description would be “wheelchair user” or “someone who uses a wheelchair.” This is a great example of something that may seem small, yet is so impactful.

Everyone deserves to have their story represented authentically and feel a sense of belonging.

All In also taught me that disability inclusion is a mindset, not a box to check. It requires a sustained commitment, a constantly evolving work process, and ongoing learning for each and every one of us. This is important for us to remember if we’re to make meaningful change.

In “Mean Baby,” I write that the thing about limitations is that they aren’t really about you at all. They’re often constructed by others, and when they’re removed, you realize that all this time you’ve been capable of soaring.

The entertainment industry has the ability to do so much to help tear down these limitations. Committing to accessibility breaks down barriers, enabling creatives to be better in their work. It’s time for the wider creative media industry to commit to inclusion and elevate the significance of this growing cultural shift. Everyone deserves to have their story represented authentically and feel a sense of belonging.

Whether you’re a producer, creator, marketer, or actor, All In is for you. These are steps anybody can take today. Commit to helping change the creative industry to be more inclusive by learning how on Google.com/All-In.
 

Gin

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I had to explain and teach my sons that problems usually arise because others will 'interfere' or some other action to 'sabotage' their activity. This is especially true for disabled. They may be physically limited but doesn't mean they're 'mentally challenged' as some people will do. As media had helped build 'stereotype' of Indigenous peoples, so they do with our disabled.
 
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