Representing disabled people in stock imagery with authenticity and respect

Representing disabled people in stock imagery with authenticity and respect

While there’s been a lot of progress in recent years and a wider range of abilities, body types, and more dimensions of diversity have started showing up in mainstream visual media, there’s still lots of room to grow.

Credit: Adobe Stock/Cavan Images

More than 1 billion people have some form of disability. That’s 15% of the global population, which makes disabled people the largest minority group in the world. In the United States, 1 in 4 people have a disability. Physical and mental disabilities are incredibly common.

Yet, you would never know it from what you see in typical advertising campaigns and entertainment media. Fewer than 3% of characters on North American television have disabilities, and of these characters, 95% are played by non-disabled actors.

The gulf between the daily lives of disabled people and their presence (or absence) in visual media is huge. That lack has real consequences for many. One result of this insufficient representation is a negative perception or stigmatization of disabled people by non-disabled people. Another is a more benign but still harmful lack of understanding, acknowledgement, or inclusion.

Consumers today are increasingly expecting and demanding realistic representations of the world, including representations of relatable people who look like them—and that necessarily includes individuals with all types of disabilities. While there’s been a lot of progress in recent years and a wider range of abilities, body types, and more dimensions of diversity have started showing up in mainstream visual media, there are also many examples of visuals that miss the mark. Discerning disabled viewers and allies are usually quick to notice inauthentic depictions that may then call into question the genuineness of an entire brand campaign.

As a stock photographer or video producer, you may already agree that it’s crucial to create stock content including representations of disabled people. However, good intentions are not enough to guarantee successful content.

Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind when representing physically disabled people in your stock imagery.

Credits (left to right): Adobe Stock/Romaset, Adobe Stock/Circus Vision

Look beyond “inspirational” tropes.

If you aren’t disabled yourself or haven’t spent significant time with folks who are, you may be tempted to picture certain media stereotypes. As creatives, it’s our job to push past visual cliches, and delve deeper into the imagined lives of our subjects to come up with compelling narratives.

Disability inclusion expert Andraéa LaVant, President and Chief Inclusion Specialist at LaVant Consulting, points out in an exclusive interview with Adobe Stock that harmful or insulting stereotypes abound when it comes to depicting disabled people. One of these is the “inspirational story” trope, where a disabled person is framed as “overcoming” their disability.

While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating someone conquering obstacles, many disabled people find this narrative offensive, in that it depicts a central part of their lives as a negative thing to “overcome” as opposed to just being part of who they are.

Another stereotype is the “superhero” trope. Characters like Professor X may help normalize the use of wheelchairs, but we can also do that without fantasy superpowers. When these types of portrayals are the only ones available, says LaVant, “that limits our understanding and vision of real disabled lives.”

Images that are serious in mood or inspirational in tone can be authentic and can work very well as stock images. However, there are so many more poses, scenes, and moods to explore. A stock image of a chiseled Paralympian winning a race might be glorious; a stock image of a disabled person with a less athletic physique visiting a farmer’s market with a friend could be even more commercially successful, and all the more so for being realistic and unique.

Credits (left to right): Adobe Stock/Birouh, Adobe Stock/Erin Brant/Stocksy, Adobe Stock/Trevor Adeline/Caia Image.

Disabled people don’t always need “help.”

Visual stereotypes may also include depictions of a physically disabled person being attended in a medical setting, or “needing help” from a non-disabled person.

Reinforcing the perception that disabled people always need help can have lasting harmful impacts, making it harder for people with disabilities to receive fair consideration in job interviews, accommodations at work, and other opportunities. Mentally and emotionally speaking, these perceptions of helplessness can have detrimental impacts on self-esteem and quality of life.

Depictions of disabled people receiving help from non-disabled caregivers can absolutely be sensitive, accurate, and commercially successful as stock imagery—however, they shouldn’t be the only images of disabled people available in the media landscape. If you’re planning a production involving a disabled model, consider a wider range of regular situations and interactions with others, beyond medical or caregiving scenarios.

Underscoring LaVant’s call for imagery that communicates a vision of “real disabled lives” is the need for lifestyle stock content that includes all types of people with disabilities, in every situation: at school, at work, and at home, with their families, friends, and coworkers.

“What ‘authentic representation’ means,” says LaVant, “is depicting disabled people fully and wholly as human beings with rich, complicated, and valuable lives.”

Credits (clockwise from top left): Adobe Stock/Erin Drago Photography/Stocksy, Adobe Stock/Westend61, Adobe Stock/WavebreakMediaMicro, Adobe Stock/Halfpoint.

Involve subject matter experts in your productions.

Often the best advice for artists is to write, shoot, or draw what you know best. If you or a close family member have a physical disability, chances are, you’ll have a deeply-informed view of what it’s like to live with that disability. If you’re a stock creator, you’re probably well aware that your own daily life provides endless, rich inspiration for stock imagery.

If, however, you are a non-disabled person and you’re interested in creating more diverse, inclusive imagery that includes depictions of disabled people and their daily lives, consider carefully how you will ensure your productions are accurate and respectful.

When telling someone’s story, it’s often best to let them take the lead. One way you can do that is by including disabled co-creators, consultants, editors, and models in your productions from the ground up. Invite those people into your brainstorming and planning process, ask questions, and listen to the answers.

For smaller productions, where you may just be working with a model, take the time to connect with them and create the scenes together. Your collaborators may be able to help steer you away from concepts or setups that seem innocuous to you, but carry a condescending or offensive connotation to a disabled person. Similarly, common production missteps like including an uncommon type of wheelchair or out of date prosthetic, or having a non-disabled model pretend to be disabled for a shoot, are usually easy for a disabled person to spot.

Not everyone is equally qualified to tell every story. There may be some stories that you simply aren’t able to tell—and that’s okay.

Credit: AdobeStock/Seventyfour.

Call for content: Disabled people in daily life.

There’s a lack of high quality, contemporary, accurate images of people with disabilities available in stock and in advertising today. Customers are actively seeking images, illustrations, and video clips that portray real people in real-world settings and moments that depict disabilities as a regular part of life. Adobe Stock is always looking for more of these submissions from Contributors. See our full creative brief: All Abilities.

Additionally, the Adobe Stock Artist Development Fund offers commission opportunities for self representing creators from underrepresented groups, including disabled artists. Applications are open for 2022 commissions. Visit the Adobe Stock Artist Development Fund page for more information about getting funded and to apply.

For more inspiration, visit our curated galleries. Then, share your best new work with Adobe Stock.

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