When it comes to advocacy, especially within the special needs community, we try to cover all the bases as a community, as there are so many areas of needed attention. We’ve got people on first base protecting legislature and rights for people with disabilities. We’ve got second base covered by family support. Third base is taken up by educational support and organizations advocating for job opportunities. Home plate’s covered by kindness and anti-bullying campaigns, and the outfield is filled with advocates who write, march, speak and live these messages every day (forgive me if my baseball analogies are off–I’m not that sporty). At the root of everything we advocate for is the simple and powerful message–the basic truth of all advocacy: Every person has value, and every person wants to be seen for who they are.
One of the most powerful outlets in spreading this message is advertising. We are bombarded by ads every day from billboards and magazine covers to store fronts, catalogues, commercials and social media. So much of my interpretation of beauty, success and what the world looks like–whether I like it or not–was subliminally shaped by the images I saw on T.V. and in print growing up. Sadly, what I saw was not representative of the reality of a diverse world rich with beauty in all its forms. Reconciling that gap has sometimes been painful, but imagine how much easier it would be to accept things about ourselves and our families if we saw them represented in the media. For people with disabilities, this goes even deeper. Not only does having regular inclusion of people with disabilities in advertising send a message to people with disabilities (“We see you! We know you make up the POPULATION OF CHINA in the data base of consumers.” Yes, you read that right.), but it sends a message to the world, including employers, that these are our highly capable neighbors and friends, colleagues, creators and consumers.
Many companies have committed to a broader representation of their consumers, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of the inclusive commercials and print ads companies like Target and Nordstrom have put into the world over the past few years, not as some charity outreach mission, but as responsible advertisers who are committed to representing the real world (not to mention, it’s highly beneficial for business–the disability community is a large and powerful group of consumers).
As a mom, this sort of representation is incredibly meaningful. I always point out kids with Down syndrome to Nella when I see them on the T.V. or in ads, “Nella! Look, she has Down syndrome just like you!” And you should see her smile that follows. As Amy Webb, author of This Little Miggy Stayed Home and mother to a daughter with limb difference, wrote to me last week, “You know one of the things that makes disability lonely and hard is the isolation a person can feel even within their own family. Our daughter knows we love her and would do anything for her, but as she’s pointed out to us many, many times…we don’t know how it feels to be her. We never will. And when you can’t even look at your family and see parts of yourself, you NEED to see it in the world around you. Somewhere. Anywhere. You need to know you are not alone.”
This sort of representation has an incredible domino effect as well though, creating communication for other families who might not have someone with a disability in their lives. It makes them visible. When they’re not showing up in our world, we can forget to talk about disabilities with our kids–out of sight, out of mind. I’ve received countless e-mails from parents telling me about beautiful conversations they’ve had with their kids regarding disability and inclusion, prompted simply by a child with Down syndrome in a Target ad.
All this to say, last week I was able to experience an entire week of what this all means with Infantino, a company that’s not only committed to inclusive advertising, but supported by employees who have turned this mission into a beautiful campaign that aims to create more community for families and recognize that parenting journeys often look very different from the ones we imagined we’d have. Our paths are unified by the numerous things we share and by the joy of loving a child.
This is the fourth Everybody Plays event Infantino has hosted, and this year I joined their celebration with Changing the Face of Beauty, an organization committed to equal representation of people with disabilities in advertising and media worldwide.
The heart of this event was inspired by my friend Colette who works for Infantino and, after giving birth to her son Dexter who has Down syndrome, wanted to use her job to promote acceptance and inclusion.
The result? This incredible week of bringing families together, educating staff on the heart behind the mission, inviting other brands to participate, hugging babies, trading stories and creating images with all different beautiful babies that will be used in advertising.
For Nicole Crumbaker, this event was especially meaningful. Her family won a trip from Infantino to fly out to San Diego for her son Charlie to be part of it. Charlie is a twin, and at 20 weeks in utero, he was diagnosed with the worst form of spina bifida. He had an open myelomeningocele from L4 on his spine down to S4. He also had hydrocephalus (brain swelling), Arnold Chiari II Malformation (part of his brain is wedged between his skull and spinal cord), Neurogenic bowel and bladder, and bilateral clubfoot. Doctors told her he would never move his legs and have learning disabilities.
“My first reaction was why me,” Nicole remembers. “I didn’t understand what I did in my life to make God so angry with me. I thought I was being punished. My husband and I tried for years to get pregnant and after two failed IUIs, we had IVF. I thought everything was perfect. I did every single thing by the book. All I wanted was for him to be normal. I was scared I wouldn’t be the best mommy for him. I was jealous of my brother and sisters kids, who are all perfect. There wasn’t a day that went by my husband and I didn’t cry.”
And this is Charlie today:
“I’ve learned that life can be tough sometimes,” his mama says. “There are still times I get jealous and sad. It’s hard seeing his brother hit certain milestones and him be a little behind, but things could always be worse. He might not be able to keep up with his brother physically, but his mental game is strong. Charlie is very intelligent. I try not to set limits for him and let him guide me, instead of me guiding him.
The opportunity from Everybody Plays is not only a great opportunity for Charlie, but also for us parents. If we open up to one another, we can learn so much about each other. I feel like we are all trying to accomplish the same goal, and that’s raising our kids the best way we can, in the time we are given with them.”
So what can YOU do to be a part of this mission?
- Ask for it.
Look around you. Examine your community, your schools, your work place, your favorite places to shop. Do you see inclusion? If not, ask for it. “Do we employ people with special needs?” “Where are the students with disabilities? I’d like my child to have opportunities to learn with them.” “Why do all your models look the same?” Inquire. Request. Be the squeaky wheel.
- Acknowledge it.
When you see inclusion in action, acknowledge it. Thank companies for real world representation. Write to your favorite stores and acknowledge their efforts. Support companies who are modeling it. Whenever I eat at a place that employs people with special needs, I ask to speak with the manager and I tell her how much I appreciate their diverse workplace, both as a mom of a child with Down syndrome and as a consumer.
- Be it.
We are all advertisers, especially with this new influence of social media. It used to be that no one could compete with the voice of advertisers, but that’s not so any more. We hold new influential powers, making change with our platforms, our captions, our images, our collective voice. We are the new advertisers. We are walking billboards for something, whether we like it or not. I like to challenge young people to look at their social media feeds. If what you are posting represents what you stand for, what would that say?
- Ask for it.
I can’t end this without mentioning that I finally saw the Mr. Roger’s documentary in the theater this past weekend. It moved me beyond words, and tears trickled down my cheeks through the entire movie. The way this man used his talents and his voice to make children feel valued–to know their worth–is so incredibly inspiring. After spending a week sharing this mission with Infantino and returning to my own family, I held back audible sobs when I watched the part of the movie where Mr. Rogers sings “It’s You I Like–the things inside you, not the things that hide you…” to the boy in a wheelchair (fast forward to 4:20 in this clip). It is the most powerful message we can be spreading today. As Mr. Rogers said in a speech at his induction to the Television Hall of Fame that I think completely applies to our roles in advertising and social media as well (that’s all of us), “I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn’t matter what our particular job; we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night. It is the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that–to show and tell what the good in life is all about. But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own…and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.”
I am so proud to support Infantino, Changing the Face of Beauty and the companies who are stepping forward to own their part in this mission. And for every beautiful family out there whose journey took them a different way than expected…you are not alone.
Now get thee to a theater to see Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.