Disability in advertising: the 6 most disruptive ads

Depictions of disability in advertising are rare. So rare, in fact, that only 4% of people represented in advertising campaigns are disabled.

It’s a staggering figure, given that 20% of the population is disabled.

Historically, ads that have featured disability have fallen into 2 problematic camps: ‘inspiration porn’ on the one hand (cue dramatic music and a slow-pan on a decorated war veteran in a wheelchair). And ‘pity porn’ on the other (think: an ill, emaciated child sits in the dirt, flies buzzing round their eyes).

But clearly, neither of those tropes accurately represent the majority of disabled people…

So how do we fix this?

Well, there are reasons to be hopeful. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people in media, advertising and marketing would, in theory, like to be more inclusive. It’s not that they don’t want to better include disabled people—it’s just that the prospect feels daunting! It fills them with a million concerning questions, like:

  • “How can I get my audience to care about disability when—to their minds— it doesn’t concern them?”
  • “How do I get my viewer to root for a group of people who are constantly marginalised without turning those people into objects of pity?”
  • “How do I not say the wrong thing?”
  • “Is there a right thing to say?”
  • “Will I have to consult actual disabled people? But, how will I know how to talk to them?”
  • “How can one ad undo centuries of oppression?”
  • “AhhHHHh!!!”

It’s easy to see why advertising execs might scratch their heads, foresee an enormous Twitter outrage and slump back into their chair: “Yeah, can’t we just find… an easier minority?”

But there is hope yet! A small handful of ads have got it right. Here are 6 disruptive disability ads which challenge decades of misrepresentation, provide authentic portrayals of actual disabled people and, when they’re especially good, spark real-life debate and conversation.

Some are utterly brilliant; some could probably be improved. But all 6 ads show that representing disability in advertising can be done. These ads not only serve their purpose (of bringing attention to a cause, a product, an event), but shatter stigma along the way. This is where advertising meets activism.

WeThe15 | Campaign Film

Let’s begin with this wonderful ad from #WeThe15. Launched in August 2021 during the 2020 Paralympics, this film set in motion #WeThe15, a global human rights campaign that seeks to end disability discrimination.

Their aim is no small one: “to transform the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities who represent 15% of the global population.”

In the past, ads released around the Paralympics usually fell into the category of “inspiration porn”: they inadvertently perpetuated the idea that a small minority of disabled people can “overcome” their disability through exceptional athletic prowess.

There are, of course, a small minority of disabled people who are exceptional athletes — and the Paralympics is always an incredible opportunity to celebrate disabled achievement!

But disabled athletes are, of course, not the only disabled people — and all disabled people, regardless of physical ability, should be worthy of our attention and of inclusion in our advertising.

So the beauty of the #WeThe15 campaign is that it refuses to ‘“other” disability: it insists that disabled people are neither to be admired or to be pitied. Occasionally, a small handful of us might do something extraordinary. But most of the time, most of us are pretty boring and ordinary.

Super. Human. | Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Trailer | Channel 4


This Channel 4 ad for the 2020 Paralympics is a brilliant example of a disability ad done right. It’s a crowd-pleaser that would successfully hold anyone’s attention, but it also shakes up the audience with its playful portrayal of disabled athletes being, not superheroes, but rather… normal humans.

We see them train hard, certainly, but we also see them groan at their alarm going off, have breakfast, miss out on their kid’s birthday because they’re too busy training — and not get into a greasy spoon because there’s another bloody ramp at the door.

It’s clear that Channel 4 has taken on board the criticism they received from the disabled community during the 2012 Paralympics; their “Meet the Superhumans” campaign trailer having fallen too comfortably into the category of “inspiration porn”.

So with this campaign Channel 4 obviously listened to their critics, involved more disabled people in the making of the campaign, showed disabled athletes being ordinary as well as extraordinary, and then deliberately separated the words “Super” and “Human” with a full stop. I love how the film rolls to a punchy climax with the cheeky inter-title: “There’s got to be something wrong you.”

But you might disagree with me and think the ad’s tagline is offensive: like anything that lives and breathes, it certainly seems to have garnered some mixed reactions on Twitter.

So if you think I’m wrong, by all means: call me out!

It’s Rude Not to Stare | Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Poster | Channel 4

Another arresting ad from Channel 4. This one popped up all over London a few weeks before the 2020 Paralympics Opening Ceremony. Plastered across bus stops and billboards, these yellow, green and purple ads were hard to miss.

It’s an ad that proves that when the copy’s bold enough, there’s no need for fancy art direction: the words do all the talking. (Although I do say this as a copywriter, so may be a bit biased).

I think we can feel fairly confident here that Channel 4 have done their homework and consulted with (actual!) disabled people: they’ve taken a phrase that a lot of disabled people have overheard blushing parents whisper to their children — and they’ve spun it on its head. If you want to stare, the Paralympians say, feel free: We’ll give you something to bloody look at!

Some disabled people applauded the ad, and others really didn’t like it. Staring, slurs, being shouted at and hate crimes are still painfully familiar for a lot of visibly disabled people. For some, the ad felt a little bit too close to the bone.

It’s tricky, and there is perhaps no right answer here — but it’s a good reminder that we should always be aware of the fine line between showing reality at it is, warts and all, and stepping on real people’s trauma.

Now You Know | APF France Handicap

This ad from APF France Handicap went to press in June 2020, a couple of months after the start of the pandemic and by the time the initial novelty of lockdown had dissolved for most of us into a mind-numbing boredom. In other words, it was the perfect time for APF France Handicap to strike with this arresting ad.

The phrasing of the copy is slightly clunky (and some of the English feels slightly mistranslated), but I still think it does its job. It disrupts us from daily life and for a moment takes us out of ourselves, tilting our perspective and reminding us that our experience is not everyone’s.

I think its power might be in the fact it’s just so matter-of-fact. It’s not trying to rouse any exaggerated emotion from us: it’s just straight-talking. The man in the photo doesn’t look angry, or even particularly sad; and he’s certainly not asking to be pitied. He looks almost content, really, with a book open on his lap. Yep, he says, ableism is everywhere. What else is new?

Independence | Tommy Adaptive | TOMMY HILFIGER


Late in 2018, Tommy Hilfiger launched Tommy Adaptive, their first adaptive clothing line. There aren’t many big fashion brands with an adaptive clothing line, and even fewer fashion ads featuring canes, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. It’s also worthy of note that the brand emphasises that Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive takes a “with not for” approach to inclusive design: the ad ends with the rolling title “Designed by and for people with disabilities.”

Crucially, both cast and crew were disabled — which is a total anomaly in advertising! The ad was directed by James Rath, who is a blind filmmaker, and it features disabled people of all ages sharing their relationship with their bodies and disabilities, all in their own words. These are disabled stories which don’t feel like they’ve been interfered with by the people at the top. I also love the fact that audio description has been embedded as part of the experience, for everyone — not just for those who need it.

It might not be the most groundbreaking ad I’ve ever seen, but maybe that’s exactly why it’s important: if advertising one day becomes truly inclusive, then we should be seeing disabled people every day in all sorts of ads; good, bad and slightly unmemorable.

Handicohésion | Electricité de France

Last but certainly not least: my favourite. This 2004 French TV ad from EDF puts the social model of disability into action. By flipping society on its head and showing us a world in which non-disabled people are the minority—where non-disabled people constantly come up against environmental barriers—the ad makes it loud and clear: it’s not disabled people’s bodies that are the problem, but the built environment.

The issue isn’t that Deaf people can’t hear: it’s that the rest of us don’t know how to sign. The problem isn’t that wheelchair users aren’t walking: it’s that the world wasn’t built for them or at the right height.

This, for me, is an absolutely brilliant ad: it’s simple, punchy and it makes us see the world anew.

Originally published on

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