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Daily CSR

Daily CSR
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Disability-Inclusive Representation: The Rise of Social Media Creators and the Need for Traditional Media to Keep Pace


The image is a classic representation of fashion, featuring two attractive models, a man and a woman, who seem ready for a yacht trip, gazing into the camera with an almost smoldering look. They’re marketing clothes, but they’re also promoting a more diverse media representation.

Take a closer look. Almost unnoticed to the woman’s left, a cane rests against her chair. The man, on the other hand, is dressed in relaxed-fit shorts that reveal two prosthetic legs.

This is the primary image for the Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Collection’s homepage. It’s part of a groundbreaking campaign that provides “inclusive style for all,” focusing on fashion for individuals with disabilities.

The campaign has been a tremendous success, and it’s not the only one. There’s a significant demand for disability-inclusive content, and social media pioneers are stepping in to fill the void left by Hollywood.

Nielsen InfluenceScope recently analyzed branded Instagram posts from May 2021 to May 2023, evaluating the performance of 24 creators with disabilities to determine their effectiveness and return on investment (ROI) compared to posts from creators without disabilities.

Overall, posts from creators with disabilities performed 21.4 percent better in average media value than posts from creators without disabilities and generated 20.5 percent more interactions.

Nielsen’s full analysis is available online.

To gain a deeper understanding of why posts from creators with disabilities resonated so powerfully with audiences, Spotlight asked Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s Senior Vice President, Diverse Consumer Insights & Initiatives, DE&I Practice.

At Nielsen, de Armas is responsible for the research and development of inclusive thought leadership and business initiatives that support diverse suppliers, content creators, and brands.

Here is our online conversation, with some responses edited for clarity and brevity.

The decrease in disability-inclusive content in TV shows and movies over the years is both unfortunate and puzzling. However, social media has stepped in to fill this gap, offering an alternative platform for representation. Brands can take advantage of this space, aligning themselves with a community and a cause that resonates with millions around the world. The decline in disability-inclusive content in TV shows and movies can be attributed to a variety of factors, but it primarily highlights the need for a deliberate, industry-wide commitment to inclusion.

The high rate of return on social media posts by creators with disabilities, as assessed by Nielsen InfluenceScope, underscores their immense potential for brands. The high ROI indicates that audiences appreciate and engage with authentic and inclusive content, providing brands with an opportunity to expand their reach and deepen their connections. Their content resonates because it is genuine, unique, and relatable.

The success of disability-inclusive content on social media should serve as a signal for traditional media. It’s a clear market demand that needs to be met. For brands, featuring their creative disability-representative content in traditional media would provide additional avenues to demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity. However, in the absence of that, brands are successfully turning to social media.

We understand that this change won’t happen overnight. It requires a fundamental shift in understanding and valuing the importance of inclusive representation.

Posts in the fashion industry generated the highest media value. One of the big winners is Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive collection, where the brand focused on “designing for the needs of all people.” This success story is a great example of what can be achieved when inclusivity is at the heart of design and marketing. Other brands have followed suit, such as Aerie, which has included models with disabilities, and Asos, which collaborated with paralympic athletes. Microsoft also has some new inclusive design work forthcoming.

By collaborating with influencers with disabilities, brands can reach a wider audience, and most importantly, they can demonstrate the positive impact of designing with accessibility in mind.

The Tommy Hilfiger campaign also utilized influencers – including three with disabilities: Jillian Mercado, Tiffany Yu, and Lauren Spenser. These disability-inclusive influencers are changing the conversation by challenging norms, breaking barriers, and emphasizing the importance of inclusivity. Their work contributes to reshaping public perceptions about disability, while also providing brands with authentic and effective ways to engage their audiences.

While some creators with disabilities are making strides in traditional media, the transition is slow and not as widespread as it should be.

Creators such as Zach Anner, a comedian, actor, and writer with cerebral palsy who gained fame through YouTube, had a show on OWN called “Rollin’ With Zach.” Chelsie Hill, a paraplegic dancer and disability rights advocate known for her role in the Sundance Channel reality show “Push Girls,” is also the founder of the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team that collaborates with many brands.

Molly Burke, a motivational speaker and YouTuber who is blind, has made numerous media appearances to raise awareness about visual impairments. James Rath, a legally blind filmmaker who gained recognition through his YouTube videos discussing life with visual impairment, has collaborated with Apple on content relating to accessibility.

Ali Stroker, a Tony Award-winning actress who uses a wheelchair due to a car accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down, first gained attention when she competed on “The Glee Project,” a reality TV show, and has been active on social media.

Lolo Spencer, an actress, model, and disability lifestyle influencer known for her YouTube channel “Sitting Pretty,” where she shares experiences about living with a disability, starred in the independent film “Give Me Liberty.”

Electronics is a universal need and interest that transcends demographic boundaries. It’s an industry where accessibility and inclusive design can significantly impact the user experience. Our data suggests that content highlighting these features connects on a personal level with audiences. Brands that prioritize accessibility in their products and marketing are likely to attract a dedicated customer base.

Brands in industries such as beauty, fitness, and lifestyle have also seen a positive impact from posts by disabled creators.

Based on our observations, there seems to be a lack of consistent commitment to disability representation in TV and movies. The underlying reasons may vary across the industry but it is possible they are due to perceived risks, lack of understanding, or absence of intentional strategies for inclusion. Brands can advocate for more inclusive representation in TV and position themselves as leaders in the drive towards more inclusivity.
The most significant concern regarding disability-inclusive representation is its scarcity, coupled with the slow pace of progress and lack of urgency. Inclusion is not a passing trend, but a necessity that needs to be understood and valued. Brands have the opportunity to advocate for inclusive content and invest their advertising dollars accordingly.

On a hopeful note, the rising success of creators with disabilities on social media is encouraging. This trend indicates that audiences are eager for more inclusive narratives, offering brands an excellent opportunity to expand and establish a positive image by championing inclusivity. The success of creators with disabilities serves as a strong signal for traditional media to keep pace.