Do your stock photo libraries have realistic scenes including people with disabilities?

Or are they #Diversish? Hint: It’s not just about the subject in the photo, it’s also about how the photos are staged

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TommyHilfiger.com website screen shot showing adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. Young man with missing arm, African American woman in electric wheelchair, young boy in wheelchair with girl with Down’s Syndrome standing next to him arm in arm. All wearing Tommy Adaptive clothing

If at least 10 % of your photos with people in them don’t have disabilities represented, you are clearly #Diversish. Lacking stock photos that include people with disabilities subconsciously cements a #Diversish attitude. A company talks a good game about disability, inclusion, and valuing all levels of ability, but demonstrates no commitment. When choosing photos that can be used with promotional materials about their product, they really don’t want their product or brand associated with disabilities.

Also, ignoring the marketing power of people with disabilities can hurt your bottom line. People with disabilities in the US alone have half a trillion dollars in disposable income. Which explains why fashion companies may be the first to come on board with marketing campaigns about and for people with disabilities. And they are doing it in a way that tells people with disabilities they are just like everyone else: taking an *existing* clothing line and making them work for people with disabilities, not creating a different line for them.

To have a successful campaign that includes disabilities, follow these guidelines to make your stock photo library more diverse and less dismissive of disabilities.

People with disabilities can tell when you have done this, just like musicians can tell based on hand placement and body movement when a non-musician has been used in a movie and the music dubbed. It’s the tubing on the hearing aid that is way too long, or the hands in a supposed ASL shot that are nowhere near correct. It’s the wheelchair that is not even close to the right size, or the user’s placement of their legs.

The only thing more irritating than not seeing any photos at all of people with visible disabilities, is seeing photos with people who obviously don’t have a disability that are staged to look like they have a disability. In the age of Internet there is no excuse for this.

This is the disabled equivalent of blackface. Pretty much any use of blackface these days can get you fired, but no one thinks twice about putting someone with no disabilities in a wheelchair.

There are agencies dedicated to models with disabilities. There is Craigslist and Facebook groups if your budget doesn’t allow for an agency. People with disabilities can always be found, but you have to care enough to find them.

If I see one more shot of a little old white haired lady in an over-sized wheelchair getting help in a medical setting by a pretty young health care worker, or a photo of a child with a disability playing with their therapist, I am not going to be responsible for whatever nearby object I damage. This furthers the ridiculous and old-fashioned stereotype of the medical model of disability — that a disability exists when there is something wrong with a person that needs to be fixed by medical care providers.

People with disabilities go shopping, work in business settings, drive cars or use pubic transportation, and go to movies, concerts, and restaurants pretty much just like everyone else (sometimes with adaptations). Seeing a person with a disability out with friends for a meal is way more meaningful to me than yet another photo based in a medical setting. It resonates with my life and how I see myself.

Another thing I am really tired of in stock photos is inspiration porn. The term “inspiration porn” was coined by the late Stella Young as part of her TED Talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” Stella was adamant that news stories about people with disabilities doing things that would not make news if the person didn’t have a disability, did nothing but objectify people with disabilities for the purposes of making people without disabilities think “look, if they can do it, so can we.” Simultaneously, these types of headlines make other people with disabilities feel worse about themselves and result in lower their self-esteem. Photos of people with mobility devices crossing finish lines, some type of victory pose, or standing next to their wheelchairs are all different types of inspiration porn. Delete these photos from your database, and ban them in your photography standards.

I am not just a person who uses a wheelchair. I am a Caucasian, middle-aged mother who uses a wheelchair. My daughter is an Asian woman with hearing aids. People with disabilities, just like people in general, come in all colors, genders, shapes, and sizes. Make sure those dimensions are adequately represented in your photos of people with disabilities as well.

Mental health disabilities, autism, ADHD, fine motor skill issues, speech disorders and dyslexia (just to name a few) can be difficult to convey visually. Rather than ignoring these invisible disabilities, reference the hidden disabilities affecting the models in your alt-text or photo caption.

When you have a visible disability, chances are you have spent a large chunk of your life avoiding having photos taken .Photographers with disabilities, especially visible ones “get it”. They belong to the club that no one really wants to join. They will ask the participants what they want people to understand or think of in the shoot and make them feel comfortable.

Conclusion

You don’t need to be Tommy Hilfiger or Microsoft and start an entire business centered around disabilities to include people with disabilities in your stock photos.

  • Step One: Admit that you have a gap that you need to close; that your existing photos are not as diverse as they could be.
  • Step Two: Make sure that a variety of disabilities are part of your call sheet for your next photo shoot.
  • Step Three: Stage your disability photo shoot in a way that is respectful and does not further stereotypes. Finding a photographer with a disability like this one makes this step easier.
  • Final Step: Make sure that all stockphotos users are made aware of the updates.

Don’t forget to give your newly diverse photos alt-text using People First language. Leave #Diversish and head towards actually Diverse !!!!

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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