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Putting kids with special needs in ads isn’t just about making moms feel good

My daughter owns a dress that’s three sizes too big for her right now because a little girl with Down syndrome modeled it online. Naturally I bought it. Oh, and I also snagged the matching dress for a doll we don’t own yet.

Why the knee-jerk reaction to whip out my credit card? My son has Down syndrome, and seeing diversity in advertising fills my heart as much as it empties my wallet.

But while companies that practice diversity in advertising may be driven by sales, the social benefits are life-changing.

My child needs to see himself reflected in the world, and the world needs to see my son and people who share his differences reflected in the barrage of images hitting us daily.

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For better or worse, these images shape our perspective. How many people do you know with Down syndrome? Do you feel uncomfortable when someone in a wheelchair approaches you? What about someone wearing glasses?


We’re so used to seeing people in glasses, we no longer notice their glasses — which means we interact with the person, not the visual difference. Wouldn’t it be amazing to apply this filter to any difference?

The Center for Disease Control reports an estimated one in six, or about 15 percent, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disabilities. Imagine if the millions of images that bombard our kids included one child with a disability for every five without?

My son, Charlie, was born with Down syndrome and will always have Down syndrome. My daughter, Emma, was born 17.5 months later and, as a result, will always know and love someone with Down syndrome. Charlie is 5; Emma is 4.

Does Charlie care if people with Down syndrome are included in movies, television, ad campaigns and billboards? Not right now.

Does Emma care if her classroom doesn’t include a child with Down syndrome? Not right now.

But as they grow and begin to look beyond the next episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or the next My Little Pony commercial, they will begin to notice if the images thrust before them relate to their lives or present an aspirational version of “normal.” But what is normal, anyway? The world doesn’t fit that mold, and it’s time to demand representation.

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But I want more.

In the movie The Break-Up, Jennifer Aniston’s character fumes because she has to ask her boyfriend, played by Vince Vaughn, to do any specific chore, like the dishes, before he actually will get up off the couch and help. But it isn’t just about doing the dishes. “I want you to want to do the dishes!” she says in exasperation. Does helping count if it’s not motivated by a desire to help?

I want companies to understand why diversity in advertising benefits their bottom line but also benefits their culture as a company. I want representation without glorification. I want to see people like my children included meaningfully, not gratuitously.

Changing the Face of Beauty is a nonprofit corporation committed to equal representation of people with disabilities in advertising and media globally. It works with companies to help them understand the financial and social benefits of inclusive imagery while also ensuring experts on inclusion in advertising are represented at all major marketing conferences. But what I love most about this corporation’s effort isn’t its success in persuading hundreds of major companies to include people with disabilities in their imagery, but rather the marketing and educational curriculum and programming it provides to both high school and college level students. That’s where we must start the education that inclusion matters.

The truth is, kids act with much more sincerity than we credit them with having — and when we underestimate their motivations, we force our own bias upon them. When a high school recognizes a girl with Down syndrome as prom queen, media cover the story because most adults cannot fathom such an act being motivated without a thought to charity and the rest of us post the resulting newspaper articles all over each other’s Facebook pages. We are silently (or not so silently) proclaiming, “Oh, how cute! Look at how sweet those kids are, to let someone less than the rest of us enjoy a glimpse into what it’s like to really be popular!”

But guess what? A girl with Down syndrome can be popular! She can have genuine friends and genuine support.

Inspiration porn exists to make people feel better about themselves but the resulting ableism —discrimination in favor of people with disabilities — does my son no favors. As a mom, there was a time when I really wanted to watch all those videos of kids with Down syndrome being put in the basketball game for the last 30 seconds while everyone cheered. Now I realize it’s critical their inclusion happens from the very beginning, whether the team is winning or losing.

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Because the best kind of winning will happen when people with disabilities are included in every aspect of life without fanfare. Inclusion in advertising — much like life — cannot exist to make a company’s social responsibility report look better. Inclusion must happen to make our world better.

Before you go, check out our slideshowbelow:

Offensive kids' t-shirts
Image: SheKnows

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