Better Representation for the French with Disabilities

Trends / Realness
Sandra Michalska
Dec 27, 2022
The visibility of people with disabilities in the French media landscape is full of paradoxes. On one hand, Théo Curin has multiple projects on French television1 while creating his first co‑branded collection with Lacoste2; on the other, an ARCOM3 report points to the alarming under‑representation of this community. Our research on visuals used by French brands in the last 12 months tells us that less than 1% of them show a person with a disability. If this statistic is any indication, is that le validisme (French for ableism) remains a norm. According to this year’s report from CNCDH4, Validisme is strongly anchored in society’s views on disability, with 64% of French people believing that a disability is an obstacle to happiness and fulfilling life. This miserabilist vision of disability is already denounced by activists on social media5, but brands have the power to reinforce their voice through inclusive, and meaningful visual depictions.
At the same time, there is no reason for multiplying representations if they are to relay already widespread and ableist prejudices. Both miserabilism and representing a disabled person as a “hero” contribute to conveying a distorted version of reality – seen only from an able‑bodied person’s perspective, where – at least visually – disability equals a wheelchair. Our research on visuals used by French brands for their storytelling confirms this, with physical disability seen four times more than hearing loss, 10 times more than invisible disabilities and 10 times more than developmental or intellectual disability. The rest of the visuals focus on the aging process and decreased mobility related to age.

Although the visibility of people with disabilities in visuals used by French brands for their storytelling is still low, our research indicates some positive trends. We have seen that work inclusion has grown by 73% over the last five years, both at the workplace and home office, and people with disabilities can be seen as colleagues and managers, alone and in groups. However, with the low visibility overall, representing people with disabilities still feels like a special occasion, reminiscent of the “inspiration‑porn” trap. In fact, most of the inclusion happens in business scenarios, but what about leisure, travel, family, friends or couples? Sadly, a big part of the French population still thinks that disability is an obstacle to sexual life6, and our research confirms this: less than 3% of visuals showing people with disabilities included romantic relationships. None of them showed LGBTQ+ couples, or parents with disabilities taking care of their children. When at school, children are mostly seen with educators, but never playing with other kids. 
Why is this important? VisualGPS consumer data tells us that having a disability is one of the top three reasons for experiencing bias in France. The positive change can start now, through visual choices that counter‑represent people with disabilities as defined by their limitations. By avoiding assumptions that disability means physical or mental pain, we can create wholesome stories with endless visual choices: from travel, education, work, and services to family and love. So, when choosing visuals of people with disabilities, ask yourself those questions to reflect on your unconscious bias:
  • Are you showing people with disabilities as active members of society? Or are you depicting them as defined by their limitations?
  • Are you conveying positive messages like love, friendship, parenthood, or fulfillment? Across all ages and intersecting identity factors?
  • Are you only featuring people in wheelchairs? Are you considering other types of disability? Visible and invisible?
  • Have you considered the camera angle? Is the viewer looking down at the person with a disability?
[1] RTBF
[2] Lacoste
[5] Nylon
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