How to include disabled communities in marketing

We explore how retailers, brands and agencies are working to represent and cater to disabled communities and why this hidden Australian cohort should form part of your marketing plan too

One in six Australians have a disability. That is approximately 4.4 million people, or nearly 20 per cent of the population.

By anyone's measure, that’s a massive market. It's also a potentially lucrative one, given more than half of people aged between 15 and 64 are participating in the labour force.

But even as people with disabilities become more visible in mainstream media today (both the current and former Australians of the Year have a disability), the disabled community is often invisible in the output of Australia's major brands. In an era where adherence to social values means gender and racial diversity is not only expected, but demanded, Australia's disabled communities are still too rarely seen.

Bringing visibility to hidden Australians

One way the stories of Australians with disability have become visible is through the lens of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. Just take the testimony of Heartbreak High actress, Chloé Hayden, who was diagnosed with autism when she was 13. Hayden spoke of growing up with feelings she was not supposed to exist because she never saw people like herself represented in media.

The story was also told to advertisers directly by Australian of the Year, Dylan Alcott, at the AANA’s Reset conferences in 2022. During his appearance, Alcott reinforced how brands were going to make a lot more money if they included greater representation in their advertising.

As a person with autism, Anita Aherne has been aware of the lack of representation of people like herself in media and marketing. But when her own children were diagnosed with autism, she came to realise how little effort was put into the marketing of services specifically targeting this community.

This led her to create ‘Living on the Spectrum’, an autism directory and neurodiversity hub designed to help autistic Australians find products, services or programs that can make their lives easier and more accessible. The experience of building Living on the Spectrum has also seen Aherne work to raise the profile of autistic people and other disabled communities.

“Twenty per cent of the population has a disability," Aherne says. "If you are a marketer and you are not thinking about tapping into that market to boost your return on investment from your budget, that would be foolish. People with disability have an income and they are looking to buy products and services."

Aherne has been pleased by some initiatives, such as the Hidden Disability Program now offered by numerous Australian airports. This provides people with a disability - especially those whose disability may not be immediately apparent – with a lanyard to help staff understand they may need additional assistance.

Another welcomed initiative is the introduction of low-sensory shopping experiences, with reduced noise, lighting and distractions, designed to create a calm environment with parents and children who are autistic. This has been adopted by Kmart and several other major retailers.

"That has made a real impact in helping the community," Aherne says. "The only problem is it is always offered at the most inconvenient times."

Such a focus on more inclusive spaces equally lies behind the work of Anytime Fitness to reinvent its gyms. Yet unfortunately, such initiatives are few and far between.

"I can confidently say almost no one else is catering to the community - even those people whose job it is to services that community," Aherne says.

Mainstream representation

When organisations do shift in representing people with disability in visual marketing, it does open new doors. Kmart general manager of marketing, Rennie Freer, says the department store has been working on its commitment to better represent the community for many years now. This includes working with casting agencies and families in the People With Disability Australia (PWDA) community to ensure more representation across its marketing.

"We have always strived to better reflect the communities in which we operate in. It’s why we connect with advocacy groups and organisations, so we can hear the voices of real people with lived experience of disability," Freer tells CMO.

Kmart now has relationships with several community organisations across focus areas including employment, in-store accessibility initiatives and products.

"In most cases, these organisations will connect with their key stakeholders, networks, employees or client groups to gain feedback," Freer says. "From there, we take on the feedback and apply it where we can ensure our initiatives and products are meaningful and reflective of the community."

According to Freer, inclusivity is at the heart of the company's commitment to making meaningful connections with customers. "We want to ensure that all Kmart customers feel seen and represented in our advertising and in our stores and so the work will continue across all our touchpoints," she says.

The scope of opportunity arising from connecting with Australians with disability is beginning to be recognised by some members of the agency community too. For Mike Bullen and his team at Perth-based digital marketing agency, Eurisko, exposure to the disability community started through assisting not-for-profit service providers to gain access to the Google Ad Grants program.

"We started talking to companies in the disability and support worker space, especially around the NDIS, and have been working with them to help get their name out to start engaging with people looking for their services," Bullen explains.

Finding the way forward

Numerous techniques can improve marketing engagement with disabled communities, such as putting captions on social media or YouTube videos and ensuring social images include pictures IDs. However, when connecting with potential customers in the disabled community, Bullen says the creative content is critical.

“The creatives where we have actually had people who have a disability in the ad itself really perform exceptionally well, because you are focusing on them and their needs and making them the hero," Bullen says.

Ultimately, the key to engaging with the disabled community is simply to start engaging with it. "Quite often, people don’t know how to engage with someone with a disability," Bullen says.

"You want to speak clearly and use simple language, but sometimes people go too far, and they talk to them like they are a five-year-old. At the end of the day, it is basic common sense. You treat them with respect, you are polite, and you address them as you would any customer."

Another critical step in this process is to not make assumptions. "And then just keep things really simple and try to be as inclusive as possible in understanding it might take someone a minute longer to make a decision or process the information you have put in front of them," Bullen says. "Be forgiving, not only to them, but to yourself, because you need to learn, engage and understand in order to get better at it."

Innovating for the disabled community

While disabled Australians represent a significant market for all brands, they also provide a strong opportunity for tailored products. For Kmart, this insight has led to the creation of a sensory-friendly toy range that can help to regulate sensory needs, along with a low-cost Independent Living range of home care items.

"These are typically expensive speciality products, so we hope to make these products more affordable and accessible to all," Freer says.

One fashion brand has taken the concept of engagement with disabled Australians to its ultimate stage by creating garments specifically for people with disabilities. JAM the Label is the brainchild of occupational therapists, Emma Clegg and Molly Rogers, whose work with teenagers with cerebral palsy gave them firsthand insight into the difficulty conventional clothing represented.

“Getting dressed was something that took such a long time and was unnecessarily difficult," Rogers says. "The something easier was always leggings or tracksuit pants, but you shouldn't have to wear tracksuit pants and leggings every day just because it is easier. We wanted these individuals to have more choices and options. That is why we started JAM.”

Given their professional trade, Rogers and Clegg are natural problem solvers. They began breaking down the act of dressing to find where they could make additions or adaptations and make garments more functional. The result is a range of clothing with features such as magnetic fasteners rather than buttons, and a jacket specifically designed for someone in a wheelchair.

"That unzips along the sleeves, so it can go over someone's head like a poncho then connects at the wrist," Rogers says. "Connecting at the wrist is much easier to zip rather than trying to connect at someone's waist."

Since launching JAM the Label in 2019, Rogers has mostly relied on word-of-mouth marketing to drive awareness. More recently, JAM's presence was boosted through appearances at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week and Melbourne Fashion Week. Rogers says these experiences provided emotional feedback for JAM the Label and doubled its Instagram followers.

"That was a really turning point, because it showed the clothing doesn’t have to just be functional – it can be runway ready and it can be sexy and all those things that mainstream fashion is," Rogers says. "The fact that [disabled] people were being considered by the fashion industry for the first time ever, and seeing themselves not only in marketing but in the design process - that is the bit that makes people emotional. They’re so happy someone is thinking about their needs."

JAM the Label is further boosting its presence by engaging with influencers. As well as having Chloé Hayden participate in a runway show, the company has created merchandise for Dylan Alcott's ListenABLE podcast.

"We've worked with influential people in the disability space, and more and more disability influencers are coming in," Rogers says. "They are going to be really pivotal in helping to show this can be for everyone."

In addition, JAM the Label recently operated its first pop-up store at Vicinity Centres' The Glenn shopping centre in Melbourne. "We really wanted to give people a physical shopping experience, because people with disability often find the shops are really inaccessible," Rogers says.

"Over one-third of people with disabilities avoid going shopping at all because of the shopping experience. And if they can get into the shop, lots of people working in the shops feel very uncomfortable and don’t know how to communicate with them. We really want to show that gold standard of doing a physical store well."

While the company has previously focused on clothing essentials, the plan is to launch a more fashion-forward range in 2023.

"People with disability deserve more than just wardrobe staples and basics, so we went to provide more and more options for people and just keep leading by example with how to provide for people with disability in terms of accessible fashion options," Rogers says. "One of the things we want to do is lead by example. And we want brands to be working with the disability community, because it is such an underserviced population at the moment."

As with everyone else focused on servicing the disabled community who spoke to CMO for this story, Rogers says the critical steps for successful engagement are not complicated.

“Listen to the community and make sure you are consulting with those with lived experience of disability, because they are the ones who know what they are looking for," she advises. "Once you consult with someone, and you are authentic around listening to people with disability, then people are much happier to accept you are trying."

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