"Everyone wants brands to speak to them. They want to see themselves reflected in what the brand represents."

According to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26% of Americans are living with a disability. But less than 2% of media imagery features people with disabilities. As consumers are demanding wider representation from brands, it’s crucial that brands accurately reflect and engage this audience.

That’s where Christina Mallon comes in. As Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson Global, Christina helps brands reach the 61 million Americans living with disabilities with authenticity and compassion. Her work has received nation-wide attention and she has been featured on PBS, Vice, Fast Company, CNBC, Vogue, Forbes, and YAHOO!. She has been asked to speak about Inclusive Design in numerous settings, from SXSW to The United Nations. More recently, her team won Designer of the Year 2019 by the Smithsonian and Ad Age’s 40 under 40.

Below, she catches up with us about social sustainability, why brand success is linked to representation, the importance of digital accessibility and why inclusive design in the era of COVID-19 is a human rights imperative.

What is social sustainability and why is it so important right now?

Social sustainability is the proactive way of making sure that the relationships between people, communities, and societies are staying positive and everyone’s getting what they need. So really social sustainability is just the focus on people and setting them up for success in the long term.

I’m a huge advocate of [environmental] sustainability, but no one’s talking about social sustainability. If we are not helping out the most in need people, we’re also wasting resources. If you think about it, we have a bunch of people with disabilities, and we’re trying to support them, but if we’re not giving them what they need, we’re just going to have to throw more resources at them. And if we frame it as social sustainability, people start to get it more. Disability support is considered charity, but social sustainability makes it more relatable.

Social sustainability is going to be a hot topic in the future, I believe.

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Getty Images

Over the past few years, we’ve been on an upward trajectory of heightened awareness and widened inclusion for people with disabilities. In the wake of COVID-19, do you think this trajectory has been disrupted?

No—because we’re seeing a lot of people really work their empathy muscles [during the COVID-19 pandemic]. You’re not just thinking of yourself; you’re thinking of others. So, when you talk about advertising representation from a marketing standpoint or a product standpoint, the designers who are creating that content are going to have more empathy and be able to think outside their own box of experiences. And I believe that inclusion will be very important and may even be accelerated because of COVID-19.

That being said, do you think there are any gaps or flaws currently in how brands are—or are not—talking to disabled audiences?

There definitely is an inclusion revolution happening and I don’t think COVID-19 is going to have a negative impact on that. But even in this inclusion revolution, only 4% of brands are thinking about making their offerings disability inclusive. So, when it comes to disability inclusion, really only a handful—and I’m saying one handful—of brands is doing it correctly, or even thinking about it. So, yes, there are huge gaps.

From a marketing standpoint, one of the biggest problems I have seen is that brands are using “inspirational porn” as their messaging. The term “inspirational porn” was coined by Stella Young, and it’s the idea that advertising for people with disabilities is created to make the viewer—who’s not disabled—feel warm and fuzzy about it. The problem with it is that it’s not accurately representing people with disabilities; it’s really for the viewer who doesn’t have a disability. That is where most brands are when it comes to showing disability representation within their marketing.

Sometimes those narratives make it worse for everyone—the biggest challenge that I’ve had personally, as a person with a disability, is that people don’t expect me to be anything because they haven’t seen success from people with disabilities in marketing. For example, every time I’m on a business trip (which used to be every week), most of the time people saw that I was disabled and thought that I was traveling for medical treatment. They never considered that I’d be going for work. Or they were scared for me traveling alone. And that’s not because these people aren’t smart or are rude; it’s because they haven’t seen proper representation.

That is the biggest gap I see: when people try for disability representation and they do it poorly.

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Tommy Hilfiger

Are any brands speaking to disabled audiences well and representing them accurately?

Some brands that are really doing it well—they are clients of mine, but I do believe they’re doing it well—are Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Mars. They are all doing great representation of people with disabilities that is not just inspiration porn.

Physical accessibility has been a major focus of inclusive design in the past. But now that so many people are dependent on digital services, why is it important for brands to be thinking about digital accessibility?

The United States and Europe and then some other countries outside of those two regions have laws saying that all digital experiences need to be accessible for people with disabilities. But most brands do not make their websites, apps, social media posts or even their platforms accessible.

For COVID-19, we are running into some huge issues—and these become human right issues. Let’s say Boris Johnson is doing a big state of the union talking about COVID-19, but he does not have a sign language interpreter. Yes, you can turn closed captioning on your television, but it doesn’t capture everything; sign language does. If you’re not able to pick up everything because you’re deaf, you might be endangering yourself and others. That’s a big issue. Or if I’m a blind person and I can’t get access to descriptive audio to a chart that the New York Times put out to show how COVID cases are projected to increase or decrease, how am I going to know?

Another issue is if your company uses Teams versus Zoom. Teams has built in captioning, but Zoom does not—in Zoom, you have to add in a plugin to do that from a third-party company. That additional ask that Zoom is making of consumers is a lot when it comes to, for example, a busy mom trying to take care of her kids and get on a meeting, but she’s deaf.

Those are just two ways in which things that weren’t designed with digital accessibility can have a huge impact on quality of life, especially during COVID-19.

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Tommy Hilfiger

Mental health concerns have been a big focus during COVID-19 and lockdowns, but that gets heightened in a different way for disabled communities. What are mental health implications for people with disabilities that brands might not be considering?

Even before COVID-19, the outside world was not accessible—it’s not designed for people with different abilities. Anyone with disabilities has to spend a lot of the time in their home. So being somewhat trapped in your home is something disabled people are used to; that aspect [of COVID-19] is a part of their normal life, so I wouldn’t see as much of an increase in stress because of that specifically.

Where I do see the mental health concern for people with disabilities is the fear that they’re not going to get healthcare. Even though the president was saying that there are enough ventilators for everyone, hospitals were saying there aren’t, and that lack of consistent messaging makes everything really scary.

If you have a preexisting condition, it doesn’t matter if your governor opens up your town or your city or your state; it still doesn’t mean you can go out. Not until a vaccine is available.

That lack of having something to look forward to is tough. I work with a nonprofit group for kids with muscular dystrophy, and they have a summer camp. For a lot of the kids that attend, it is the only outdoor interaction or interaction with other kids with muscular dystrophy they have all year—and it’s closed now. Those type of events that mean so much to people and only happen once a year are being cancelled on a mass scale.

So that’s where mental health will become a serious issue for people with disabilities.

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Tommy Hilfiger

Why is it important for brands to consider disabled people in the current climate?

One reason is because brands that focus on purpose are more important than ever. And I think all brands will now have an aligned purpose—they will no longer be as reliant on shareholder opinions; they will also be increasingly reliant on what consumers and the community think.

Another reason is that, if only 4% of businesses are thinking about accessibility within their offering, brands have the ability to find a new market, especially in a time when you need new customers. And this market—the disability community—has an $8 trillion disposable income.

We’ve learned that innovation sometimes is caused by constraints. So, when you are creating a new optionality or a new SKU for someone with a disability, it can lead to innovation for all. An example of that is touch screen functionality; touch screen was created by a guy who had MS because he needed a new way to input to his computer that wasn’t a keyboard. It was called FingerWorks, and now everyone uses it.

How is success for brands tied to representation?

Everyone wants brands to speak to them. They want to see themselves reflected in what the brand represents. And especially at this time, everyone is really looking for human connection. So, brands have a real opportunity to reach more humans through proper representation—and reach them deeply, in their hearts. If they see themselves in this ad and it catches their attention, that brings your brand top of mind when they’re going to shop or surf the web.

And with the lack of strong government leadership, people are looking to brand leaders. People are looking to brands to guide the way. Brands that have linked to a purpose and have made themselves accessible quickly are the ones that I believe will succeed. Brands are going to become a more important part of consumers’ lives.