Special needs, common concerns: Building an awareness of the disabled community

July 12, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Vickie Beck

The following article appears in the July issue of PR Tactics.

Recently, a local newspaper ran a large pullout section on diversity in business.  Although there was a picture of someone using a wheelchair on the front page, there were no stories concerning disability in the section.

Unfortunately, situations like this are typical. While there’s an awareness that people with disabilities need to be included in the discussion, too often in the marketing and advertising campaigns in mainstream publications the effort continues to appear to be an afterthought, or worse, a token gesture.  Awareness of diversity shouldn’t stop with age, race, gender and ethnicity.

Generally speaking, approximately one in five Americans has a disability. Disability directly affects 51.2 million Americans — between 18 and 20 percent of the population  — including 11 percent of children over age 5 and 56 percent of adults age 21 to 64. People of all ages, ethnicities and genders have disabilities.

Disability also impacts the lives of many more people — including family members, friends, co-workers, health care workers, classmates and educators. It’s difficult to think of someone who is not touched by disability.

A diverse and distinct group
On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The law, often referred to as the civil rights act for people with disabilities, is meant to guarantee equal opportunity and access to everything from commercial businesses to government services and telecommunications for people with disabilities. In a way, passage of the ADA was the beginning of a more public discussion of people with disabilities — and a growing awareness that disability factors into every aspect of economics, business, culture and community life.  Yet, for the most part, in mainstream reporting, marketing and advertising, the population continues to be excluded or only mentioned occasionally and separately.

People with disabilities need to be considered as part of the overall
community, whatever the topic, product or message. Of course, people with disabilities do have some distinct needs, and so, in some ways, are a specialty market. However, considering people with disabilities a niche population or market causes frustration on one side and loss of credibility on the other. The first step to inclusion is an awareness of acceptable terminology and tone.

Learn the language
In individual and corporate communications of all types and forms, it is important to remember you may be communicating with someone who has a disability and to be aware of some basic language preferences. General guidelines advise avoiding commonly used words and phrases, including “handicapped,” “confined to a wheelchair” and “wheelchair bound,” and encourage the preference for “people first language,” which emphasizes the person instead of the disability.  Not knowing appropriate terminology can be just as damaging for people with disabilities and disheartening as a lack of accesss.

Disability in the marketplace
Overlooking people with disabilities can cause a loss of business. People with disabilities live in every community and participate in the marketplace like everyone else. Every marketing and PR campaign could include them as a subset of every population group. Consequently, it is also important to consider this when planning a campaign, press release or message.

The adage that people respond to products and campaigns when they “see themselves” applies here.

As important as inclusion is, it’s equally important to realize people with disabilities may consider different factors when deciding where to spend their time and money. Paying attention to their concerns, which vary depending on their disability, and subtly demonstrating awareness of them in materials is simply good marketing, public relations and customer service.

Customer relations or public relations?
I’m not sure exactly where public relations begins.

As a wheelchair user (one of 2.7 million Americans over the age of 15), I know what is supposed to be accessible often isn’t, and I generally call in advance to check parking, entrances, aisles, restroom facilities, counter heights, etc. If, when I arrive, things are not as described by the business’s representative — making it impossible for me to do what I planned — I might complain to a corporate office or describe the situation to everyone I know via e-mail.

If an organization’s staff — at every level — is not aware of, and sensitive to, the rights, expectations and needs of people with disabilities, what begins as a customer relations issue could quickly become a PR situation. If a customer’s needs are not met, it may fall to the PR staff to ease the situation, spare potential media coverage and retain the customer. PR personnel need to have a working knowledge of general accommodation standards and expectations, especially in today’s world of instant communications and blogs.

Advice on how to accommodate these needs comes from a variety of resources, especially the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for buildings and facilities (ADAAG), available from the United States Access Board (www.access-board.gov). However, it’s still not possible to hop in your wheelchair-ramped van, head to a commercial establishment and be confident that you will actually enter and complete your errand independently.  And it is still common enough to hear business representatives explain the lack of an accommodation, such as a ramp, bathtub bench or effective arrangement to pump gasoline, by saying, “Those people don’t come here.” Comments and situations such as these could lead to a discussion with corporate PR representatives, at best.

Spending just a little time to learn more about people with disabilities, and seeing them as both a niche market and a part of the general population, opens a world of opportunities and new perspectives, benefiting everyone.

Vickie Beck has given several presentations on media and disability and is currently a special projects coordinator in the corporate PR department of Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa, Fla.


Abbey M. Luterick says:

Vickie: Your article was right on target. I was very pleased to see that you were reminding the PR industry about the importance of including the community of people living with disabilities. I plan to share your article with my collegues. Thank you!

July 12, 2007

Christianne Ray says:

Thank you for posting this article. It truly is an uphill battle to increase awareness and encourage inclusion for individuals with disabilities. I am hopeful however that the tide might be changing. Articles like this help place these individuals in the spotlight, possibly prompting employers to see the great value in hiring persons with disabilities and nudging the public to extend greater respect to those with disabilities.

July 12, 2007

Dan Henkel, APR says:

Thanks for a piece that should open some eyes. My work with the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (www.ncpad.org) and the Inclusive Fitness Coalition (www.incfit.ort) has helped me understand how far we have yet to go. People with disabilities deserve access to opportunities for exercise and physical activity, among other rights. The ADA addresses physical access to facilities, but many barriers exist inside the doors. These range from spacing between equipment to training of staff. Benefits of accessibility to fitness opportunities include not only individual health and quality of life, but significant savings in health-care costs for society. Thanks again for helping build awareness!

July 13, 2007

Maggie Crabtree, APR says:

Kudos to you for continuing to educate on this important topic. I was so pleased to hear your lecture on this topic and am even more pleased to be reminded of the important message you are providing. Thanks for continuing this conversation and communicating it to those of us who often are creating descriptions and spreading information. As always, I appreciate your expertise.

July 16, 2007

Kelley Redman says:

What a well written article! As a student at the University of Central Florida, I am studying both Public Relations and advertising. Recently, I had surgery on my ankle and have been confined to a wheelchair for 2 months. Over the past few weeks, I have learned that many public places are not very wheelchair friendly(i.e. broken elevators, displays that are too close together and also sinks that are too high,etc.) and have made it my mission to express my concerns to the necessary people. I feel extremely fortunate that my situation is only temporary and also greatful that I have been given this insight.I am pleased to see that others are expressing their concerns and educating the PR industry.

July 17, 2007

Anthony Stephens says:

Beck's article addresses an important concern that all PR professionals should have on their radar. As a PR practitioner who is blind, I can't recall the number of times when I've been denied access or treated poorly because of my dog guide. In a business where we help businesses look good, it's bad business to not reach out to all persons. Persons with disabilities, thanks to advancements in adaptive technology and career training, are becoming a stronger voice in this country each year. Thanks to Beck for raising our awareness.

July 17, 2007

Teri Arnold says:

Thank you so much for your article. I am the Director of Public Relations at Chesapeake Service Systems(CSS). We are a nonprofit that provide employment opportunities for people with mental retardation, autism and other severe developmental disabilities. I am always trying to find new ways to get our clients into the media to change perceptions about these amazingly talented individuals. Our Exec. Dir. is big on pushing for full inclusion for people with severe disabilities in the workplace and in our communities as they are a part of human diversity and not mistakes as some people might think. Thanks again for helping to raise awareness!

July 20, 2007

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