The spectrum of disability representation in new media



Photography, Film & Multimedia


  • disability, disability as tokenism, disability as endorsement, media representation


More than 650 million people worldwide suffer from a disability, be it visible or invisible. As a communication designer, I began to question the design of the International Symbol of Access  – in particular, how it failed to represent invisible disabilities. As my investigation deepened, I encountered the full range of disabilities represented in YouTubeä advertisements.

I purposively selected three YouTube advertisements created for Microsoft Xboxä, Consolä, and Toyotaä, and within the broader scheme of Disability Studies, investigated how disability is used as a rhetorical appeal to gain empathy and strengthen the bonds between the viewer and brand. The selected advertisements promote three very different brand identities and products, but all feature a person with a disability. The language of media is rhetorical, and when combined with Disability Studies, is useful to develop an improved understanding of how visual and verbal arguments can impact the perception and representation of people with disabilities. I investigated the appeals, symbols, stigmas, and social meanings associated with disabilities and how they can lead to negative stereotyping.

My findings reveal the selected sample displays a spectrum of narratives: the use of rhetoric as an analytical framework enabled me to move beyond merely identifying negative stereotypes and to engage with a more nuanced reading of the visual arguments. Consequently, a framework comprising three main models of disability emerged in the rhetoric of the advertisements. Each model represents disability in a different manner, but all three speak to the allure of disability as a device in media advertising that is becoming increasingly popular amongst advertisers.

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