The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design


Thesis By Timothy V. Cox Excerpted with Permission exclusively for

It has been a very personal journey to research and write this thesis spotlighting a problem that I see in my field of graphic design. Though I have been in a wheelchair for nearly 30 years, I have never been an active advocate for disability rights. I realize now that no change can happen until I get involved and remember the motto of those that have fought for disability rights of “nothing for us without us.”

Inclusion into society has been a cause for minority populations for many years. The fight for minority rights has become the epitome of freedom and created benchmarks in history books. One minority group, the disabled community continues to push for rights with employment, education, and accessibility and have made several steps forward in those avenues through legislation.

Though policies have helped in many ways there is still a visual disparity when it comes to the representation of the disabled in the industry of graphic design. This paper spotlights the problem by showing exclusion, specifically against wheelchair users in several areas where graphic design is used as well as advertising. The evidence posits one of the main reasons for the omission and avoidance of the disabled is an in depth fear of becoming disabled and losing control. There are a few bright spots in graphic design concerning the disabled and these should be the beginning of a conversation about inclusion and not visualizing the disabled as broken but as a vital part of society.


The Neglect Of Disabled Representation 224x300 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

The Neglect Of Disabled Representation

In the world today, inclusion has become headline news. Acknowledgement and acceptance from battles of equality for ethnicities, women and most recently, the LGBTQ community, have become very important. At the end of Caitlyn Jenner’s acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Espys, she talked about wanting to use her time in the spotlight for bringing attention to the importance of acceptance by saying, “more broadly to promote a very simple idea: accepting people for who they are. Accepting people’s differences.” This idea is indeed simple, one particular group of people continues to be excluded visually based on the idealization of the human body.


That community of people are the disabled who fall short of the non-disabled standard of perfection. The disabled, in particular wheelchair users, are seen as a constant reminder of the pain and suffering of what could have been and what still could be in the future for the non-disabled (Wendell, 113). The world is set up for this idealized “normal” body with little to no room for those who do not meet that standard. A consumer-based society does not want to promote the abnormal for their products meant for perfection (Davis 1999, 507). Being included and represented as a part of society is an important part of acceptance.

As a graphic designer and paraplegic, my goal is to shed light on this problem by demonstrating that there is neglect of disabled representation in the field of graphic design resulting in a “visual disparity” between the disabled and the non-disabled world. This disparity has promulgated an atmosphere of shame, and fear, and garnered disrespect that serves to isolate the physically impaired continuing an “us” and “them” attitude (Davis/Wendell).

 This separation has created a prejudice called ableism that is in the same arena as racism or sexism. It is a form of discrimination against the disabled that marginalizes them through practices, processes and beliefs that leads to the disabled being treated unfairly and unequal to that of non-disabled (Campbell, 5). These lead one to see that having little to no representation of the disabled in graphic design is also a form of ableism.

To have little-to-no representation visually is limiting the idea of diversity. Diversity is an ideal that should show a variety of people made up of cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders, age ranges, sexual orientations, socioeconomic, abilities, and many more categories to form a community. It is recognizing and respecting these different perspectives, that creates fresh ideas and acceptance in a healthy society. By acknowledging diversity, communities understand that they are different and similar on many different levels, and since it applies to everyone, it should be something about which everyone cares. By limiting diversity, a society creates benefits for some while creating disadvantages for others (Queensborough Community College).

Disability is hard to empathetically acknowledge by many non-disabled, but it should be something that is accepted and learned about because the disabled deserve to be a part of this diverse community and enjoy life’s every moment. The disabled are fighting against being ignored and dismissed and that fight is now being laid at the non-disabled feet of the world of graphic design and the clients that finance them. To this point of wanting acceptance, Jess Thom, a disabled comedian and advocate said this on the Guardian YouTube channel,

“They’re often nervous about even calling me disabled and clearly see it as a negative term. I don’t see it that way at all. Saying I’m disabled acknowledges the barriers I face because of the collective failure to consider difference. Pretending these barriers don’t exist doesn’t make them go away…As soon as we stop shying away from differences we can start to appreciate our similarities” (Thom).

Despite the physically impaired now having the right to more physical access (via legislation such as the ADA), they are still facing discrimination and ableism in many ways, and one of them is in the form of visual discrimination of not being included into a society that idealizes the human body.

Susan Wendell in her paper, “Toward A Feminist Theory of Disability” says, “People learn to identify with their own strengths and to hate, fear and neglect their own weaknesses. The disabled are not only de-valued [sic]  for their devalued body, they are constant reminders to the non-disabled of the negative body—of what the non-disabled are trying to avoid, forget and ignore” (Wendell, 113).

Stop Basing Body Positivity On Beauty And Being Non Disabled 203x300 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

Stop Basing Body Positivity On Beauty And Being Non-Disabled

The history of the physical, mental, and economic treatment and mistreatment of the disabled goes back almost to the earliest time of recorded history. Those who were in the” abnormal category” were marked in the late 1860s when new laws were put into place around the U.S. These so-called “ugly” laws specifically targeted the disabled and their appearance to the non-disabled public. The Chicago law, one of the areas that kept it the longest, was also the most exacting in their language of whom it did and did not affect.

No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense (Coco, 23).

Just as it took politics to breakdown the discrimination of the “ugly” laws, political power was used in the early 20th century to begin giving rights to the disabled as heroes returned from fighting overseas in the World Wars. Men returned having to face a life in a wheelchair, using mobility aids, or prosthetics to begin their life again.

Reporter John Hockenberry stated a similar mentality of the disabled in his TED Talk from 2010,

“I had no option but to make up this new life without walking. Intent—a life with intent—lived by design covering the original with something better.”

Those veterans intended to not just sit around with blankets over their legs. The first major move was the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. This law mandated that if any structure used government funds for construction, it would need to be accessible to those with disabilities. It allowed people with disabilities to have the freedom to go where they wanted to go, and to be seen by the public.

They wanted to try and be an active part of society that many of them had at one time been a part. As stated, the fight for rights continued for several years increasing the amount of rights for the disabled until the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But being a part of society is more than mandating a law of inclusion. Ten percent of the population is not seeing others like themselves in graphic design. This is hard to imagine, but 30 million people are in essence invisible and are not included unless mandated. This is equivalent to the same amount of people that live in the areas surrounding New York City and Chicago having disappeared. To call attention to this problem, the following section of evidence will be used to show the current state of being in graphic design.

Studies show that the more the disabled are seen, even in a neutral way, it helps lead to changes in feelings of the non-disabled toward the disabled.

Moving forward to today, there is little research on the representation of the disabled in graphic design. As an example of the “visual disparity” of the disabled, the figures from the top five selling magazines for 2014 by the Alliance for Audited Media were used. In the June/July issues of those ranked magazines in 2015, there were 143 ads for myriad products, services, and organizations. In those ads were people of different ethnicity, genders, and age. In all of those ads and magazines, there was one ad that featured a product for the disabled and/or a disabled person. The AARP magazine  featured an elderly woman using a stair climber. It makes sense for an ad like that to be in that magazine whose readership is primarily composed of those over the age of 55.

The 2010 U.S. census reported that 49.8 percent of people aged 65 have some kind of disability and the percentage increases as individuals grow older. Even on the low end, those numbers show it would make more sense for a consumer magazine that is targeted at a large group of people who possibly have disabilities to feature the disabled in more of their ads. Having no representation in consumer magazines when 10 percent of the population is disabled is neglecting a group of people that compromise a significantly sized potential market. The disabled are so ignored that when the disabled are included in any form of advertising it is still considered a news worthy story for a magazine such as Ad Age to write about.

Timcox2.1 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

An organization named DisABILITY incites is currently working on research that  shows the disabled may not be included in designs because they are not a part of the marketing research done by companies. This research is ongoing but once released it could be a shameful wake-up call to companies and designers.

Photography can be an important part in design to show people, a product, or a service. It also makes design relatable by helping the viewer envision their own self using or buying what is being advertised. If a designer or design firm cannot use custom paid royalty photography, they will often turn to royalty free photography that gives them access to millions of high resolution photographs. For this paper, was used in July 2015, which draws from hundreds of companies and photographers including iStock and Getty images. To see how disability would be represented in this venue, three of the top-searched terms on the site were selected; business, health and beauty, and people and lifestyle to get a diverse selection of photographs. Each of those categories returned nearly 2.5 million hits of images that were within that description. The categories that were used gave a wide range of photos of people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, age ranges, and genders working in many different industries, enjoying time together with friends and family, exercising, being romantic, and participating in many other activities. In all of those pages that were searched, not one picture came back with a disabled person in it. Even in the health and beauty category, doctors and medical facilities were pictured a few times, but no disabilities were seen. No photos of the disabled were readily found or included with the other ethnicities, genders, ages, etc. If a customized search was created using disabled in the criteria, each return was less than one percent of the total amount without the disabled addition to the search, and the disabled became the central focus of each picture instead of being incorporated with non-disabled people. (Editor’s Note: Disability Stock Images was created to meet the need for authentic disability inclusive stock imagery and they only use real models with disabilities in the over 4500+ library)

Timcox31 300x232 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

Stock images from Library featuring “Real People, Real Lives, Real Progress”

Campaigns are a powerful way to create a brand and to get a message out, and it is also an excellent step toward spotlighting this problem. One campaign idea that has gained popularity for several corporations is body positivity. The campaigns have a good basis in the idea of boosting self-esteem of women who are judged against models and celebrities in magazines and on television. The problem though is that not every body type is represented. None of the women appear to be over 40 and/or apparently visibly disabled in any way. The theory of these ads is based on doing away with the stigma of body oppression, but they do not include examples of all bodies. As the reader will recall that this paper is looking at the disabled wheelchair user, the excusatory message actually reads that real beauty does not include visibly disabled bodies. These ads are to empower and uplift, but by leaving out a sizable demographic, they are limiting the message. By basing it on beauty and being non-disabled, the message is returning to the idea that there is a normal and anything outside of that normal does not fit the standards of society.

Being thought of as broken and tragic starts early on for children with disabilities when they find little to no positive representation of themselves in toys and their packaging

Why continue to create designs and campaigns that do not include 10 percent of the U.S. population? This question is difficult at best to answer, but one critical reason that could be guiding this mentality is fear (Davis, Quayson, Siebers, Wendell). The disabled continue to be seen in archaic views as suffering, weak, having a loss of control, and close to death. To deny the disabled equality in representation is another way to ignore that perfection is not a reality and that anyone is susceptible to becoming disabled. People can easily identify with people other than themselves. Women can identify with a leading man character in a movie, and adults can identify with children and the fears with which they may struggle, but when it comes to disability, a mental barrier goes up to protect from the idea of harm and hurt (Siebers).

Society must look past sympathy to empathy to learn about pain, limitations, and loss of abilities to have less fear about disabilities and not see them as devalued but as accepting the body beyond skin deep. Once accepted, the disabled can be a reminder to society that perfection is the thing that is not “normal” but is an imaginative fairy tale that oppresses everyone, non-disabled and disabled alike. Corporations want their potential buyers to see how much better their lives will be with whatever they are selling and to not identify with someone that is, in their mind, broken.

tcox installation 300x200 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design


This paper has been written to spotlight the problem of the visual disparity of the representation of the disabled, specifically wheelchair users. It is difficult to mandate visual inclusion. I have shown there is limited negative effect from the research done by Panol and McBride on consumers of purchasing products or services when the disabled are included in designs, and including the disabled opens up a still untapped market.  Yet they are still not showing up in designs on a regular basis. The old-fashioned thoughts about the disabled such as a wheelchair user being broken, sick or abnormal seem to still be holding onto the minds of some in the non-disabled society. Though the disabled population is 10 percent of the U.S., the designs are not reflecting that percentage of inclusion of diversity. The aesthetic nervousness of the disabled that seems to be prevalent in the non-disabled mind is something that once realized, and done away with, has so many benefits for society.

Financially, businesses attain an expanded market audience, and in society there is an acknowledgement that satisfaction in life is not because of our level of health. Knowledge can be gained by admitting that perfection is unattainable, and that there is no normal. In fact, trying to maintain the idea of normalcy continues to exclude the disabled.

Wendell points this out in her book “The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflection on Disability” saying,

Not only do physically disabled people have experiences which are not available to the able-bodied , they are in a better position to transcend cultural mythologies about the body, because they cannot do things the able-bodied feel they must do in order to be happy, ‘normal’…if disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place (Wendell 1996, 274).

They are not broken, and they are not weak, the disabled are living in circumstances that can befall anyone at anytime. The disabled have learned that anyone, no matter their level of health, sooner or later can become disabled. This should also not preclude the disabled, such as wheelchair users, from inclusion in marketing, graphic design resources, and advertisements. As discussed in this paper, acknowledging everyone’s differences creates a diverse community that allows learning and acceptance.

The focus of this paper and the disabled advocacy movements call attention to a need for equality, and should be a motivator for change in the world of graphic design beyond a new accessible symbol and putting disabled kids into once-a-year sales advertisements. Change in the way the disabled are represented should come through a fearless visual inclusion into graphic design, and into society as a whole.

Read Tim Cox’s Full Thesis Here:

Hire Tim as your next Graphic Designer! Tim Cox Designs

Tim’s goal is to be a full time graphic design teacher using his unique voice on the university level to prepare the next generation of designer. Find him on

When seeking authentic images featuring real models with disabilities, make your source for quality stock images.

tim cox 150x150 - The Neglect of Disabled Representation in Advertising and Graphic Design

Tim Cox

Tim Cox is 45 years old and lives in Searcy, Arkansas. He became a T-10/12 paraplegic at the age of 16 due to a rare form of spinal cancer and later lost both legs because of infections. He loves spending time with his wife of 15 years and two kids. He did graphic design for the Central Intelligence Agency for 16 years and now works for the Public Relations department at Harding University as the designer for Undergraduate Admissions material. He also loves teaching graphic design and just recently finished his Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design through Savannah College of Art and Design. He is a die hard Washington Redskins fan and would one day like to write his memoir of a life God has blessed greatly.

View All Posts