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Disabled people often not seen in media and advertising content, new research finds

  • A third (32 per cent) of UK adults surveyed by Ipsos had not seen any disability represented in content they had seen, watched or read during the last 6 months.

    Three woman sitting talking in a meeting room. The woman in the middle wears a hearing aid and is signing.

    All three people in this image have disabilities but some are less visible

  • Images of wheelchair and mobility scooter users are the most likely to have been seen in content to represent disability (by 26 per cent of respondents).
  • Less than a quarter (23 per cent) of people with a disability* surveyed agreed that images of disabled people used in content they had seen, watched or read, reflected their own experience of disability.

Business Disability Forum has published new research today (5 March) which shows that many disabled people* do not feel represented by images used in media, advertising and on TV. The new research suggests that disabled people and disability are often not seen in content even though 1 in 4 people in the UK has a disability (Family Resources Survey). The research also suggests an over-reliance on images of wheelchair and mobility users to portray disability when, in reality, less than 1 in 10 disabled people use wheelchairs in real life (Disability Sport) and disability covers a broad range of conditions, many of which are less-visible.

Ipsos conducted the research which captures the views of over 6,500 adults aged 16-75 across the UK, including over 2,300 adults who identified as disabled*. The Equality Act defines disability as a condition or impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The research is part of Business Disability Forum’s ‘Changing the Image of Disability’ campaign which aims to increase representation and create a more authentic view of disabled people and disability in imagery.

Alongside the research, Business Disability Forum has also published free guidance on portraying disability and commissioning and using images of disabled people as well as a collection of 50 disability-smart images for the media. A bank of 480 free images has also been created for its business Members. The images and guidance have been created with disabled people as models and advisers.

The campaign is being supported by several high-profile people with lived experience of disability, including Kelly Knox, Kadeena Cox OBE, Sinéad Burke, Simon Minty and Cerrie Burnell.

Paralympian, Kadeena Cox OBE, had a stroke in 2016 and was later diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She has six Paralympic medals including two golds and set two world records at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Kadeena Cox OBE said:

“Just because my disability is less-visible, it doesn’t mean that it has less of an impact on my life. We need to change how disability is viewed and that’s why I am supporting Business Disability Forum’s ‘Changing the image of disability’ campaign. I hope it will encourage more people to look beyond the obvious and the stereotypes and to see that disability is something that can affect any one.”

Sinéad Burke is CEO of accessibility consultancy, Tilting the Lens, and advocate of inclusion within the fashion industry.

Sinéad Burke said:

“For too long, images of Disabled people have been clinical, and without reflection of community or disability pride. Stock imagery can reiterate exclusionary narratives, making Disabled people objects rather than subjects or protagonists. Visibility alone cannot be a metric for systemic change, but this campaign and its library of images for businesses and media is a key milestone.”

Research findings

The research conducted by Ipsos found that:

  • Disabled people are often ‘missing’ from the imagery that we see in media, marketing or advertising. A third of adults surveyed (32 per cent) had not seen any disability represented in content they had seen, watched or read during the last 6 months.
  • Uncertainty exists around disability. 1 in 6 adults (17 per cent) said they did not know or were unsure if they had seen disability represented in any images they had seen in the last 6 months.
  • Respondents without a disability* were significantly less likely to see disability represented in images than people with disabilities. 2 in 5 (40 per cent) respondents without a disability had not seen disability represented in content in the last 6 months compared to 1 in 6 (17 per cent) respondents with a disability.
  • Some disabilities are portrayed more often than others in content. Images of a wheelchair or mobility scooter user are the most likely to have been seen used to represent disability (26 per cent). This is followed by images of blindness or sight loss (21 per cent) and images of mental health conditions (20 per cent). Images of speech impairments, facial differences, skin conditions, other mobility impairments (not using a wheelchair or mobility scooter), muscular skeletal conditions, energy limiting conditions and dexterity related conditions had all been seen by less than 10 per cent of respondents.
  • Few disabled* respondents agree that their own experience of disability is reflected in the images of disabled people they have seen. 23 per cent of disabled respondents agreed that images of disabled people in content reflected their own experience of disability. When asked to explain in more detail in their own words why, only 7 per cent felt that disability is represented realistically or reflects everyday life in images, just 11 per cent thought that the representation of disabled people is getting better and only 13 per cent thought the images they had seen related to them, their situation or their condition.

Business Disability Forum’s Head of Communications, Lara Davis, said:

“Our view of the world is influenced by the images we see in media and advertising. Too often disabled people are either missing from that content or are represented in an unrealistic way, reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes and leaving disabled people feeling overlooked and misunderstood.

“Through our ‘Changing image of disability’ campaign, we are showing the diversity of real disabled people to help increase understanding around disability – particularly less-visible conditions, which have a huge impact on people’s daily lives but can be difficult to portray visually and often go unseen. We hope the images and guidance we have created will challenge everyone to think differently and will help businesses and the media to create a more authentic and rounded view of disability.”

Changing the image of disability

Business Disability Forum has launched the ‘Changing the Image of Disability’ campaign to increase representation and improve the portrayal of disabled people and disability in images. The campaign has been shaped by disabled people, as models, advisers and focus group participants as well as by a steering group of communications and brand leads, not-for-profit organisations, picture editors, and journalists.

Speaking about the portrayal of disability in imagery, disabled focus group participants told Business Disability Forum:

“We see extremes – disability is terrible, disability is a superpower. We don’t see the in-between of disability is normal.”

“You don’t see disability very often in mainstream, and if you do see it it’s background, not the foreground.”

Through its campaign, Business Disability Forum is calling on businesses and the media to use the guidance and images it has created to:

  • Increase representation of disabled people in imagery.
  • Portray an authentic and realistic view of disability in images.
  • Reflect the diversity of disabled people in images

Go to Business Disability Forum’s ‘Changing the image of Disability’ campaign page for more information on the research, to access the guidance, and to preview some of the images Business Disability Forum has created.


Members of the media can find out more about the ‘Changing image of disability’ resources and images available on the ‘Information for the media’ page


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