Disability, Advertising, and Design:An Interview with KR Liu and Christina Mallon
KR Liu (Head of Brand Accessibility at Google, Brand Studio) and Christina Mallon (Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson Global and Chief Brand Officer of Open Style Lab) talk with Josh Loebner (Director of Strategy at Designsensory and Adweek contributing writer) about disability, advertising, and design. Many topics were covered during their conversation: the importance of community in spreading more respectful messages about and to disabled people; the need to destigmatize disabilities in design, advertising, and marketing; how accessible design can lead to societal change; the potential and limits of human-centered design; the importance of including disability perspectives in preparing creative briefs; the need to include disability in defining diversity; disability-related barriers in advertising and how to overcome them; how advertisers can dispel misunderstandings about disability; and the power of advertising to normalize disability in society.
ableism, accessibility, adaptive technology, design, disabled, disability, equity, human-centered design, inclusion, intersectionality
In this video, everyone introduces themselves and their backgrounds. Christina Mallon shares her experiences collaborating on Tommy Hilfiger's Adaptive clothing line and bringing more education resources for inclusive style and design through her work with Open Style Lab. KR Liu shares her background in product design for wearable technology, especially "hearables," sophisticated in-ear devices that pair with smartphones and follow voice commands. Liu also shares more about her work to elevate and amplify representations of disability through branding and marketing. Josh Loebner shares his experience with the American Advertising Federation to educate professionals about disability inclusion and the need to better educate students before they move into the job market. Everyone agrees that disabilities need to be destigmatized in design, advertising, and society more generally. They also stress the importance of disabled people and their allies to come together as a community to spread respectful and humanized images of disabled people, who ultimately come from all walks of life.
Where does disability fit into design and advertising's potential to be a powerful source of change in society, especially in how disabled people are perceived? KR Liu answers this question by describing Google's 2020 Year in Search campaign, which was made to be fully accessible and inclusive of disabled people's needs.1 It featured the Black Disabled Lives Matter Movement and notable disability advocates such as Alice Wong and Andraéa LaVant. It also brought up the important concept of ableism, or the societal preference for and privileging of able-bodied people. Christina Mallon agrees with Liu that advertising can be a force of change by spreading awareness about disability issues. Advertising can help people push beyond seeing disabilities from a pity-laden, charity perspective.2
When a designer, advertiser, or marketer hasn't thought about disability inclusion, what should someone cognizant of disability issues advise them? Mallon says that she has pointed out the tremendous purchasing power of disabled people as well as the large number of disabled people (roughly one-fifth of the world's population). She has carefully recommended that companies carefully look at all aspects of their customers' experiences and interactions with them to see where adjustments are needed. Liu's experience has shown her that disability is unfortunately not often on the radar of many burgeoning companies, so it often takes a disabled person within a company to speak up. Companies need to stop and listen and take disabled perspectives seriously because it can lead to innovation, inclusion, and competitive advantages over other companies. However, the burden shouldn't be placed on disabled people to be the only voices bringing up disability concerns.
Mallon finds one of the biggest remaining barriers to inclusive design is how the concept of designer is defined. Anyone who comes up with ideas or collaborates on projects should be seen as a designer—not just those who do graphic design. A more limited definition is not inclusive. Many graphic design programs are not built to work well with adaptive technologies, so more accessible creative tools need to be made. Google, Microsoft, and Apple have been focused on accessibility, but more could be done beyond the big three tech companies. Many disabled people who want to get into creative careers may stop themselves from starting because big agencies do not appear to provide accommodations to them (e.g., sign language interpreters or closed captioners). Agencies would be smart to embrace accessible technologies built into their workflows. They could also recruit more disabled people if more workers are allowed to work from home.
One of the biggest buzzwords in design since the 1980s is human-centered design, or the idea that designers focus on the needs and requirements of their users throughout every step of the problem-solving process. Is there a limitation in how this approach has been conceived and carried out? Josh Loebner notes that most companies would say that they take a human-centered approach that cares about their end users. However, the downfall is what research is carried out. Disabled people and perspectives are often not included in research. Moreover, there is a problem when disability is not factored into how diversity, equity, and inclusion are defined. If people with disabilities are not included in advertisers' understanding of diversity or their research during the design process, opportunities are missed.
KR Liu agrees with Loebner by pointing out the need to consider intentionality in the creative brief. Advertisers and marketers need to carefully think about who is included in the creative work that is being made as well as who is going to be reached. Will there be captions for the deaf and hard of hearing? Will there be audio descriptions for the blind and visually impaired? Companies need to remember that everyone will be touched by disability in some shape or form at some point in their lives—either experienced temporarily or permanently themselves or by people close to them—so disability concerns should always be considered. Liu is shocked that representations of disability have not appeared at the same rate as representations of same-sex and interracial couples. She believes that companies can follow the leadership of Microsoft, Google, and Apple, which have put collaboration above all else to achieve more inclusion and accessibility for disabled people.
What barriers exist for disabled people trying to get into advertising? How can they be overcome? To begin answering these questions Josh Loebner details how disability studies are often cast aside to the periphery of university curricula. Disability-related lessons are often an afterthought in advertising classes, or they are included in special electives. Disability should take a more prominent place in advertising education as well as education more generally. Based on his experience of realizing that a career in forestry would not work for him because he is partially blind and visually impaired, he ventured into advertising. Despite his enjoyment of the work, he has found some of the finer points of creative design, such as using programs like Adobe, to be challenging because they are not completely user friendly or accessible. He has faced the challenge of making creative work accessible and making accessibility creative. However, he finds that advertising is now at a moment where delight can be found within accessibility. Good accessible design is not just good for people for disabilities—it is good for everybody.
Twenty-five years ago, KR Liu never expected that she would be where she is now. She found her entry into the tech world by chance, but it was a perfect fit for her. When she began her tech career, she kept her hearing loss to herself because she didn't see anyone else like her. Her ability to read people's lips and body language made her a fantastic salesperson despite the other challenges she faced. For her, the lack of visibility of disabled people, as well as a lack of awareness of disabled people's needs, were the biggest barriers she and others have faced. More people are open about disabilities today, but disabled people still lack representation, despite increased calls for disability inclusion in broader diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Moreover, providing accessibility tools like American Sign Language interpreters or closed captions should not be seen as extraordinary accomplishments. They should be the norm. Liu believes we have come a long way, but much more work needs to be done.
Loebner agrees with Liu by emphasizing the need for all faculty, students, and practitioners—and not just those with disabilities—to champion advertising's use of inclusive design to normalize disability in society. Disability is not a bad thing. It is a source of strength and pride and should be treated with respect like other forms of diversity in society.
How could advertising change how disability is perceived? KR Liu would like advertisements to showcase the diversity among disabled people who come from all walks of life. Advertisers need to dispel the stereotyped image of disabled people all being older White people. The more disability is normalized in advertising representations, the more that it becomes an everyday part of people's lives. Josh Loebner agrees with Liu by stressing that advertisers need to avoid falling into representational traps seen in the past where disabled people are hidden and locked away from view. Representations of disability should be authentic and not White washed. They should also treat disabled people as equal to able-bodied people. Disabled people should be shown as empowered and represented all the time and not just every four years when the Paralympics are held. When a disability-inclusive ad is put out into the world, it should also be connected to accessible websites and other creative work. Additionally, advertisers should not aim for a disability campaign to make able-bodied people feel better about themselves. In short, advertisers should take a holistic approach that authentically includes disabled people in all their humanity.
Gallery of In-Video Illustrations
Diagnosed with severe hearing loss at the age of three, KR Liu has made it her life's work to be a strong advocate and voice championing the way we connect in the world as a technology sales and marketing executive over the last two decades. KR is a passionate thought leader and advocate for disability inclusion in design, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights in technology. Currently she is the Head of Brand Accessibility at Google, Brand Studio.
KR has been invited to speak at the White House, the United Nations, Capitol Hill, CES, and SXSW to push for a more accessible and inclusive world for all through brand marketing and inclusive design in technology. She has been featured in NPR, CBS This Morning, Fast Company, Business Insider, Tech Crunch, and many more for her work in accessibility inclusion and equality in tech.
She successfully lobbied on Capitol Hill with Senator Elizabeth Warren's team and helped pass the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, which was signed into law on August 18, 2017.
She is on several boards such as the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, Deaf Kids Code, and AAPD. She was formerly on the board of the World Wide Hearing Foundation and Hearing Loss Association of America.
She is a nationally awarded advocate, with a strong reputation in inclusive design, brand strategy, policy, and diversity. Among her honors include a US Congressional Award, 2020 ADCOLOR Rockstar Award Nominee, 2019 Top 50 Future Women's Leaders List by Yahoo Finance, Silicon Valley's Top 40 Under 40, 2018 Verizon Media Champion for Disability Inclusion, SVBJ 2017 Women of Influence, and SVBJ 2015 Women on the Move by Women's Business Journal.
Christina Mallon is Head of Inclusive Design and Accessibility at Wunderman Thompson Global and Partner/Board Member of Open Style Lab (OSL) founded at MIT. Christina's work has received nation-wide attention and 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.
Josh Loebner serves as Director of Strategy at Designsensory, is a contributing writer for Adweek, and shares conversations across the country on diversity and inclusion in advertising. He is earning his PhD from Clemson University focusing on advertising and disability and has been a lecturer at the University of Tennessee and King University. Josh serves on the American Advertising Federation (AAF) Mosaic Council, the advertising industry's premier think tank on diversity and inclusion, and also serves on the City of Knoxville Mayor's Council on Disability Issues and has spoken at the White House. He is an inductee into the AAF Knoxville chapter Hall of Fame, served as the Diversity Chair for AAF District 7, and is recipient of the AAF Silver Medal. He is partially blind and visually impaired, which gives him a unique perspective, and he always clearly sees the best in everyone.
Edward Timke is an affiliated scholar with the Department of Cultural Anthropology and instructor of advertising, design, and creativity courses for the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University. He is also Adjunct Professorial Lecturer for the School of International Service at American University. Edward is Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly and a contributor to ADText, including a unit on disability and advertising (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/736400). Timke's specialties include advertising and media history, international advertising and media, and media theory and research methods. His work focuses on the role of advertising and media in shaping how different cultures understand and imagine each other. Timke received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the Circulating American Magazines Project (www.circulatingamericanmagazines.org). He has also received numerous awards and nominations recognizing his excellence in teaching and mentoring of student research.
Edward has lived with a permanent hearing disability since birth and is a proud user of boneanchored hearing aids. He has been recognized for his advocacy for students with disabilities, including a Certificate of Recognition by the University of Michigan's Council for Disability Concerns. With many allies and mentors by his side, he has worked hard throughout his life to prove a pediatric doctor wrong who said he would never amount to anything intellectually.
1. Each year, Google's Year in Search campaign creates a film based on the most searched conversation that year. For more details about the 2020 Year in Search campaign, see https://about.google/intl/ALL_us/stories/yearin-search-2020/. The 2020 campaign is discussed with detail in a Google advertising supplement for Pop-Up Magazine: https://www.popupmagazine.com/yearinsearch.pdf.
2. For a detailed discussion of representations of disability in advertising, see Edward Timke, "Disability and Advertising," Advertising & Society Quarterly 20, no. 3 (2019) doi:10.1353/asr.2019.0024, and Katie Ellis, Kathleen Hall, Beth Haller, Josh Loebner, Christina Mallon, and Edward Timke, "Roundtable on Disability and Advertising, Part I," Advertising & Society Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2021) muse.jhu.edu/article/788616.