A huge number of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) have been devoted to the topic of disability, but capturing disability in 30 seconds is like editing War and Peace down to a novella. You might get the message, but it’s rarely the full picture. But that isn’t to say PSAs can’t be poignant, effective, and positive.
Disability-related PSAs cover a wide range of topics, but generally there are three main categories that the message falls into: how people with disabilities are viewed/treated by society, their value in the job market and society, and what their lives are like. Although these are pretty straightforward messages, there is a great deal of variety in the ways in which these basic messages are presented.
First, there are those that I like to call the “twist ending” PSA, where you see a person doing something difficult or exciting and it is not revealed until the last few seconds that the person in question has a disability. These are a very common form of PSA and they are meant to challenge the assumption that disabled people can’t do things that an able-bodied person can do. They show that disability does not stop people from living a successful and exciting life. The revealing of the disability at the end is meant to get an emotional reaction from the viewer. It’s meant to surprise and to get the viewer to rethink the capabilities of people with disabilities.
Second, there are the “interview gone wrong” PSAs that show the unfair scrutiny placed on job candidates with disabilities. Usually this involved one or more insensitive able-bodied people asking inappropriate or condescending questions to a job candidate. Sometimes it’s presented in humorous way, where the bumbling interviewer unintentionally offends the applicant over and over again. These try to show you the kind of discrimination and misunderstanding that can happen in the workplace (sometimes in an exaggerated manner).
Finally, there are PSAs there are the “just like us” PSAs that show people with disabilities talking about their lives or doing something ordinary. The message is simply to show what it’s like to be disabled. Sometimes these PSAs are used to describe the extra challenges disabled people face from day to day, like inaccessibility or being constantly forced to prove their intelligence and worth. They also show that disabled are pretty much like everyone else and want the same rights and privileges. This is one in a series of animations of real interviews:
This one also shows a person with a disability doing something ordinary, but also shows how the simplest actions are often misjudged by able-bodied people:
Since disability is a broad but personal topic, I am curious to see which style you find most compelling. I feel that the ”twist-ending” PSAs have an unintended negative undertone. I understand that the point they are trying to get across is that people with disabilities can be super successful, skydive, ride a horse, or do anything they want. But I feel the problem here is twofold. First, the “surprise” ending paints the person as a novelty and reinforces the thought that people with disabilities don’t normally do awesome things. They are expecting the viewer to be shocked that the person relating her amazing skydiving experience is blind. Second, it doesn’t take into account that there are people that can’t jump out of a plane or work a traditional 9-5 job. These people can enjoy an exciting and fulfilling life too. So I feel like these types of PSAs are excluding a lot of people.
The ”interview gone wrong” PSAs can help the viewer see how ridiculous the stereotypes can be by making fun of the person who stereotypes the job candidate. But some people may feel that this message trivializes the disproportionate amount of scrutiny people with disabilties face in the job market. I would not be surprised if many suc people have been in a similar work situations and it’s probably not so funny then.
Personally, I think the creature discomfort videos have the most straightforward and effective message. Having real people describe their experiences reveals that they have basically the same desires as everyone else. If the goal of the PSA is to put a human face to disability, then what better way is there to do so than to listen to actual people. Some may think that using animated animals instead of actual people is a cop-out since it avoids engaging the viewer with disability directly. But I don’t think the animals are used just to make disability friendly to the eye (although it’s possible that that plays a role). I’m thinking they used the animals because they are relate-able but very attention-getting, probably more attention-getting than video clips or animations of people.
I am curious to see which style you find most compelling and why.
Lauren McGuire is a SocImages intern and an assistant to a disability activist. She recently launched her own blog, The Fatal Foxtrot, that is focused on the awkward passage into adulthood.
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Anonymous — July 2, 2010
Well, one problem I have with stuff like this is that disability messages almost always focus on people with visible disabilities and show how people with those disabilities can do pretty much the same as anyone else. I don't think those things are bad in themselves, but it leaves out a lot of people with disabilities that are *invisible* and that do greatly affect what we can do.
I have health conditions that make it VERY hard to find traditional work and most people really don't understand my limitations and needs because they can't associate my problems with what they've seen. I've had people tell me that I'm not really disabled because I'm not in a wheelchair or something like that. Or that, "Well, if a double amputee can do XYZ, so can you!" But it's not that simple. There are many different kinds of disability. I deal with immense fatigue and pain constantly, along with other problems. I know I'm not going to run marathons and people telling me that I can doesn't change that.
But, to be honest, I don't know what a PSA for my conditions would show. People want happy endings and people overcoming obstacles, but me getting out to the grocery store - while a great obstacle sometimes for me - doesn't make for an inspiring PSA. But, it would be nice for a change to see someone try. Maybe show someone going about their normal activities and then have thought bubbles like "If I do this now, will I have enough energy to get home?" "Ooooh, my back is killing me." "I bet they think I'm using my mom's handicap permit." Just something to help people realize that behind the forced smile there can be a lot of pain and worries since I know I've had many, many people misunderstand me and my intentions because they don't know what's going on.
Liza — July 2, 2010
Just out of curiosity, what is the man saying his disability is in the first one? I can't understand it at all.
I liked "Talk." I found it clever and entertaining. However, I think the very last clip is the most effective by far. The depression clip made me uncomfortable, only because it has me wondering if people in the UK are actually expected to disclose such a thing to a potential employer.
ACW — July 2, 2010
I completely agree that trying to grasp disability in 60-second snippets is like the parable of the seven people in a dark room trying to figure out what the elephant was.
The 2007 movie 'Music Within' is the story of Richard Pimentel, who initiated the ADA, and if it weren't rated 'R', I'd suggest it as required viewing for everyone.
abby jean — July 2, 2010
I am concerned that this post is going to prevent many people with disabilities from sharing their views because the videos have no transcript or description - making the PSAs in the post completely inaccessible to lots of people with sensory impairments or processing disorders. Ensuring the accessibility of the post would surely allow more people with disabilities to share their thoughts on how disability is portrayed - as it is, the views of temporarily able-bodied folks will necessarily be centered.
Willow — July 2, 2010
I think it depends a lot on the intended audience of the PSA.
As a person w/disabilities who has spent much of the last decade being told that she cannot do various awesome things--and is, in fact, legally prohibited from doing some of the awesome things that used to be The Most Important Parts Of Her Life--I really, really, really appreciate the first type of PSA. They are incredibly encouraging...to me.
The flip side of this is, if the intended audience is nondisabled people, which is more likely, this type of ad is probably more damaging due to reinforcement of the Supercrip stereotype. They make it seem like PWD can do whatever we want as long as we would just have enough heart & soul! Then, when someone says "I can't", people assume ze is a coward or isn't strong enough emotionally. :o( Not good. I've certainly had people tell me that if I really cared enough, I would find a way around the legal restrictions. (Because, like, it would be totally safe for me to do those things and all, right?) The encouragement I get is less important than the image of PWD as a whole, I think.
Chlorine — July 2, 2010
I thought the singing one was cute, but I'm not sure it would be effective.
Anonymous — July 2, 2010
I really love the Creature Discomforts idea. I've seen earlier work in that series and it is extremely eye-catching. I think that the disabilities were worked well enough into the clips that it's clear the words are coming from someone who has one.
The thing I love most about them is kind of the thing that has the best potential to backfire though. Separating the voice from the actual person, and giving it to a cartoon animal, for me, always makes the real person voice stand out in a way that it doesn't when I see the actual person talking. It becomes a heightened reality.
I think in some cases, with some disabilities, it can be...distracting sometimes to watch the person talking. I think a lot of people, and I include myself, inadvertently focus on what the disability looks like, which is precisely what these campaigns are trying to cut down on. On the flip side, it's absolutely my problem if I can't focus on watching real people talk, and the onus shouldn't be on disabled people to make themselves inobtrusive, and I worry that could be an accidental message from the animations.
Palaverer — July 2, 2010
I like the inspiring stories. I, for one, am not a fan of conformity or striving for normalcy. I realize that not everyone feels that way, and I do not suggest that my view is superior to anyone else's. That's just why the first category is appealing to me, particularly the one with the graphic designer. To me, that PSA was unlike the first because it wasn't suggesting that we should view disabled people as being able to do any and everything just like abled people. Rather, it showed that people who are different can devise creative solutions for doing things differently. Necessity is the mother of invention, and invention is a beautiful thing.
I found the first interview to be just silly and insulting. The second did a good job of putting abled viewers in the place of disabled persons, to imagine the world as they experience it. I think that's helpful in adjusting how we treat other people.
AO — July 2, 2010
I do not know if such portrayal offends someone who might be disabled but for those those that are not they do possibly bring awareness of what some conditions might be like and understanding plus tolerance of them. Personally I think that these ads are great, thought provoking and educating.
If, for an example, I was a person who was tied to a wheelchair or had some other similar disability my life would obviously be very different. These portrayals made me truly think and understand (only very shallowly, perhaps) the life of such people. I must say that in terms of disability I never consciously think anything but the norm that is the able-bodied people and their ways.
Fox — July 2, 2010
I think the Creature Discomforts ones are more about using a popular and instantly recognizable television series to get people's attention. If an ad comes on with a woman in a wheelchair talking about her disability, you may just tune it out, but when people see Creature Comforts, they instantly pay attention because they expect to be entertained. It makes the commercial stand out more than a normal ad, I think. Like if Disney were to do a series of ads on, say, gender discrimination using their princesses or the like - it would definitely get people's attention. I don't think using talking animals hides the real disability at all - in fact, quite frequently if you watch CC, the animal does "cover up" a physical feature being discussed (an elephant complaining about having a large nose, say - it's funny because we know elephants are SUPPOSED to), but the fact that the animals in these ads are actually disabled makes it clear that they're more serious. I quite liked them, anyway.
My favourite ad, however, was the second interview one, with the able-bodied applicant. I thought it was a fantastic way of highlighting privilege and pointing out all the unnoticed challenges disabled people go through every day. It makes me wish there were similar campaigns for other issues, like a man being exposed to a woman's daily life with catcalls, inappropriate comments, not being taken seriously, etc, or a white person in a world where the majority were nonwhite and he/she was the distrusted minority. I think it's quite sn effective eye-opener.
Fox — July 2, 2010
Also, I agree with Abby Jean that transcripts really ought to be provided. I'm only on my phone now, but I will try to write some up this evening if no one else has by then.
Cute Bruiser — July 2, 2010
I immediately thought of these from where I live:
I couldn't find the other one, but it involved two boys waiting at a crosswalk with a man holding a cane. One of the boys decides it would be funny if he waves his arms in the man's face since, HAHA, he totally can't see the boy making fun of him! The boy's friend watches, looking a bit uncomfortable. Then after the first boy turns away again, the man with the cane proceeds to imitate the boy's arm gestures behind him, no one else notices but the uncomfortable friend who laughs.
Maria — July 2, 2010
It would be nice to see one where the able bodied person isn't portrayed as a complete douche biscuit.
Buffy — July 2, 2010
I like the concept of letting the general public know that people with disabilities are perfectly capable of working in "regular" jobs given a chance and, in some cases, reasonable accommodations. My only concern is that some ads seem to perpetuate the "supercrip" meme, which furthers the notion that every person with a disability can overcome their limitations if they only try hard enough, and therefore don't need any supports (financial or otherwise) or accommodations. Twice in the past week I've seen insinuations to that effect and it's a dangerous notion.
me — July 5, 2010
I found the last two videos the most effective.
Nectarine — July 6, 2010
Um, I can't see the videos or whatever they are. Are they available outside the US? (I'm in Canada)
Pauline — July 6, 2010
The most compelling disability video I've seen actually didn't fit into any of those three categories you've described. Maybe the twist ending, but without the 'amazing/exciting feats' leading up to it. It sort of blended the twist with people with disabilities doing every day things, I guess...
It was an MS ad and was screened quite a few years ago now, here in Australia.
It began with a young woman visiting her elderly relative - both were happy, although you knew the ad was about MS (from the narrator talking about it & what it is) so you presumed it was the elderly woman who was affected. However the ad ended by making it clear that, in fact, it had been the elderly woman visiting the MS-affected young woman.
I found it quite powerful - the twist caught you off guard & the ad helped to build a sympathy for the people affected. It also helped to show how MS affected families as well as individuals.
I can't find the ad on youtube, unfortunately, but it was a good one.
Kishh — July 7, 2010
I find that the last clip was the most effective for me, but that is probably because I was in the exact same situation, in which I was the girl. Like I said earlier somewhere in this thread, I was too nearsighted, and I didn't see the need to whip out my glasses, so I wasn't even sure if the person in the wheelchair (that I saw in the subway) even had earphones. I was just sort of weirded out.
I got guilt tripped for 45 seconds. And even watching it now, I'm still guilt tripped.
I think the most compelling vids are ones you can relate to, not ones where the disabled can do something superhuman. If you can place yourself in the situation the vid sets up, then it just hits you twice: the first being that you see the video so related to your life, and second, that you can actually put yourself in one of the characters' shoes.
I have to say that the cutest one is the Creature Discomfort one. I aww'd at the elephant and the mouse. ♥ He gave her a smooch! This one would definitely be appealing to kids who could be familiar with Wallace and ..that dog's name. Adults can watch it too, and probably find it cute too, but kids accept messages fastest when they're kids, right? Absolutely adorable and right on the dot. Probably because the characters speak directly at the camera instead of to each other.
bobk — March 11, 2015
Does anyone know where I can find a PSA from the 1970's which is much like the one from the UK above, "a clip from The Talk"? It was about 30 seconds long, and included the same exact themes, using a college campus metaphor (the library had only braile books, the entrances to buildings were only tall enough for those in wheelchairs, etc.). I haven't seen it for years, and I'd love to use it in one of my classes.
Alison Coopland — September 22, 2015
Hi does anyone know where I can find a psa from some time around the 90's. It was an advert on psa for a small business which was known as Wansbeck Association of Disabled, it was based on station road in Ashington,Northumberland. The clip was of of a girl pushing a lady in a wheelchair and possibly sitting around a table talking. I remember my manager wearing a red suit. I hope this enough to go off. Thanks Alison.
Anonymous — March 11, 2021
Anonymous — January 20, 2022
What's the name of that psa