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When i was communications director for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, in 1978-1981 the nation's largest and strongest civil rights organization working to advance equal opportunities for disabled people, we met numerous times with advertising executives on Madison Avenue to urge them to use disabled people in their TV commercials. They adamantly refused each time.

They would use disabled people for fund-raisers but they were not going to show disabled people on America's TV sets. The prevailing conviction among Madison Ave. marketing experts was, "We can't show someone other than a white person in good health buying goods, driving a car or doing housework."

The erroneous belief was that the majority of white able-bodied people in the country would not sit through a TV commercial showing disabled people as consumers.

Today, there is a revolution taking place in America on our TV screens. More than 100 corporations are leading it. Some of them are doing it to soften their hard-core images as caring only for profits; others are doing it to attract new customers. Many are doing it because the time is right.


What are these corporations doing that is revolutionary? They are using people with disabilities in TV commercials-showing them shopping, eating, using assistive technology products in the workplace, traveling, signing to other deaf people or to family members, playing with other children, skiing, driving, drinking soft drinks, teaching.

The national ads appear during prime-time programming. The disabled people in the ads are men, women and children of different races and various ages. They leave indelible, positive images about the abilities and the humanity of disabled people. Today, corporate America sees disabled people as consumers.

Marketers such as AT&T Corp., Bell Atlantic Corp., Campbell Soup Co., Chevron Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Dayton-Hudson Corp.'s Target Stores, General Motors Corp., Hallmark Cards, IBM Corp., Kmart Corp., McDonald's Corp., Microsoft Corp., Nabisco, Nike, Pacific Bell, Pepsi-Cola Co., Quaker Oats Co., Visa, Wal-Mart Stores and Walt Disney Co. are using disabled people in their TV commercials. The advertising is tastefully and sensitively done. The creative work shows a changing America-and it is producing benefits.


What are the benefits of using disabled people in TV commercials? They are monetary. Businesses that featured disabled people in their ads will tell you there was an increase in disabled consumers coming into their stores. McDonald's was one of the first companies to show people signing in its ads. The ads have brought deaf and hearing-impaired customers, blind customers, people using wheelchairs and others with disabilities into its restaurants.

Kmart and Wal-Mart have similar success stories. Microsoft knows disabled people are buying Windows 98 because of its accessibility features-as shown on TV. GM is selling more vans for disabled people. Disney World is attracting more disabled people. Cruises are planning trips for disabled people.

IBM sells more products for disabled people every time an ad is shown. Restaurants are producing menus in large print and Braille. Hotels are being filled by disabled people for their conventions. In fact, hotels are equipping themselves with telecommunications devices for the deaf and other forms of communications to attract disabled consumers.


Another benefit is that an avalanche of good will swells toward the marketer from the community at large. Companies using disabled people in their TV commercials are receiving tens of thousands of letters from disabled people, family members of disabled people and advocacy groups representing disabled people praising them. And marketers are responding by using more disabled people in their ads.

Additionally, there is evidence that showing disabled people in ads is influencing public opinion on the abilities of people with disabilities. Microsoft, stock broker Charles Schwab & Co. and other corporations are showing disabled people using technology in work environments. They have had good results in employing disabled people who use technology on the job and are using the ads to tell of their successes. As a result, employers are looking for qualified disabled people to hire.


While showing disabled people in TV commercials is progress, American employers cannot rest. There are still too many qualified disabled people unemployed and too many tax dollars spent to keep disabled people dependent rather than training them to be independent.

As advertising tells this story, perhaps employers that still discriminate against disabled people will see the economic sense of employing qualified disabled people as tax producers. That makes it advertising worth seeing.

Mr. Williams publishes Assistive Technology News-a national newspaper covering assistive technology products and issues for disabled people-and writes an assistive technology column for Business Week OnLine. He can be reached at

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