Performativity and the Disregard of the Disabled Community

How Gen Zs Can Create Breakthroughs for the Disabled

Kat Chung
October 18, 2022
Graph from the CDC showing that 61 million adults in the US live with a disability
Source: CDC

According to the CDC, over 61 million adults in America live with a disability. Within that, statistics show that 25% of the female population have a disability. While the majority of us may not see these statistics as important markers, someone within our Gen Z community is being impacted by a disability.

Everyday, someone with a disability faces a barrier, ranging from a physical task like climbing stairs, or a remote task like ordering groceries online. Today, people with disabilities rely on  caregivers, accommodations, and/or an adaptive piece of equipment to overcome their challenges. The Office of Disability Employment Policy states that “accommodations may include physical changes, use of assistive technology, communication through interpreters or close captioning, and policy enhancements”. 

Even with accomodations, people who have disabilities face difficulties in adapting to their accommodations. For example, getting used to using a wheelchair, guide dog or assistive technology is no easy feat and can take years for someone to get the hang of it. Furthermore, while the new updates in our everyday social media apps may feel like an upgrade, it often causes confusion amongst people with disabilities, thus increasing the learning curve for people with disabilities to use that product/service altogether.  

From the public eye, companies and marketers appear as if they care about people who rely on accomodations – the disabled community, but do they truly care about their target audience? Short answer yes, long answer, no. It’s not that marketers don’t care about their demographic, it’s the fact that marketers don’t understand how challenging ‘basic’ tasks, such as purchasing soap, can be for the disabled community. 

A Vicious Cycle of Performative Activism

Phones displaying stickers on Instagram Stories
Source: Popsugar

Over the last decade, brands have made some progress in making their services and products more accessible, however, the progress hardly ever equates to true inclusion. Recently, Instagram added a new feature where you can add closed captions to your stories. It’s definitely a step forward towards making Instagram stories more accessible and inclusive, especially for those who are visually impaired. That being said, the feature in itself is challenging to activate as utilizing this feature requires one to actively search for it, or have someone help turn it on. This example is only one of many highlighting how multinational corporations like Instagram lack awareness in the disability space. Simply building out a new feature to improve accessibility is not enough – Instagram fell short to properly deliver this new feature to the audience who would appreciate it the most: the disability community. 

Instagram isn’t the only company to make this mistake. Beyond the social media landscape, there are many companies who have made similar errors:

Collecting ‘limited-edition’ clothing items and accessories may seem like a cool hobby to one person, but to another, it may serve functional benefits to improve their everyday lives. In 2021, Nike launched a limited-edition shoe called the Go FlyEase that was designed to be a “hands-free” shoe – one that was easy to put on and take off for athletes with disabilities. It was inspired by Matthew Walzer, a Gen Z athlete living with cerebral palsy. It was praised for its inclusivity and accessibility for people with disabilities, however, the shoe quickly became a collector’s item and hot-list item for bots to purchase and resell for hundreds and thousands of dollars. This created an uproar with the disabled community as many were no longer able to afford the shoes or even purchase them until the ‘limited-release’ was over. 

While Sephora and Ulta are known to house a variety of beauty brands such as NAKED or Urban Decay, both Sephora and Ulta carry their own product line as well. Unlike NAKED and other higher end cosmetic companies whose products have luxury details such as scents and engraved lettering, Sephora and Ulta’s packaging are generally simpler: sticker and printed labels. Because of their simple packaging, there is no way for a blind or visually impaired person to tell one product apart from another unless an employee assists you. To a visually impaired person, the products are practically the same – the same shade of eye shadow, lip balm, and foundation blend, unless the packaging has some kind of indicator that it’s a different shade or type of product. Imagine intending to buy nude lipstick and walking out with cherry red…! 

Those are just a few of the companies that have perpetually continued the cycle of performative activism. On the flip side, there are a number of brands who deserve to be celebrated for their great storytelling and advocacy: 

Image of Joss, the American Girl Doll with Hearing Aids
Source: American Girl

American Girl: For decades, American Girl’s mission has been to tell authentic stories and empower girls around the world. While their dolls have created magical one-of-a-kind experiences for many girls, their accessories should not go unnoticed. On their website, you can find wheelchairs, glasses, hearing aids, service dogs, diabetes pump kits, and other medical-related accessories. In 2020, American Girl introduced their first doll with hearing loss: Joss – The Girl of the Year. Joss’ character described her as a girl with hearing loss and is deaf in one ear. To help her adapt to her environment, she uses a hearing aid and service dog to get around independently; and in her free time, she likes to cheer and surf in the Cali waves. American Girl continued their support and advocacy to the disability community by donating $25,000 to the Hearing Loss Association of America, a national nonprofit that represents people with hearing loss.

Mari Anderson, Julie Guggemos and Stacey Monsen standing in front of a Cat & Jack design board
Source: Target

Target x Janie and Jack: Plus-size clothing designer, Stacey Monsen, and her colleagues discovered that, “sensory-friendly apparel can mean different things for different people.” From there, she spoke to different customers who shared their personal insights and experiences before introducing the idea of sensory-friendly apparel to Target’s Head of Product Development and children’s clothing company, Janie and Jack. Through months of consumer and product research, Janie and Jack created a clothing line that “fit customers' most common requests-like removing tags and embellishments that can irritate the skin. We also added more ease through the hip and a higher rise in our leggings to fit with diapers, if needed, for older kids”

Aerie Real Campaign, showing real people living with disabilities
Source: Glamour

#AerieREAL: In 2018, Aerie launched a campaign featuring models that had visible disabilities, physical impairments, and other medical conditions – shedding light on body positivity and empowerment for all. To top it all off, Aerie invited each woman to share their story about living with a disability and bringing more public attention and awareness to various disabilities. Since 2018, Aerie has featured disability advocates like Molly Burke and Ali Stroker, and continues to champion real awareness instead of just featuring advertisements with altered photoshopped and one-size models. 

From one perspective, we see brands use people with disabilities as a business opportunity – to create a story of ‘activism’ and an avenue to increase sales. Their efforts to create solutions often adds to the problem and feeds into a vicious cycle of stagnant progress. In a perfect world, companies should be advocating for people with disabilities all year round, not just during Disability Pride Month or other National holidays. It’s an important conversation to have year round, with advocates directly from the disability community itself. 

How Can Gen Zs Help?

Oftentimes, we don’t realize when we take our perfectly working senses for granted - what’s easy for one person may be challenging or near impossible for a person with disabilities to do. Who would’ve thought that adding tactile text to a makeup palette would help a person with visual impairment identify what makeup palette they are using?

It’s important to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. With mutual understanding, we can make the world more accessible and inclusive – all year round, not just for a ‘limited release’. Besides, the world was not created for people with disabilities, so who is going to change that? Us, Gen Z. 

Gen Z is a generation that prides ourselves in being caring, accepting and inclusive, including individuals with disabilities. With the aid of social media and the power of the internet, this generation has been responsible for speaking out on so many social issues and calling out mega corporations for their ingenuine acts of activism. So what can we do for our friends with disabilities? 

We can start by being empathetic to one another. Listen to people – hear what they have to say, what they need, how you can support them. Without active listening, we will continue to play an endless guessing game on what people with disabilities need. Gen Z is a resourceful and creative generation, let’s work together to create solutions, rather than problems. 

Lastly, above all generations, Gen Z knows their voice is a powerful tool when it comes to advocacy. The next time a brand is working on a new product design, like a phone update or a new product, invite Gen Zs with disabilities as representatives. Have them sit in on product design meetings and share their honest review on how to truly accommodate this community. After all, inclusivity and diversity are one step forward to a more accessible world. 

Author Bio: 

Katherine Chung is a recent graduate from Towson University, MD. She has lived with several disabilities for more than a decade. While taking care of her mental and physical health she spends her time advocating for the disability and mental health community through her writing and helping out with spreading awareness and volunteering. 

Age: 23

Location: Maryland, USA