apple the greatest

Disability Deserves Better: Brands Need To Recognise Disability As A Lived Experience

The founder and chief radical officer of ThisAbility is asking brands to ditch the expected narratives around Disability

By Sulaiman R. Khan

The world is changing. Disability is gaining greater prominence in society, and though more work is still needed, society is starting to be aware of what championing and supporting Disabled people looks like. In a world that treats Disability and Disabled people as commodities and as something that should not be welcomed, Disabled people no longer put up with the accepted narratives and refuse to beg for scraps anymore. So, it was refreshing to see the new short film for Apple - The Greatest.

As a wholeheartedly Disabled AF, British-Pakistani man, creative, active (non-optical) intersectional accomplice-in-progress, socially conscious entrepreneur, continual work-in-progress: Seeing this piece of creative work really made me excited the first time I watched it, and I watched it five times since then. The infinite and radical badassery, sexiness, wit, wisdom, richness, compassion, joy, love, and creativity that Disabled people we saw in this film are something we (Disabled people) have always had, and this needs to be celebrated and seen more in society. For the first time, in this piece of creative work, I saw Disabled people not being commoditised or pitted but instead as whole and complete people existing in everyday life. Though I’m super curious to know if Disabled people were involved in the ideation, creative, and production/delivery states of this new work by Apple?

When it comes to Disability and Disabled people, in general, the narratives by the advertising industry and organisations, the only way that seems to get Disability in a story is to be a part of the “overcoming Disability” and “Disability Paradox”, which is so harmful and dangerous for society and Disabled people. It’s about the idea that we, as Disabled people, must overcome our Disability and have a “high quality of life against all odds” – Despite Disability. This is often internalised, so we end up not feeling like we can exist wholeheartedly as Disabled people, and we have to make ourselves palatable for an ableist world.

[I’m done making my Disability palatable for an ableist world. I don’t wish to erase my Disability or Disabled identity – I haven’t “overcome” my Disability; I have overcome ableism and ableists. And I prefer not to use problematical person-first language such as “person with a Disability”, and I am not keen on using ableist language such as “differently-abled,” “handicapped,” “wheelchair-bound”, or “special needs” that worsens my internalised ableism. This is my personal choice and may not reflect all Disabled people nor the whole Disability community across the world. We are all on different journeys in our Disabled identity journey, and that’s okay. If in doubt, ask the Disabled person directly].

This is particularly the case regarding media representation of Disability in the media. According to the Creative Diversity Network’s 2021 Interim Report on Doubling Disability, “...20 per cent of the global population have a Disability, a mere 8.2 per cent was represented in the broadcasting industry with 5.4 per cent working on screen and just 3.6 per cent within senior TV executive roles.” We must recognise that not only is it critical to engage with Disabled people and our stories but also to create opportunities and solutions “with” us and not “for” us because we must recognise that Disability is a human lived experience that we can no longer ignore. The media needs to represent this. An excellent resource for organisations trying to create work that represents Disabled people better is Critical Axis, “a project from The Disabled List that collects and analyses disability representation in media.”

The World Health Organisation states that depression is the largest type of Disability in the world. In addition, 80 per cent of Disability is acquired in someone’s lifetime (we’ll all become Disabled one day, whether we accept it or not), and Disabled people are a 13 trillion-dollar market annually and growing. However, I am NOT keen to commoditise myself, Disability, and Disabled people anymore. I believe we deserve better and should demand better for us in society and for the representation of us in the media. 

And I think this new Apple work is so well received because it was authentic, disparate, and lived-experience/story-led – and not created within the advertising industry. After graduating in 2012 with BA (honours) in Advertising and Brand Communication, I couldn’t secure a job for over three years despite applying extensively and working just as hard as anybody else. This is mainly down to the ableism and inaccessibility of the advertising industry. When I finally secured my first job in 2015, I had to wait six months before I could start to get Access To Work in place, and I had to leave that first job at a communication agency due to ableism, inaccessibility and toxicity only after eight months. This is one reason I set up my own business in October 2016. On the whole, nothing has changed with the advertising industry, and I still wouldn’t feel comfortable personally working within the said industry. A lot of the work that comes out of the industry around Disability is often bland and one-dimensional. 

This is why the film by Apple was so progressive as it not only featured Disabled people, it featured a wide variety of disabilities and diverse communities within our community without whitewashing Disability - yes, racism and even ableism exist in the Disability community. The intersectionality within the creative work was fantastic. 

[Side note: We cannot separate ableism from racism, it’s intertwined. For example, in the US, over 50 per cent of police brutality is against Black Disabled people; there are no researched statistics available in the UK, but it is probably the same. That’s why we need an intersectional approach to our justice and liberatory work, including anti-ableism and Disability Justice work. Additionally, I understand and accept my power and privilege and will always use it to amplify Disabled People of the Global Majority. As a wholehearted Disabled AF and British-Pakistani man, I cannot speak on intersectionality, and I believe conversations on intersectionality must be with and led by Black women, particularly Black Disabled women.]

That’s why when it comes to Disability, diversity and inclusion are not enough. We need to focus on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) in harmony to aid our collective liberation for all of us and our kin (by blood and by bond, both human and non-human). There’s so much the world can learn from Disabled people and our creativity if society is open. Everything from text messaging to touch screens was created by or for Disabled people. Disability History and Disability Culture are still unknown by the mainstream, but they are sacred and extraordinary; both should be taught in schools and learnt by society. Furthermore, some radical and badass modern-day Disabled creatives/oracles I want to shout out for everyone to support and amplify are Jennifer White-Johnson, Matilda Ibini, Aminder Virdee, Yen Godden, Jessica Oddi, Raul Pizarro, and Nolan Ryan Trowe

Overall, this work by Apple stands out to me for its fresh take on integrating Disability and Disabled people in a way that felt human. Disabled people (particularly Disabled BIPOC) not only lead global culture, but we also create it. So maybe we need to have the courage to think about Disability representation outside of the advertising industry to ensure that we are not only in the media but creating the media as well.

And I say, “Radical answers require radical questioning. So, how can we daringly integrate Disability into our businesses and society?

Also, huge congrats to Alice Tonge and the Apple team for making me feel seen in a world that erases Disability and my lived experience as a Disabled. More of this, please!

Not only is this film joyfully great, but Disabled people are, have always been, and we will always be greater than the greatest.

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