Deaf Awareness Week: Advertising Needs a New Agenda

This week is National Deaf Awareness Week, and at St Luke’s it’s prompted us to reflect on how we design our communications for those who might not be our ‘normal target audience’.

Our industry is a ‘creative’ one, a title that we’re immensely proud of. Each day our goal is to be innovative, to solve business problems creatively, be it via communications or otherwise. And our industry attracts some of the best minds from around the world, from all sorts of disciplines. Artists, writers, sculptors, inventors – each has lent their skills to the world of advertising.

Yet despite this wealth of talent, our output has largely fallen short of actually being accessible. We’ve ignored the fact that those who are vision and hearing impaired are often unable to engage with our campaigns. Perhaps this is for business reasons – these demographics not being large enough to be worth investing the time to create accessible work.

But the fight for profitability shouldn’t outweigh the fact that we have a duty to incite and lead change. As one of the world’s most visible industries, it’s our job to lead from the front, to give a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard – in short, to set an agenda. In this instance, it’s our job to show that what we create can, from the ground up, be inclusive and accessible to those who are disabled.

And leading from the front is an approach that actually works – audiences genuinely take an interest in what they’re exposed to. With the release of the Oscar-nominated film ‘Silent Child’ which has driven deaf awareness in mainstream media, searches for ‘British Sign Language’ ‘Hello in Sign Language’, and other ‘signing’ related terms all skyrocketed.

In fairness, attempts to rectify the state of advertising are being made. In 2016, Channel 4 created an ‘accessible ad break’ (with many P&G brands adapting their spots) a move that was lauded by the deaf community. But really this was no more than an afterthought to existing spots, and the format didn’t catch on beyond this one stunt. Channel 4’s famous advert for the Paralympics ‘We’re The Superhumans’ was brilliant, but wasn’t accessible to the deaf or blind.

Recently, campaigns such as those from Maltesers have hit the mark a lot better than previous work (especially with creations like this braille billboard) while network provider Three provided access to sign language interpreters in some of their stores. And as Vox reported, there’s been a rise in ASL interpreters for concerts and other events in the USA, resulting in some pioneering work in the interpretation of music for the deaf.

All of it is a nice start, but ultimately we need more. This is a huge issue – a lack of diversity in adverts, a lack of accessibility in our formats, and a lack of disabled employees in creative departments. To address it, we need to embrace our creativity as a tool for positive change.

Let’s not wait for technology to come to the rescue. Instead of waiting for touch screens to have adaptable buttons to cater to the blind (though this is coming), let’s be more like the kid who used lego to create a braille printer from scratch. Let’s create platforms and opportunities for the disabled to enter our industry. Let’s be bolder in our casting recommendations.

Let’s set an agenda for the rest of the world to follow.

And at the end of the day, despite the limitless ways we could try and achieve these goals, there’s a lot to be said for just getting on and putting someone deaf in an advert.

Tom Carver, Planner

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