Dylan Alcott on disability representation in advertising and shifting the narrative

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 22 September 2023
Supplied: Dylan Alcott

Earlier this week, the Shift 20 Initiative was unveiled to the world.

The initiative involves a coalition of brands, led by the Dylan Alcott Foundation, focusing on increasing disability representation, inclusion and accessibility in Australian advertising and media.

Australians with disability make up almost 20% of the population, yet in advertising, they are only represented 1% of the time.

Dylan Alcott said Shift 20 is all about shifting the perception of what disability is and what it can be – creating a more inclusive Australia, for everyone.

Growing up. I never saw anybody like me, but whenever I did, it was either out of pity, like a road safety ad - someone drink-drives, has an accident and then someone like me is in tears - or it’s unrealistic, idealistic inspiration,” Alcott told AdNews.  

It's not about that. It's about us just doing normal things. We eat food, we travel, we bank, we use social media. 

Alcott said that there’s two reasonhe believes the representation of people with a disability in advertising hasn't changed: the first being people not thinking disabled people exist and the second being people not wanting to get it wrong, so rather than engage, they just don't do it.  

It's not about that - it's about having a crack,” he said. 

The way to do it property is to listen to lived experienceof disability and to provide opportunities and to challenge that status quo. Hopefully, Shift 20 Initiative does that and shows brands that it's okay to want to do better as long as we do it together and co-design. 

The most important thing is that the brands really have to genuinely care and want to do better as well.  

Alcott said that ever since he was a kid, he wanted to do something around mainstreaming and normalising disability. 

“One way is obviously doing this through advertising and the fact that so many people have supported this is incredible,” Alcott said. 

The comments of people online watching the ads – people with a disability, parents of kids with disability, friends and family saying thank youthey're crying watching it. That's what it's all about. It's not about us high fiving on how good are we’, it’s about being purpose driven by what we are doing. 

Alcott said he couldn’t believe that some of the biggest brands in both Australia and the world – the likes of ANZ, Bonds and Weet-Bix to McDonald’s, Oral-B and Uber, plus numerous others, have all swapped out key scenes in their advertising to include a person with disability – are involved. 

They not only said yes, but they said yes and how do we do it and what do we need to do?” Alcott told AdNews.  

I said the only rule is it is us just being normal people doing normal things in these ads. It's not about us being extraordinary, legendary, a Paralympian, whatever 

The fact that the WeetBix kids in a wheelchair, that would have changed my life as a kid if I saw that. The BONDS ad is Nathan, he’s deaf, he's Auslanning in an ad on TV; that doesn't happen. The AAMI woman's blind; whatever it is, it's so cool." 

Alcott said he doesn’t think brands ever realised how many people with a disability there are and how normal it is to be able to advertise to everybody, no matter what 

I feel like the end goal is for me and us to be redundant because everyone's doing it,” he said. 

We don't want to own this space. We want everybody to do it and the fact that the industry have really backed that is pretty cool. I don't speak on behalf of everyone with a disability because I only know what I know.  

The whole premise of when I won Australian of the Year, part of my role, in my opinion, was amplifying the voices of other people with a disability. It's not just me or a select few people; I get sick of myself too and that's, that's why I'm in none of these ads. 

Alcott said that these people that are in the ads deserve to be in the ads, because they're talented and good at what they do and they fit the brief, just like an able-bodied person would 

That is the coolest part about it: that people with disability, we just want to be seen as normal people who do normal things, and that's what these ads do,” he said.

The fact that this has shone a light on it, we really feel strongly that everyone's going to copy and follow this through. I saw a comment on one of the videos from a mum, saying their young kid had a disability and they wanted to get into acting and casting agents turned them away because they said there's no point.  

Well, there is a point - here's the point, because you might get an ad like this. It's about influencing industry, inspiring non-disabled people, but also inspiring people with disability to get out there to have a crack which is excellent. 

The Shift 20 Initiative also worked with a variety of disability consultants and production partners such as Bus Stop Films to ensure the production environment was inclusive. This included consultancy on the casting process, production considerations for people with disability, disability riders, crew attachments and Auslan translators.   

Alcott said people with disability, visible and invisiblearen't just in front of the camera - they're behind the camera in this series too.

Bus Stop do such a great job and the fact that they were able to get people on set who knew what they were doing and just happened to be disabled is what it's about,” he said. 

We don't want to just roll people with disability out in frontit's about what if you don't want to be in front of the camera? What if you want to work in lighting? What if you want to be a creative? What if you want to be working with a camera? We're so grateful as a foundation that everyone backed us and supported us and came together. 

Alcott said phase one of the Shift 20 Initiative is all about awareness, getting people to see the issue and see the ads and see how they can make a change. 

Phase two, which is the actual commitment to not just do it for this week but forever and you cannot fix this overnight and that's okay, is about just wanting to do better, and listen and learn from lived experience,” Alcott told AdNews. 

And actually, rather than talking about it, doing it, and that's what the Shift 20 is about is actions.  

These brands have taken the action, and even though we're in its infancy, people are loving it, and the fact that people love it shows brands should do it. And the more and more we do it, the better it is. 

I want every brand in Australia and around the world to be involved. I want people just to do it without us, just go for it. You don't have wait for our authority, we don’t own this space but we just want to shine a light on how important this space is, how easy it is to do, and the impact that you can have. 

Alcott said often in adsaudiences like having the shiny side of life shown in ads and disability can be shiny, but it can just be normalised as well.  

What we have done with these ads is show people with disability aren't less than, we are equal to everyone. We are worthy even though we are different and seeing yourself in mainstream representation shows that you are worthy.  

You cannot be what you cannot see and the fact that we have been hidden for so long is heartbreaking. That's what needs to change and guess who are the gatekeepers to that? The ad industry.  

The ad industry plays a huge role in that - be brave enough to have a crack, you might get it wrong, who cares, but have a crack. The best way to have a crack is to listen to lived experience, provide opportunities, do what you're going to say you’re going to do both in front of and behind the camera.  

There's so many great resources out there, like our initiative and others, to get out there and to listen and learn and to do it properly. 

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