Life changing shifts in representation

Almost 4.5 million Australians have some form of disability - yet they’ve remained almost invisible, representing just one per cent of people shown in advertising. Athlete, Paralympian and activist Dylan Alcott and his foundation have proposed a seismic shift to address this imbalance.

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The Shift 20 Initiative is a coalition of some of the nation’s most well-known brands, coming together to shift public perception of people with a disability and increase their role in advertising. It aims to align with a more realistic and accurate depiction of our population by 2028.  

"But talk is cheap and actions speak much louder than words. We have a long way to go, but I am a glass half full kind of guy. – Dylan Alcott

The power of positive representation cannot be understated and in an increasingly digital world, who we see on our screens matters. By taking the bold steps to reshoot current TV advertising campaigns to include actors with a disability, the Shift 20 Initiative is challenging brands to improve disability representation, as well as giving opportunities to people with a disability to take part behind the scenes in production roles too.

I recently moderated a dynamic panel discussion on the launch of the Shift 20 Initiative with key players of the program:

  • Dylan Alcott – Athlete, Paralympian, Philanthropist and 2022 Australian of the Year
  • Shayne Elliott – CEO, ANZ
  • Sara Shams – Disability advocate and actor
  • Hamish Mackenzie – Digital Portfolio Accessibility Lead, ANZ
  • Anna Spiteri – Alignment Specialist and Co-Chair of the ANZ Abilities Network

Below is an edited version the discussion.

Sweta Mehra: How are you seeing the evolution of accessibility and inclusion changing in the world around us, what has been done and what is still an opportunity?

Dylan Alcott: I’m glad I’m born now, put it that way. With not just the medical advances but socially too, we are getting more inclusive. We’re seeing different faces, different disabilities, this just didn't happen back in the day. We are grateful for that. But talk is cheap, and actions speak much louder than words. We have a long way to go, but I am a glass half full kind of guy.

I know from my personal standpoint, winning Wimbledon was cool, loved winning the Aussie open, but it was never the reason I got out of bed. I do it so that people can see that they have the choice to do what they want. It’s about co-design and the best way to do that is to listen to a lived experience.

Eva is a young girl with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair, and she is now a Weet-Bix kid. If I had seen that at 13 years old - a time when I didn't want to be here, I hated myself and my life - if I'd seen that when I was 13, it would have changed and saved my life. That is how powerful this is. It’s also important that non-disabled people see disabled people as equals in that way too.

We are getting there but we need support to get there together. We don't need help, we need support. To provide opportunity, to lift expectations and to listen to our lived experience to do it together.

Hamish Mackenzie: We as a brand and a bank have done so much in the disability space digitally, while not perfect are much better than the vast majority of offerings out there.

There is a lot of talk about ‘nothing about us, without us’, and it’s so valid. We are proud to include people with a disability in our testing phases in the work we have been doing with ANZ Plus.

That is without a shadow of a doubt the most accessible app I have ever had the privilege of doing anything with. Not only do we look after people with vision impairments, but there are also other features in there that no one else is doing.

It is fantastic to have been a part of the journey. I think everyone at the bank should be proud of it. Supporting what Dylan and the Foundation are doing, we should be proud of where we are going.

Sweta Mehra: I think all of us would like to believe we are trying to do the right thing, but there are some examples where we could be just a little bit more conscious and a little bit more diligent as we make our own decisions as leaders and team members.

Dylan Alcott: As you try to be accessible and inclusive you are going to stuff it up sometimes. That is cool, that is okay - but it’s that fear of getting it wrong, where we get discriminated against accidentally and left out. Which is the worst thing you can do.

I get things wrong all the time and I don't know how to do everything, but you have to start and have a crack. The best way to minimise those mistakes is to listen to our lived experience because we know what we need.

Sweta Mehra: You talk a little bit about the public response. How do you see this initiative impacting the life of people with disability for future generations? 

Sara Shams: Something like this would have been life changing when I was 10, 12, 15, 28, 30 years old. Because it is something I have worked with all my life and something I haven't seen done well. It is so encouraging and empowering to hear that more brands have signed up to be a part of this. It really is life changing. 

Sweta Mehra: Calling back to getting it wrong - often people don't know how to have that conversation with a person with a disability and they are afraid of getting it wrong. What would be your advice be to anyone of the attendees on that, when you are interacting with the community, how do you do it?

Anna Spiteri: When I first started talking about my deafness, I felt I was revealing my greatest weakness to the world. It can be challenging on both sides and having a curious but respectful mindset is key.

As Dylan and others have said - I don't say ‘Hi, I’m Anna and I’m deaf’, I say ‘Hi I’m Anna, how are you?’. Talking about it with strangers can be difficult, but it’s easy for anyone to get it wrong. If it happens, try again next time. But what I would suggest is the first thing you say to someone not be about their disability.

Dylan Alcott: Don’t let that fear deter you. Learn from that experience. I always say, if you want to find out something about your able-bodied co-worker, what do you do? You ask them a question. As long you have a rapport with them and you go about it in a tactful way, same goes with us. As long as you are doing it with respect and have trust with that person.

By leaving us out of a conversation, you indirectly discriminate against us.

Sara Shams: And I guess from my experience, once I get in a shopping centre, I often have kids saying, ‘Mum look, robot legs!’. Which I'm totally fine with - but what I am not comfortable with is when parents or caregivers say, ‘Don't say that, don't look, look away!’. Because I think that is instilling that there is something wrong with me and that they shouldn’t be curious to find out more.

As everyone has said, every person with disability is different. Sometimes it comes out of trauma - and they don’t want to talk about it. So it’s important to have that respect. With children, it’s important to educate, that’s why I say to parents, ‘I don't mind them asking questions because that is how they will know it’s fine’. And they think I'm Ironman!

Sweta Mehra: Anna, I mentioned that you are the co-chair of our Abilities Network. Do you want to share a bit about the activities and work that you do?

Anna Spiteri: ANZ has a very rich and thriving employee network community, and we have a number of employee networks which represent Pride, reconciliation, cultural diversity and many others. The ANZ Abilities Network’s aim is to shape a world where people of all abilities can thrive.

We have people employed by the bank, like Hamish and others in the room, who actively advocate and are paid to improve the experience of our customers and employees. What we represent in that context is the employee voice. We advocate for change, where we see necessity for change.

We raise awareness, so obviously there is a very broad range of disability experience at ANZ, it is all different. So it really is about sharing that awareness and sharing the value of our lived experience.

Shayne Elliott: Dylan and the Foundation are an important part of the ANZ family and we've been working together since 2017 when Dylan became a brand ambassador for us. To improve inclusivity in advertising and media is so important.

At ANZ we believe in a vibrant and inclusive workforce. Where the backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences of our people reflect the communities in which we work and live, helping us to forge strong connections with our customers and make better decisions for our business.

Importantly, we see our role not just as supporters of diversity and inclusion but as champions of it. As a large organisation we take this role seriously and know we can set an example for others to follow.

Sweta Mehra is Managing Director of Everyday Banking at ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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