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The commercial use of the disabled


ON THE SURFACE, it would appear to be a really simple issue. TV commercials, magazines and catalogs are increasingly using models in wheelchairs to sell merchandise.

This idea has become so popular that some modeling agencies have begun recruiting disabled people for such jobs. Recently, in New York City, a modeling agency opened that is just for people who are infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The agency founder said he wanted advertisers to use people who actually had the virus in ads promoting products to help HIV-positive people.

Of course, many people welcome the ads. Such advertisements signal that society is more accepting of disabled people. Also, higher visibility eventually will help disabled people to get jobs and other opportunities: If disabled people are repeatedly pictured as highly capable people who just happen to use wheelchairs or crutches, it helps to destroy negative stereotypes about the disabled.

While I applaud anything that helps end discrimination against the disabled, each time I see such an advertisement I wonder if the person pictured is actually disabled, and, if so, does the advertiser actively recruit and hire disabled workers.

My concern stems from an experience that I had in 1992 when I was asked to participate in the making of a TV commercial designed to raise funds for spinal-cord injury research.

was eager to do anything I could to inform the public about the plight of the disabled. After all, a 1984 car accident had left me disabled at the age of 24.

So when the call came for me to be among the dozens of extras in wheelchairs -- those with non-speaking parts -- I immediately -- agreed. When I arrived on the set there were already lots of people rolling around in wheelchairs, and I noticed some able-bodied people get into wheelchairs and roll onto the set. That fact bothered me for a number of reasons. I not only felt it was dishonest to have people who could walk posing as disabled people, but also -- once again -- disabled people were not allowed an equal opportunity to do a job. This was particularly upsetting since this was a commercial specifically designed to help disabled people.

Convincing myself that the producer had just added a few more people at the last minute, I put the matter out of my mind as the director told us to take our places so shooting could begin. After shooting the entire commercial a few times, we were allowed to take a break. At that point, over half of the extras got up out of their wheelchairs and walked off the set. Stunned by this revelation, all I could think of at that point was to make a joke about the situation: I asked if there had been a miraculous healing session that I had missed out on. Everyone laughed.

When taping resumed, I remained on the set and did my part, but I was wracked by conflicting emotions. While I wanted to confront the producer over the use of non-disabled people, I also desperately wanted to see this commercial made. Upon reflection, I think I was uncomfortable with the role of protester. So I, and every other disabled person there, remained silent on the issue. That was a big mistake.

That commercial has aired many times and it probably has helped to raise thousands of dollars that are greatly needed for research. But it still bothers me that many of the people in the commercial are not disabled.

So when I see TV commercials or catalogs with "disabled" models, my mind fills with questions: Is this model really disabled? Does this advertiser employ disabled people in other roles -- sales clerks, merchandise buyers, bookkeepers, etc.?

Also, I wonder if the disabled aren't being used for economic reasons: Will consumers see a disabled person in an ad and take that as a signal that a company actively recruits and hires the disabled? In other words, are the disabled just used as window dressing the way racial minorities have been used in the past?

See, the issue really isn't simple at all.

Janice Jackson writes from Baltimore.

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