Candace Owens took to her platforms this week and — to absolutely no one’s surprise — delivered a pointless attack on a marginalized community.
Speaking from her dedicated program on the far-right platform the Daily Wire, Owens offered a bizarre statement about a beautifully inclusive shoot for the SKIMS adaptive clothing line that featured models with disabilities. What was unique about this particular rant was that it was a no-holds-barred attack on disabled people, a community that most people don’t intentionally target with hot garbage, malicious content.
Owens even went as far as to share an image of Haleigh Rosa from the campaign, complaining that: “I really don’t know how far we’re going to take this inclusivity thing. I really don’t get it. If I’m wrong, educate me. Today I just want to be educated in the comments.”
Well Ms. Owens: Class is in session, and I’m your professor. My qualifications are that I’m a person with four disabilities, and I own an agency, Misfit Media, solely led by disabled people. All we do is help marketing agencies or in-house teams create inclusive content. We start with anti-ableism education (which you clearly need) and then go into strategy, campaign planning and execution and then PR (which you clearly don’t understand).
We are the best in the biz at what we do, so while I doubt your sincerity in wanting to learn, I do believe I am the best person to equip you and anyone curious with some important reasons why not just SKIMS, but all brands, need to include disabled people in their content.
The moral obligation
Most people believe that because the ADA was passed over 30 years ago that — *poof* — all of the problems facing disabled people went away. This is simply not the case, and the reality is that the ADA is not a self-enforcing law. The burden of enforcing it is on disabled people advocating for ourselves. There are no checkups to ensure people and businesses adhere to it, and the process to file complaints is so long, emotionally grueling, and expensive that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports less than 13 percent of complaints of discrimination are settled.
Despite the popular belief that things are getting better for disabled people, statistics show us that inequities persist. Take just three recent reports:
- According to the Bureau of Labor, less than 20 percent of people who identified as disabled were employed in 2022 (and this includes those working for subminimum wage).
- The 2020 Annual Statistics Compendium showed that disabled people were over 2x as likely to be living in poverty than non-disabled people.
- The Bureau of Justice reports that disabled people are 4x more likely to experience crimes of violence than non-disabled people.
One of the best tools we have in our belt to combat ableism is representation. Despite being over 25 percent of the population, disabled people are only represented in media, marketing, and entertainment content a maximum of 3.1 percent of the time. While we don’t have great data on how accurate disability representation could impact society’s view on disability, we do have powerful data that shows how effective representation has been for other communities.
For example, we have real evidence that positive LGBTQIA+ media representation helped transform public opinions about the community and their rights. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the general US population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriage in just 15 years, with 60 percent of the population being opposed in 2004 to 61 percent in favor in 2019. While a number of factors likely influenced these perspective shifts, studies suggest that positive LGBTQIA+ media depictions played a significant role.
Those who create content, create culture. We know that public opinion is shaped by what we see in the media. That’s why there’s a global ad industry of $766 billion that is expected to hit $1 trillion by 2025. By intentionally leaving disabled people out of the media, creative professionals are reinforcing the same implicit bias that motivated the Ugly Laws, which forbade disabled people deemed “too unsightly” from being seen in public places. The last of these laws was only overturned in the 1970s, highlighting the imperative for creative professionals take disability inclusion seriously to help undo the stigma surrounding disability.
The business ROI
While Owens clearly does not give one fuck about the moral obligation society has to build a better world for disabled people – or any people, for that matter – one thing I know this woman understands is money. So, let’s talk about that.
It’s important to recognize the massive buying power of disabled people and disability-adjacent communities. The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy categorizes persons with disabilities as the third-largest market segment in the U.S., after Hispanics and African-Americans. The discretionary income for working-age persons with disabilities is $21 billion—greater than that of the African-American and Hispanic segments combined.
Companies that employ more disabled people have double the net income, 28 percent higher revenue, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins. It’s a win for our community, it’s a win for your business.
I’ll state this even more plainly for Candace: There are more than 1 billion disabled people worldwide. Businesses that recognize this as an opportunity can benefit from increased sales and brand loyalty among this demographic. By including disabled people in their campaigns, companies can demonstrate their commitment to diversity, which in turn can increase customer trust and loyalty. Since disabled people are often underrepresented in mainstream media and advertising, campaigns featuring them tend to stand out from the crowd and create powerful impactful messages that resonate with audiences.
Owens also mocks “whoever was behind this ridiculous campaign” and says that persons should be fired, which is interesting given that this inclusivity campaign has been a massive win for SKIMS. This may come as a shock to Ms. Owens, but disabled people wear underwear and have sex.
Disabled people need accessible items, and because SKIMS prioritized inclusivity, they won our business. I’d hope a member of the political party that loves capitalism would understand this very basic economic principle… but that’s a lot from someone who likely believes trickle-down economics is the GOAT financial policy.
This past Saturday, we lost Judy Heumann.
Judy was a true force of nature, a revolutionary, someone who changed the world…and yet her name rarely appears in history books. When she passed, there were no news alerts from any of the major media outlets. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of you reading this right now don’t even know who I’m talking about.
After all, even I can admit that I knew neither her name, her accomplishments, nor her legacy, until 2020.
View this post on Instagram
Judy Heumann was a disability rights activist who was recognized internationally as a leader in the disability rights community, often regarded as the “mother of the disability rights movement.” Her story began in 1949, when 18-month-old Judy contracted polio and began to use a wheelchair to get around the world. At five years old, she was denied the right to attend public school because the district deemed her a “fire hazard.” She had to advocate for herself to get an education, and did so again as an adult to become an educator when she successfully sued the New York City Board of Education for her teaching license. It was originally denied to her out of concern she would not be able to escort students out in the event of a fire.
Judy Heumann ultimately became the first wheelchair user to teach in the city. In fact, Judy was often the first disabled person in every role she would take on throughout her life.
She spent many impactful summers at Camp Jened, a camp for children with disabilities. The camp, as documented in the Obama-produced documentary Crip Camp (which I can’t recommend enough), created an environment where she and fellow future disability rights activists questioned why the world wasn’t accessible and envisioned a world that was designed for them.
These conversations encouraged the campers — Judy included — to become more politically active. In 1970, Judy co-founded Disabled In Action, an organization that focused on securing the protection of people with disabilities under civil rights laws through political protest. She proved just how effective she and the entire community could be by stopping traffic on Madison Avenue in a sit-in to protest President Nixon’s veto of what would become the Rehabilitation Act in 1972.
You read that correctly. She SHUT DOWN Madison Avenue. She did that.
Image credit: Tari Hartman Squire
While the Rehabilitation Act did become law, a few years later, the country still needed regulations that would define who was disabled, what would be considered acts of discrimination, how the law would be enforced. The government was taking its sweet time. Mind you, this legislation was one of the FIRST federal civil rights laws protecting people with disabilities, and yet, years after it was passed, it still could not be properly enforced. This meant that those with disabilities were still not protected, regardless of the laws in place. When it was leaked that the Carter administration was leaning towards changing the language, essentially gutting the regulations into something that was similar to “separate but equal,” the disability community took action.
To no one’s surprise, Judy Heumann was at the forefront. She was one of the organizers of the San Francisco 504 Sit-In which, as of this writing, is the longest occupation of a federal building in US history. This protest, along with others staged across the country, not only led to the regulations being signed without any weakening language having been added, but also demonstrated just how powerful the disabled community is. It showed that we are not, as the media loves to portray us, weak, incapable, defenseless, or dependent.
View this post on Instagram
Furthering her legacy, Judy went on to serve in the Clinton administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education and the World Bank’s first Adviser on Disability and Development. In 2010, she was appointed by President Obama as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. Afterwards, she went on to work at the Ford Foundation as a Senior Fellow, wrote a memoir entitled Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and hosted a bi-weekly podcast called The Heumann Perspective where she talked with leaders in and allies of the disability community.
View this post on Instagram
I was honored to interview Judy back in April of 2022 on my podcast, Always Looking Up to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the 504 Sit-Ins. It’s not every day that you get to talk to the person in whose footsteps you are trying to follow. The person who continually empowers you to be a better advocate, a better ally, and a better person. We discussed the current state of accessibility, how to incorporate the history of the disability civil rights movement into education and advocacy, and what it means to say “I’m disabled.”
Towards the end of the episode I asked her, as I do with every guest, who she looked up to. Her answer, “I look up to people who are bold and daring. People who take risks. People who are willing to step forward and try to do things differently…people who have risked many parts of themselves by speaking up and out not only for themselves, but for others, by encouraging other people to create a vision of where we want to move towards”.
Her story is one that should be told, celebrated, and remembered. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked. She changed the world, not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone. She refused to back down, refused to settle, and refused to accept society’s belief that being disabled meant that you were less-than. It is up to us, not just the disabled community, but all of us and future generations to carry on her legacy.
View this post on Instagram
We witnessed what happens when everyone comes together in support of a larger movement with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It is time to do that for the disability rights movement. It is up to all of us to be the people to whom Judy looked up. To be people who are bold, daring, and risk-takers. People who are willing to step up, do things differently, and change the world.
Jillian Curwin is a lifelong activist in the little person and disabled communities. She is the founder and owner of Always Looking Up, a personal website and podcast that brings awareness to living life as a little person in an average-height world. Professionally, she has used her experience as a little person to contribute to agency diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. On her platforms, where height is just a number, not a limit, she discusses adaptive and accessible fashion, disability representation, and the impact of civil rights on the disabled community. Past guests on her podcasts include Judy Heumann, international disability rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, program officer at the Ford Foundation, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, the co-directors and co-producers of Crip Camp, and Maria Town, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.