Truth in Advertising
23 January 2017 at 8:47 am
Cátia Malaquias is a lawyer, disability advocate and the founder and director of Starting With Julius, a Western Australian based project promoting the inclusion of people with disability in media, advertising and beyond. She is this week’s Changemaker.
As the mother of three children, one of whom was born with Down syndrome, Malaquias aspires for all children to grow up in a world that is inclusive and in which people with disability are recognised, respected and valued as equal citizens and full participants in every sphere of life.
In 2013 she founded Starting With Julius with the hopes of transforming cultural attitudes towards people with disability, by promoting disability inclusion in mainstream media, advertising and education.
Her seven-year-old son, Julius, became the first person with Down syndrome to feature in an Australian-wide, high-profile mainstream advertising campaign for a children’s fashion brand called eeni meeni miini moh.
Malaquias has become a leading voice in a campaign for inclusion.
She is director of Down Syndrome Australia, director of the Attitude Foundation and co-founder of the SIPN School Inclusion Parent Network and the Global Alliance for Disability in Media (Gadim).
In this week’s Changemaker Malaquias talks about how watching Sesame Street proved pivotal, how inclusive advertising is a tool for accelerating social change and how she is trying to align business and human rights.
What led you to founding Starting With Julius?
I guess it was a couple of things that came together. My son Julius was born with Down syndrome and I remember a couple of incidents that standout in mind as leading down that path.
I was at home watching Sesame Street. I have three kids, so Julius is my second child – [I was] with my eldest and with Julius, and Sesame Street is well known and since the 1970s has included children and adults with disability, just as part of the street really, just into the landscape and that really started me thinking about how beyond that particular TV show I couldn’t really see people with disability represented. I couldn’t see families such as ours represented, and because, I guess having Julius, I started to notice people with a disability in the community more so that disparity became quite obvious, including in advertising.
To me that seemed like a very damaging context, in terms of culturally, for my children to grow up in, not only Julius but his sister, and eventually his sisters. Because I guess what that does is sort of reinforce the historical message that people with disability belong somewhere else, that history of segregating people and keeping them away from participating in society which is very much the concern today, and the strive for human rights of people with disability very much includes reversing that. And we talk about inclusion because inclusion has been denied to that particular group in our society… people with disability have been denied the right to participate, the right to belong and have been sort of separated and segregated and that really is I guess a significant concern of human rights for people with a disability.
I started to think about just the cultural context that exists and particularly when I am asking for my son to be included whether it is at school or eventually in the future in terms of employment and just being a member of his community, it seemed to me that the messaging that comes out of media and advertising is very much at odds with that. In fact it reinforces that old mindset and I sort of thought well, how can we start to disrupt this?
So it was about trying to challenge that absence which is so consistent in advertising and in media. Underrepresentation of people with disability in media and advertising is very significant. It is actually not just underrepresentation, I think often in media it is the nature of representation, what little there is, is often reflecting the way that non-disabled people perceive disability rather than the way that people with disability perceive themselves and their lives. So not authentic.
So that, I guess, started to brew in my mind as to how these messages were at odds with what I aspired for my son. Then late one night, I was sort of shopping online with a particular kids brand that I loved and had bought for both my kids [eeni meeni miini moh] and I was looking at the advertising and images on the internet and they seemed to actually make quite an effort to represent diversity, so children of different skin colour of ethnic backgrounds, and I thought well this is a brand that is actually embracing diversity but they seem to have left out this quite significant group.
You know people with disability are the biggest minority group in our society, one in five of us has a disability. And so I wrote to them and I said, you know: “Have you thought about representing children with disability? Because you obviously have a commitment to diversity in your marketing,” and they replied and very honestly, they said: “We haven’t and we’re ashamed to admit it, but we’d like to do something about that.” And so at that stage then we started talking and they said: “What about you, you have a child, do you think that he’d like to do one,” and I thought ok, I have to think about that. We’re in Perth and they were in Brisbane, and so I thought well this is quite a monumental thing to fly over for a photoshoot, I don’t know if he’s going to travel well and all of that but anyway I said to them: “Look, if you’re prepared to take the risk that he might not be into it, then we’re prepared to come over and give it a shot,” and we did and, as it turned out, Julius absolutely loved it. He was so into it and we eventually shot seven campaigns with them. So seven consecutive summer / winter, until Julius actually grew out of the sizing for the brand. As my daughter Laura said, Julius is a retired model.
I guess at that time when the first campaign came out, I wrote an article for the Australian Women’s Weekly, I was interviewed for The Project because Julius was apparently the first person with Down syndrome to be in a major nationwide, high-profile ad campaign so it then gave me a platform to start having that discussion in a public context, in the community and to ask people to think about representation of people with a disability in media and advertising and what it means to not represent and what it means to represent and that really is where Starting With Julius was born.
Did you ever expect that you would be leading the conversation and that Julius would become the face of diversity?
It was never about Julius becoming a model, that was sort of the last thing, it was really about my son being able to see people, all my children actually, to see diversity and to have diverse role models in our popular mainstream culture.
And so I thought, how can I actually then take this or use this as a platform to try and make a change in this area and advertising seemed to me like such a good vehicle because it is of mass reach and because it is inherently sort of an endorsing kind of medium and I thought well, it’s already there, people are already using models in advertising, it is about persuading them to expand some of their notions of diversity as well. And already you see a lot of brands trying to make efforts in terms of representing diversity whether that be different body types and different ethnic backgrounds, races, looks, etc so it was really about bringing disability into that context, so disability as diversity and including that in the conversation.
A friend suggested Starting With Julius was a good name that kind of I guess reflected the history of our mission and I sort of started to write to companies and just through social media and media start putting some focus on this discussion and then eventually reached out to Kmart and Target and other brands as well… but obviously Target and Kmart, last year they, on a sustained basis, represented people with disability in their catalogues and television commercials and that has brought a lot of media attention… Robyn Lambird one of our ambassadors was in a Target activewear catalogue and I remember looking at the time and news of that was literally being reported in Hungary and Italy, all over the world, so it certainly made some headlines but the response of the community was really positive. In fact I was just reading an article about some research that was done last year about a poll of consumers in terms of representing diversity and what matters to them and disability was actually one of the highest in terms of how important they considered it to be and then in terms of how well represented it was, it was sort of like one of the lowest, so a real disparity between what people want to see and what we’re actually seeing by and large.
Starting With Julius is really about bringing companies on board to doing this and for us our perspective or our mission is around the social benefits at least the social good that this creates but we also believe that it aligns very much with business interests so it is sort of trying to align business and human rights.
As I said, it wasn’t ever really about Julius. And even in terms of the stuff that I write all the time and the conversation, the organisation is called Starting With Julius but I don’t write about Julius, as in the Julius the private individual at all, it is just about the concept.
You know I hoped that I was going to make a difference… because I thought it was important and beneficial and it was one of those things that I thought, I can’t do nothing about this, so I decided to do something. I really didn’t know where it was going to take us but I set out hoping to make a change so I am really pleased that the conversation is happening and we are starting to see some change here in Australia in particular.
I think as well, at the time it hadn’t been done here and so even from the perspective of persuading companies that this was a good thing to do for them, the conversation was a bit more conceptual, whereas now, we’ve see some companies doing it, we’ve seen how the community has reacted and so we can say “look, this is something people want to see”, people want to see diversity and truth in advertising, people want to see authenticity, people want to see themselves reflected. People by and large embrace the fact that we are diverse communities and they want that acknowledged.
I’m really pleased, obviously, particularly in the last year to have seen what we have seen in terms of a bit of a change but this is really at the beginning… for example with Robyn Lambird, one of our ambassadors, even after having been asked by Target to model for them, she hasn’t been able to get a modelling agency to represent her. So we’re still very much at the beginning of this journey but I really would like to see the creation of a sort of advertising diversity standard where companies, because they already in many cases do make the effort to represent diversity but disability is often left out, so I would like to see this develop, not as here and there a brand going: “Ooo it would be nice to include someone with a disability,” on an ad hoc basis but actually as a process of how they go about advertising or marketing themselves and to actually consider people with disability as stakeholders, as employees, team members, suppliers, customers and to then really try to reflect the diversity of their stakeholders. For me, it is partly about the message that goes out into the community, the external message, but I think it is also the message that goes into creating corporate culture, in building trust for employees that the places that they work value them and are disability confident, so it is also part of just creating a more inclusive culture in business as well.
In your speech at the UN on World Down Syndrome Day, you said that people with Down syndrome continue to face significant barriers. What do you think it will take to reshape attitudes to disability and for society to revalue people with Down syndrome?
I don’t think that social change occurs through just one route or one means, so it is not inclusive advertising that is going to result in social change but it is when all of those things align. Obviously making society more accessible to people with disability is key because unless we give people with disability the opportunity to participate in all areas of life, to make everything in society accessible to them, then they’re not going to be able to make the contribution that they should be able to make… to contribute to enrich the whole of society so I think accessibility is huge, and inclusion and accessibility are very much linked.
Just as a simple example, my son is doing swimming classes at the moment, and I was trying to explain to the swimming teachers that unless you actually give him instructions in a way that he can process and understand, then he’s not going to be able to do what you ask him. Unless you actually make swimming classes accessible to him then he’s not going to be able to participate because being physically present isn’t the same thing as participating. Being included is a prerequisite to inclusion and participation, that things are made accessible, that we build systems and places that actually cater for all of us.
I think inclusive media and advertising is a way to disrupt the mindset that actually stands in the way of those things …I was looking at a interesting chart, actually from the US, showing civil rights movements and major social change and how long it took to go from when it was sort of first raised as a major social issue to when the change was actually sort of implemented and you can see that a hundred years ago things happened a lot more slowly than things happen today and I think one example that I recall was interracial marriage. I think it took 80 to 100 years for that change to occur, similarly with women’s education, but when we look at marriage equality, and even though obviously that is still an ongoing change, things have happened comparatively more quickly. So that’s where I think that media really has the capacity to accelerate the change that is occurring, it is not sufficient in and of itself, and I think we have made great strides to make society you know, more inclusive of people with disability but media is actually a tool of accelerating that, of actually communicating its importance, of illustrating to people who might not have the experience themselves. So Starting With Julius is focused on advertising but actually our mission is more board, we would like to see increased and authentic representation of disability in film, in television, really in all mediums.
I am actually on the board of Attitude Foundation as well and the chair is Graeme Innes, and Attitude Foundation actually has a mission around developing a documentary series for television around disability and people with disability telling their stories, so giving people with disability in Australia a voice through television, through the video, tv medium. So it’s just a belief that I have that those things are really crucial to accelerating, I think, the change that we’re seeing. But again it is about how quickly do you want to to happen? I think advertising has broad reach and it can help and I think other forms of media can help but I think we’re talking about significant social change, so it’s not just those things, I think we need change in law, in policy, change in community attitudes, we need structural changes, I think we’re really talking about social change that we’re asking for.
You were a finalist for the 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission Tony Fitzgerald Memorial Community Individual Award. How does it feel to be recognised for the work you are doing?
I felt very honoured to have been a finalist and also, particularly when I looked at the other people who were recognised as well, I felt very honoured to be in that group. And I just felt very honoured as well that people understand that representation is actually a human rights issue as well. So the recognition of starting the work of Starting With Julius within the context of the advancements of human rights in Australia, that was really important, so I was incredibly honoured to be part of that.
You are a disability advocate, lawyer, mum of three, the director of Down Syndrome Australia and the Attitude Foundation and the founder and director of Starting with Julius, how do you find the time for you?
Probably the really honest answer is that there isn’t time for me. I guess in a way, I feel so passionate about this that I do see the time that I spend in making this change in some ways as how I want to spend my time.
Starting With Julius is a labour of love, it has been entirely self-funded, I’ve not ever received a donation for anything or asked anybody. I just kind of wanted to make this change and I was going to see if I could and so for me it really is a labour of love, it is something I feel is really important, I do it for my family, I do it for my son, I do what I think for the society that I want my children to live in and their children to live in. And I understand that social change doesn’t just happen overnight so I realise that there are a lot of things that I would like to see in my lifetime that I may not see but I really do believe that we just have to make sure that we keep moving in the right direction in terms of including people with disability.
And I believe strongly that including people with disability is for the good of society as a whole. I think that concepts such as inclusion, accessibility, universal design actually go beyond benefiting people with disability… for example in the context of education there are a lot of kids who are not categorised with having a disability but for whom school is not accessible, because of just the way that we have structured things for the sort of assumed majority that operates in a certain way or whose bodies and brains work in a certain way, that is just not reality and so I think if all the structures in our society were more accessible, it would benefit everybody and… when you look at the sustainable development goals as well, disability features throughout because I think facilitating maximum participation by everyone in society actually just benefits the whole of society. So that is the change that I would like to see.
Do your children understand the work you do?
In different ways. So Laura my eldest, she absolutely does, she actually spoke in New York as well, on World Down Syndrome Day, with me and she has been to Geneva. I am also a co-founder of an organisation called GADIM [Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment] which is an international sort of global disability and media organisation and we launched at the UN Social Forum in 2016, which was in Geneva and one of the people that officially supports us is the UN special rapporteur on the rights of people with disability. So I went along and Laura came with me and she sat through three days of speeches and presentations at the Social Forum. So the Social Forum always has a human rights theme every year, but this year the entire program was around disability because it was the 10th anniversary of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities so you know Laura was there and she enjoyed meeting people, disabled people, and for a nine year old she was having conversations with someone who is deaf through a translator and meeting the first committee member on the committee of the rights of persons with disabilities, who has an intellectual disability, Robert Martin from New Zealand.
And so I guess I do try and involve my kids because I think it is a really important thing, it is about teaching them values and about teaching them what our family stands for and Laura really has embraced it. She observes things and says: “Oh I don’t think that was very inclusive,” and: “I see how that child wasn’t helped to participate,” or whatever, so she says that.
Julius is at a different level. Julius has loved the modelling, he likes to see himself in print! And so for him it has actually been the joy of direct participation.
Drea our youngest one as well, she understands what’s going on in a general sense that we are trying to make the world a fairer place for everybody.