It has been just over a week since Gerber announced that Lucas Warren, a one-year-old child with Down syndrome, won their 2018 Spokesbaby contest, and little Lucas is melting hearts. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive. Almost everyone is gushing over Lucas' adorable smile and outgoing nature.
In recent years, the visibility of people living with disabilities in popular culture has been on the rise, and Lucas is a prime example. We have also seen a number of characters in entertainment media that are living with disabilities. Think, for example, of RJ Mitte, an actor with cerebral palsy, who played Walter "Flynn" White Jr. on breaking bad, or Julia, a character with autism spectrum disorder that Sesame Street recently introduced to promote autism awareness among young viewers. A more recent Canadian example is Employable Me, a documentary series that showcases the lives and stories of people living with disabilities as they navigate the working world.
The gains made in visibility help challenge expectations of low capability and decrease the stigma associated with living with a disability.
This trend in representation should be celebrated. Mass media and popular culture play a normalizing role in our society. They have the ability to influence what is considered mainstream and broaden our popularly understood definitions "normal" (or, as social science researchers and disability rights advocates might say, challenge the idea of normal altogether). Although there is still a great deal of room for improvement, the gains made in visibility help challenge expectations of low capability and decrease the stigma associated with living with a disability.
However, we must not be too quick to pat ourselves on the back and consider this a job well done. While increasing visibility is important, it does little to improve the material circumstances of those living with disabilities.
Conversations about enhancing the supports and resources available to enable people with disabilities thrive are integral to creating meaningful change. People with disabilities remain underemployed and are more likely to live in poverty than those who are non-disabled. Commitments to providing programs and supports to help people with disabilities live as independently as they can, find jobs and ensure they are able to keep them, and guarantee they have access to the health treatments and technologies they need, are essential. Taking these steps would improve the quality of life of those living with disabilities and remove the barriers to reaching their full potential that our socially constructed world has created.
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For example, to improve accessibility and inclusivity, alongside their selection of Lucas, Gerber could commit to hiring a certain number of employees who have Down syndrome. They could create educational tools and other resources for parents whose children are born with Down syndrome. They could allocate some of their profits towards supporting disability advocates' efforts to pressure governments to enforce policies that will remove the barriers to reaching their full potential that those living with disabilities experience.
Representation matters, and Gerber's decision is a step in the right direction. Let's not let our celebrations of increasing visibility detract from the other hard work that is still to be done.
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