Paul Polman and activist call on brands to include disabled people

Valuable 500 campaign, backed by ex-Unilever CEO, is seeking help from CMOs.

Valuable 500: Polman, Casey and Michael Hayman
Valuable 500: Polman, Casey and Michael Hayman

Former Unilever chief executive Paul Polman and disability activist Caroline Casey have appeared at Advertising Week Europe to drum up support for Valuable 500, an initiative to inspire businesses to adapt to people with disabilities.

The pair want 500 businesses to pledge to start addressing an issue that Casey claimed affects 13 million people in the UK – herself included. She was registered legally blind while working at Accenture earlier in her life – something that she said she hid at the time "for fear of what it would mean for my career".

She thanked AWE for the chance to reach chief marketing officers, whom she described as "the greatest game-changers" because they can help the cause of people with disabilities by including them in their advertising.

"When you don’t see yourself in pictures, in advertising, where are you? I need to see me out there. If I was the parent of a disabled child, I want to know business is going to welcome them as a consumer," she said.

"It’s very hard when you’re told you’re not welcome, to keep finding the energy to get up. This feeling of belonging is not a disability issue, it is a feeling we all have. But [having a] disability is being excluded because it’s being defined by a medical condition. No human being should ever be defined by a medical condition, because we are all so much more than one label."

Casey highlighted new Valuable 500 members, including Sainsbury’s and Omnicom, and showed the audience a gently satirical film, "Stop being divers-ish", that Omnicom shop Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO created for the campaign’s launch at Davos last month.

Polman claimed that about 100 companies have shown interest to date and said it was a matter now of building momentum. What would help, he added, is to have more data that shows the impact on companies of better catering to disabled staff and customers.

"Businesspeople tend to move faster if the data is convincing," he said. "We have overwhelming data now that companies that are more gender-diverse perform better."

Casey invited businesses to follow the lead of Channel 4, which conducted a survey of its staff to see how many were living with a disability.

"What Channel 4 did around the Paralympics was extraordinary, but what they did better is [that survey]. They thought that maybe 3% of their staff had a disability, but it turned out to be just under 12%."

She also referred to EY research that showed four out of five C-suite executives with a disability hid it.

"Richard Branson is dyslexic. There are other sitting CEOs who will not declare that. It’s important that we get leaders speaking about their own disability, but also that they have family members with disabilities," Casey said.

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