Why You Don’t See More People in PR Using Wheelchairs

If you and I were to meet in person, you’d have a good idea where I’m coming from on this topic, but if you were to read just about everything I’ve ever written, or if we only know each other remotely, this may come as a surprise to you. I have a disability.

Its onset happened gradually in my 40s and then it stopped. It didn’t reverse. It just stopped getting worse.

The doctors never did figure out the cause, or for that matter, the diagnosis. Though I don’t use a wheelchair, that left me with a new appreciation for the word “idiopathic,” canes, lower leg braces, and a blue and white parking placard.

To be sure, any disability brings certain limitations, but this one has not inhibited me from doing the thing I love most, which is my work as I have always done it. This is why I made the intentional decision early on not to integrate it into my public persona online or in my firm’s marketing.

Along the way, however, I have noticed those non-verbal cues you get when meeting someone in person for the first time, telling me I probably should have given them a heads up. That way, they would have known why I wanted to meet them here not there, or now not then.

So, I decided to get my firm certified by the United States Business Leadership Network, which has rebranded itself to become Disability:IN. That organization certified O’Brien Communications as a Disability Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE).

The purpose for doing it wasn’t to become more eligible for federal or state government work, though it does help. Rather, its purpose was simply to go slightly public with my status on my web site and in other more subtle ways to minimize the element of surprise when I meet people in person for the first time.

Still, I haven’t decided to specialize in disability communications, though I do have some strong thoughts in this area, honed through experience both as a senior level communicator and as someone with a disability. And I don’t identify as a “disabled communications pro.” In fact, that line at the end of the first paragraph of this blog – “I have a disability” – is one I’ve so rarely uttered in my life, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually said it, including the two times I’ve mentioned it here.

This is not to say I don’t empathize with others who may be in a similar situation and take a different approach. I’ve learned not to argue with whatever works for the individual.

About those Missing Wheelchair Users in PR

To this point, I’ve given you a sense of my experience and my mindset, which was important to cover before getting to the meat of the issue of why I believe there aren’t more people in PR who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices and technologies.

In my experience, over decades, the public relations field is a youth-oriented profession. Look around the ranks of most PR agencies and you’ll find the average age of the practitioner is under 40, and in many cases under 30. People at that age, generally haven’t suffered any physical setbacks in their lives.

PR work, particularly for young people, can be physically demanding. Setting up trade show exhibits, doing media tours, coordinating special events and press conferences, carrying, stacking, traveling and oftentimes running, to get a project done and meet deadlines.

While some of the most high-value characteristics of a good communicator do not involve physical labor – strategizing, creative conceptualizing, media relations, writing, social media execution – a good number of the job requirements for entry-level candidates do.

This narrows the number of opportunities in the profession for new college graduates with disabilities.

You have no idea how much I wish I could stop here, because everything I’ve said to this point is relatively easy to understand, if not accept, on why we don’t have more disabled people in the PR ranks.  But there is a deeper truth.

In my interactions with people throughout the PR profession, there is what I see as an unintentional bias against people with disabilities. Though, it’s not quite a bias against the people themselves, but it is an always unspoken attitude that their physical limitations will hold the group back.

Public relations is inherently a social business during the work day and afterward. People want to deal with others who can keep up in the office, on the golf course, at that team-building retreat in the mountains, or simply when hopping from restaurant to a club when the day’s work is done. People don’t want to ponder the question, is he able to do what I want to do? Can she keep up with us?

So, as a profession, firms opt to hire not only the best and the brightest, but usually those with no obvious physical limitations.

And the Winner Is…

There is an obvious irony that not infrequently comes at awards ceremony time, when our professional organizations honor PR teams who’ve done great work. Quite often, the themes of the winning programs center on some form of compassion a company or organization displayed through a program centered on the “disadvantaged” and many times people with some form of disability.

When you see the award-winning team on stage with their trophies, however, chances are the line-up will be a group of able-bodied young people who share nothing in common with the beneficiaries of their work. In fact, if you dig into the content of much award-winning PR work, you’re likely to find a series of clichés rather than meaningful, needle-moving messaging. It wins awards because like-minded able-bodied pros are the judges, all presuming they know what works for people they really don’t understand.

While this in itself is not the worst thing, it can be a form of profession self-deception. We tell ourselves we’re nice people and we’re compassionate. We care.  And we probably do. We tell ourselves that people with disabilities need us and they should be grateful for our efforts.

But the industry’s hiring patterns suggest otherwise. If the PR business truly wants to take the lead when it comes to empathy and compassion in business, it can start by staffing its teams with people who actually have a shared experience with the groups they serve or the audiences they target, particularly when it comes to various forms of disability.

In the process, the industry might just find it will do better work because the messaging will be more credible to the people who know better. Many people with disabilities have become accustomed rolling their eyes after being pandered to and patronized by campaigns built around cute ways to use the root term “able” with other phrases to create tag lines and hash tags, while never getting at, or sometimes skirting the bigger issues.

Thanks to technology and a general desire to do the right thing, I think the PR field can change the tide, but it can only happen one hire at a time. Nothing can improve until you make that next hire and make it an exceptional one.

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