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Tokenism v. Inclusion

Recently, Target sent out a flyer that included a boy with Down’s Syndrome.

They did so with no press releases, no fanfare, and no expectation of accolades for including a “special” person in their spread. Granted, they received attention for including someone with a disability, and PR and ad agencies being what they are, it was probably a calculated move. However, no one went around with a bullhorn saying, “Hey, look at us, we have a special person in our add!” We are being inclusive!”

The blog Noah’s Dad, which is written by the father of a child with Down’s Syndrome, pointed out that this lack of fanfare communicated five things:

  1. “They said that people born with Down syndrome deserve to be treated the same as every other other person on this planet.
  2. “They said that it’s time for organizations to be intentional about seeking creative ways to help promote inclusion, not exclusion.  (It’s no accident that Target used a model with Down syndrome in this ad; it was an intentional decision.  If want the world to be a place where everyone is treated equal we can’t just sit around and watch the days tick away.  We have to be intentional.  We have to do something.)
  3. “They said that companies don’t have to call attention to the fact that they choose to beinclusive in order for people to notice their support for people with disabilities.  In fact, by not making a big deal out of it they are doing a better job of showing their support for the special needs community.
  4. “They said it’s important for the world to see people born with disabilities with a fresh set of eyes.  That it’s time for us to lay down all the inaccurate stereotypes from the past and move forward embracing the future with true and accurate ones
  5. “They said you don’t have to spend a lot for your kids to look good!  (I mean come on, that shirt’s only five bucks!)”

Target (and Nordstrom who included the model in an ad campaign in early 2011) are a great example of inclusion done well–seamlessly and without attention drawn to the person with differences. The intention of the Target ad isn’t to point out that a kid with Down’s is in their clothes, but to show of the clothes using a bunch of adorable children, one of whom happens to have Down’s Syndrome.

And now for an example of inclusion done badly:

In the interest of full disclosure, this gem showed up in my mailbox as part of the alumni newsletter for my high school. To say my opinion of the school has soured since I graduated would be an understatement, and this is one of the pieces in that process.

It is worth noting that Cathedral High School does not have a Special Education program, so that John graduated with a B average is impressive, but not wholly uncommon. John is the first person with an intellectual disability to graduate from CHS. This gripe has nothing to do with John’s accomplishment.

It has everything to do with the pandering and insulting tone of the article written about him. First off, the article is about his growth through his athletic performance on the track team, yet the photo is of him being embraced by another student, in uniform rather than using one of the (I’m sure) many photos of him running with the track team. Everything about that photo says, “Look at my special friend.”

Second, “It only takes a second to see that John is a special young man.” Excuse me while I take a moment to throw up a little bit. This is a common cliche that people who write about a token person without much information about the individuality of the person or the thing that makes them different use. I don’t know who assembles the articles for the alumni newsletter, but my assumption would be that it is one of the people associated with alumni affairs (Sorry, Dave, if I’m tearing you apart here), whose job it is to get money from past students to help keep a faltering institution afloat.

Last, I feel like there was a major missed opportunity to lean towards the inclusive angle rather than the tokenism. The article is about John, but has very little of him in it. If it were written as student profile, rather than through the lens of exploitation and pandering, it could have taken John’s experience and proven that he was an integral part of the team and the school community, rather than just a mascot.

The ham handed comparison I initially made when reading the article was to desegregation. Would CHS have sent out a press release when it’s first black student graduated? The article should have focused on the accomplishment of a landmark student–in his words and the words of his peers, rather than the differences that made him “special.”