As part of my piece for the Guardian – ‘Why the Paralympics won’t challenge perceptions of disability’ – I spoke about Sainsbury’s choice to use non-disabled David Beckham to front their Paralympics adverts. Justin King, Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s wrote into The Guardian to respond:
Frances Ryan doubts that the Paralympics will alter society’s view of disability (Society, 29 August)). I disagree. Over 2.4 million schoolchildren have tried out Paralympic sports, such as sitting volleyball, as part of Sainsbury’s Million Kids Challenge. According to a YouGov poll we commissioned, over 75% of children want to play more Paralympic sports and 64% of parents believe it’s important for their children to watch the Paralympics and to learn more about the sports involved.
Watching the Games over the coming days will undoubtedly increase interest in these sports as people are inspired by the hard work, professionalism and skill of the athletes. Indeed, our polling shows that two-thirds of adults say they feel inspired by athletes with disabilities who train so hard to succeed at an international level.
Ms Ryan criticises Sainsbury’s choice of David Beckham as a Paralympic ambassador on the grounds that he is able-bodied. She misses the point. All our ambassadors – including Paralympic athletes Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and Dave Clarke – demonstrate that skill, hard work and commitment unite all athletes. It is a powerful combination that is changing perceptions.
I’m no expert in PR or the general rules of capitalism, but I’d say Mr. King was doing a good (and expected) job of defending his company. It was a defence though that was, at least partly, unnecessary. Forgive me, but I had said:
‘A unique event to showcase disabled sport can be spectacular. Unapologetic, it is disability pride, a refusal to be seen as vulnerable or hide in the shadows. But it needs to be one where a disabled person, rather than David Beckham, is the face of Sainsbury’s Paralympic adverts. And one where Royal Mail was always planning to celebrate Paralympics winners in the same way as Olympians, rather than changing its mind to produce a stamp for each individual or team ParalympicsGB gold medal win “in response to public demand”.’
The problem was never Sainsbury’s then, but the society that makes a company feel it is necessary to lean on non-disabled celebrity to make a disabled event sellable. In this society, disability is ‘other’ and marginalised. It isn’t pretty or successful and it’s not a lifestyle the customer is thought to want to buy. What Sainsbury’s did wasn’t a sign of prejudice or willful exclusion. It was a reflection of the society they are working within.
Similar can be said for Royal Mail (though I have considerably less sympathy here). Rightly or wrongly, the original decision to celebrate Paralympians less than Olympians was made because a company thought this appropriate. They thought excuses of ‘logistical and practical impossibility’ in printing a large number of stamps would satisfy the public – and symbolic and literal inequality would be accepted. (It wasn’t, and they u-turned suitably.)
I applaud Sainsbury’s efforts to make Paralympic sport more mainstream. I share Mr. King’s pleasure that more children are participating, and perhaps more, their parents are understanding the importance. But it does no one any good to cite this as evidence of a vast shift in perception, or to ignore the fact a non-disabled face isn’t just part of an ensemble but out in front.
Could Sainsbury’s have scrapped David Beckham and focused purely on disabled athletes? Yes. Would this have had the same economic or commercial success? No. If this is ever going to change, considerable measures need to be taken. The first, as they say, is admitting you’ve got a problem.