Voices of Disability

By Christina Posa, Director of Insights
October 27, 2022

Disability Touches Many Lives

In a survey of over 600 young people in the US*, 43% identified as having a disability. Of the 57% who did not, 76% said they personally know someone with a disability. The majority of young people agree: Disability is not adequately talked about in the media, and the rights of people with disabilities are not adequately met by society and legislation. 

Refinery29’s ‘Voices of Disability’ & VICE Insights Research

The Refinery29 ‘Voices of Disability’ editorial tentpole aims to shed light on the experience of people with disabilities in the US. Before launching the series four years ago, Refinery29 partnered with VICE Insights to understand the state of disability and accessibility in the US. In 2022, VICE Insights conducted a second iteration of the research, tracking progress of disability representation in the media, accessibility of physical space in communities, and perception of legislative rights around disability. 

*This survey was fielded to members of VICE Insights’ proprietary insights communities, Mad Chatter and VICE Voices, with the context that it would cover disability and accessibility. Participants were provided the following text before self-identifying as having or not having a disability: The ADA defines disability as: A physical or mental impairment, either visible or invisible, that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. Physical and/or mental disability must substantially limit one or more major life activity and keep you from participating in the activity. However, the ADA keeps its definition broad to cover as many disabilities as possible. 

The World Around Us Is Not Accessible 

“I had a friend sleep over, and she was unable to use my shower because her brace couldn’t fit in the path leading to the tub. I was pretty embarrassed. Told my landlord about it and she joked that my friend should lose weight. But that wasn’t the issue at all. Her brace, which helps her stand, was too wide to fit between the wall and the shower door.” – Millennial, Woman

Despite disability touching nearly all of young people’s lives directly or indirectly, the space around them is widely inaccessible. At just 42%, the “most” accessible spaces are ‘online websites.’ This dwindles to 18% for pop-up events. Only 39% of grocery stores, 33% of schools, 30% of workplaces, and 27% of public transit are fully accessible. 

This lack of access not only significantly hinders equal opportunities to enter spaces and engage in everyday activities, but it also forces the obligation upon those who need it to ask to be accommodated – something that should be a given in a truly inclusive world. 

The Social Impact of Disability 

What makes living with a disability so difficult is 10% how my diagnosis impacts my body 90% how the way others treat me because of it. – Woman, US 

Of those who identify as having a disability, nearly half (43%) say they are not public about it. Many disabilities are invisible, making it possible for them to slip under society’s radar. But society also may give reason for people with disabilities to intentionally keep their disability private. 

I wish more people understood that we’re just normal people! A lot of people seem to view all disabled people as these inspirational angels when we’re just people. – Gen Z, Nonbinary

Half of those with a disability express dissatisfaction in their societal, communal, and social lives. Many express the uncomfortable experience of being treated differently due to their disability – whether being glorified for it, or isolated because of it. 

Discussing Disability 

“Disabled” describes such a broad constituency that it becomes nearly impossible to empathize and relate in an earnest way. So, I wish I knew more about the ongoing intersectional conversation around 1) what constitutes disability, 2) what groups experience the most avoidable forms of suffering, and 3) how can cultural and policymaking attitudes be reshaped around a more compassionate ethic. – Gen Z, Male

It is agreed by both people with and without disabilities that navigating social discourse around disability is often most challenging. People with disabilities want to communicate their disability in a way that allows it to be fairly and accurately acknowledged, and people without disabilities want to be better friends, allies, and community members by addressing disability in a compassionate and respectful way. But, how does one go about navigating this conversation?

In a separate study on body positivity, VICE Insights asked young people to rate a list of words used to describe body types on a sliding scale from ‘acceptable’ to ‘unacceptable.’ The results showed that more specific language, such as “amputee,” was considered more socially acceptable than broader terms like, “handicapped.” In drawing a parallel to the expansion of language for gender indentiy (agender, nonbinary, etc.) and sexual orientation (pansexual, bicurious, etc.), it seems arguable that more language is also needed to better define, communicate, and normalize the spectrum of disability. 

Brands Need to Speak Up

Amplified by coverage in entertainment networks, shifts in culture are just starting to take place around disability. Shows like ‘Love On The Spectrum,’ ‘The Glow Up,’ and ‘Love Island,’ have gained mainstream popularity while filling cultural voids in conversation around disability. 

But brands are lagging far behind. Just 37% of young people  (a decline of 6 percentage points from 2019) have heard a brand talk about accessibility for people with disabilities. 


Being an ally doesn’t mean speaking for disabled people but instead you are meant to amplify their voices. – Gen Z, Female 

Among the Top 5 ways young people prefer to learn more about disability and accessibility is: “Updates from brands/companies that are supporting disability rights.” 78% are interested in reading/watching stories about disability rights. Young people want to know more, and brands have voices that can tell them.

What Brands Can Do:

    • > Create more inclusive products and experiences: Ensure product lines are designed for all individuals. Audit store layouts, website functionality, and pop-up events to ensure the experience does not exclude people with disabilities. 

    • > Use specific language: There is a wide spectrum between visible and invisible disabilities, mental and physical disabilities, and the range of experiences that come with each. Speaking to the specifics will help convey the circumstance with accuracy and legitimacy.

    • > Listen, and Then Amplify What You’ve Heard: Inclusivity is not just about who is shown in advertisements; inclusivity is about who is at the table, bringing a perspective that enhances the brand’s ability to see from every angle of the human experience. Starting from the inside, brands can better aim to create what not only looks inclusive, but feels inclusive for all individuals.

To learn more about VICE Insights, the voices of our communities or research email insights@vice.com


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