The Disabled List presented #CriticalAxis at Cannes Lions this year. Our goal was to address an emerging trend of misguided disability-centric ads winning high profile advertising awards. So, it came as no surprise when IKEA’s ThisAbles ad won Grand Prix in the category of Health and Wellness communications.
The first time we watch any advertisement, we ask ourselves ‘who is this for’? On the surface, IKEA’s ThisAbles ad appears to be marketing a new resource for disabled people. But the story the ad tells misrepresents its origins, casting IKEA as its savior. In reality, the idea for ThisAbles was conceived of and fought for by the very disabled person they positioned as the user they saved. His name is Eldar Yusupov.
As Yusupov said in a recent Facebook post, ‘I did not just raise it, but I also fought for it in every organ of my body’. The failure to frame the advertising narrative around Yusupov’s ingenuity meant he was overlooked in almost all reporting about the award. Although he was mentioned in AdAge, this is how his work was described:
And in a surprising twist, Eldar is also a copywriter for McCann and helped conceive the “ThisAbles” line.
Had IKEA and McCann detailed Yusupov’s journey in bringing ThisAbles to life, we believe it would have changed two outcomes: First, Yusupov’s contributions would not have been misconstrued as a surprise twist. We also believe if the original campaign had taken care to center Yusupov’s contribution to the project, it could have preempted a dispute between McCann and “the Reut organization, which operates the TOM project for developing products for people with disabilities”. Reut claims they deserve credit for ThisAbles because once they were approached by McCann, they “contacted people who were experts in finding solutions for disabled people” or as their website euphemistically refers to us, “need knowers”.
At first glance, there is a great deal about the ThisAbles campaign that distinguishes it as “good”, even radical, disability design and representation. Crucially, it positions the products as having been designed with (not for) disabled people – a position that is especially notable in contrast to the language used by the TOM project.
These apparent successes of inclusion and representation resulted in a largely positive online response to the ThisAbles product from the disability community. This makes the hidden but all-too-familiar story of a disabled designer’s knowledgeable work erased to make room for a savior narrative – all the more disappointing.
In a recent Facebook post, Yusupov explains how hard he fought, the toll it took on him, and the sacrifices he needed to make to bring ThisAbles to life. As he says, “No one will be able to take the credit for the project from me. As far as I am concerned, people and organizations who want to rob me of the credit are committing injustice and a crime.”
At the end of every #CriticalAxis review, we find a specific way to ask the company and/or agency to think more broadly about disability representation. But for our ThisAbles ad review, we want to reach Eldar. Eldar, you are a copywriter. How would your story read if you had the opportunity to tell it?
ThisAbles opens with Eldar, a 32-year-old man with Cerebral Palsy, sitting on a couch. He says “I am Eldar, 32 years old. Although I have cerebral palsy I do everything I can to conduct myself like everyone else. But in my own home of all places, I’m surrounded by furniture calling out “cripple.” I’d like to sit on a regular sofa, without being afraid I won’t be able to get up, to open a regular closet, or turn on a regular lamp.”
During this dialogue, Eldar is shown trying unsuccessfully to stand from a sofa, open a closet and turn on a lamp with a small button.
The Narrator chimes in, informing the audience that “One in every 10 people in Israel is a disabled person. The idea design vision gave birth to the ThisAbles Project. Smart hacks making IKEA’s best selling items accessible.”
White text on a yellow background (which is a highly inaccessible color pairing) reads ‘THE IKEA DESIGN VISION’.
The Narrator continues, “The project was created in collaboration with two NGOs: Milbat and Access Israel and started off in the IKEA store with a Hackathon of product engineers and disabled people that engaged better understanding of their needs. At the end of the developing process, 13 new products were born, each solving a different accessibility issue such as sofa elevating legs for easier standing, lamp button enlargement, special handles for pax closets, and more. The new products are present in the world’s first “accessible living spaces” in the idea stores. The new models are available for download from the project’s website thisables.com and 3D printing anywhere in the world, so that Eldar, Dine, Pavel, Inbal, Moshe, Tahel, and Liel, can also feel comfortable in their own homes like everyone else.”
September 2022 Update: None of the 3D printing files on the Thisables website are available for download. Any attempt to download yields the same error message that informs us “a critical error has occurred on the site.” At best, this is the result of improper maintenance. At worst, this error message is a sign of abandonment less than three and a half years after the initiative was announced. Only time will tell.