Olivia Wilde’s Down Syndrome PSA Gets It So Wrong
People with disabilities are invisible enough. Why did they erase us from an awareness campaign?
Surrounded by an overwhelmingly prejudiced and exclusionary media that rarely reflects my reality back at me, I find myself in a permanent struggle to look in the mirror and feel confident about the person I see.
As a disabled woman, I am constantly reminded that society expects me to minimize my disability, to try to make people forget it exists. My relationships, my accomplishments, and my hopes and dreams are too often perceived as being in spite of my disability. Not a day goes by where I don’t have to remind myself that I am okay exactly as I am.
Because of this, it cut me deeply when I watched “How Do You See Me?,” a new ad featuring Olivia Wilde released in honor of the March 21 observance of World Down Syndrome Day. I assumed it would be a PSA in which Wilde built on her media darling reputation by saying a few words to support an important cause. I was in for a shock.
The ad, produced by Saatchi & Saatchi New York, an advertising firm, and CoorDown, an Italian association for people with Down syndrome, features a woman with Down syndrome narrating (who I learned only after some activists went digging to find any acknowledgment, is named AnnaRose) how she envisions herself and the path her life will take. AnnaRose’s visions for her own life are illustrated through a video montage of Wilde going through a range of experiences and emotions.
I understand the intent of the ad. It’s supposed to convey the ways in which we are all one and the same as human beings, and how we all share similar aspirations. CoorDown president Sergio Silvestre asserted that the ad was in line with the organization’s goals “to break down barriers and to create a culture of inclusion for people with Down syndrome.” Unfortunately, the team behind the ad is painfully unaware of how their ad accomplishes just the opposite.
Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to full inclusion for people with any type of disability is, quite simply, the fact that most people consider “disabled” to be a synonym for “different,” and “different” is considered bad. The appearances and the lives of disabled people generally don’t conform to narrow-minded social norms that dictate it is only acceptable to look like a model. As such, disabled people are almost always erased from the media, and almost never given the chance to fully represent ourselves. The “How Do You See Me?” ad perpetuates this exact barrier by erasing the woman with Down syndrome from her own story.
Instead, it becomes Olivia Wilde’s story—a “perfect” ideal that leaves disability unseen and eliminates images of true inclusion, which is what the world truly needs to see. My questions are: Why couldn’t AnnaRose portray her own life? Why couldn’t she be shown dancing, laughing, sitting on the couch with a loved one, walking on the beach with family? If she says that she sees herself doing these things, why isn’t she literally seen doing them?
If I’d watched this ad in high school, I might have viewed it more positively, because like the media, I also used to try to erase my disability. For years, the highest compliment you could pay me was to say something that indicated you forgot I use a wheelchair. If I had asked anyone the question “how do you see me?,” I would have been ashamed if people said they see me as someone who has a disability. I wanted to get as far away from being identified as disabled as possible.
I longed for a way to make my highly visible disability invisible because I wanted to look like the crowd of pretty girls, the magazine cover models, the girls like Olivia Wilde. I honestly feared I would never find love because I don’t look like the cliché type of woman that the media puts forth as successful and attractive. These horrible, self-hating thoughts grew like weeds in my mind because I constantly found myself barraged by media that made me feel like being disabled meant it wasn’t OK to accept myself for who I am.
This is the message driven home by featuring Wilde. She is a conventionally attractive, successful person who doesn’t need to fight for a disability to be accepted. She is portrayed as the object of an actually disabled woman’s aspirations.
Yes, we all want the best for ourselves, which the ad clearly tries to convey. In this way, we are all the same. But beyond this, differences are normal; differences are what make us ordinary. As such, the PSA would have been much more effective if it had shown AnnaRose and Olivia Wilde laughing and dancing together. That’s real inclusion. And using Olivia Wilde, an attractive actress, to exemplify what is “normal” or “ordinary” is incredibly limiting, completely ignoring the fact that diversity is the true definition of an ordinary world.
It has taken me years to begin undoing the damage of believing that I am only enough when I try to align myself with other people’s ideas of normalcy and desires to look beyond my disability. But now, I realize that loving myself is not something I must do in spite of my disability. My disability is connected to all that I see in myself. It is part of what shapes who I am. I have learned that I do not need to separate myself from my disability, nor do I want others to separate it from me.
So, when considering your response to “How Do You See Me?,” please don’t erase my disability. I see it when I look in the mirror, and I want you to see it too. Accept it as part of what makes me, me. Only then will you see exactly who I am, and who I am proud to be.