On Target: T-Shirt Model Generates Hope for a World that Includes People with Intellectual Disabilities

You likely needed to have some prior understanding of the second-class status of people with intellectual disabilities in the community in order to get excited about this development. When I first heard about it, my reaction was “Touchdown!” and I’ve since learned I am not alone. Maybe others did not use sports metaphors, but my point is, people are excited! I’ll talk about the story and try to explain the social context too.

I first realized this seemingly innocuous little advertisement (see image below) in the Target weekly flyer was a big deal when it made the rounds via the Executive Director email list hosted by Community Living Ontario. It’s not that I’m saying this particular group of people hold special status in deciding what is important, but they are a pretty busy group of individuals, facing immense pressures from government, unions, and other forces, all the while trying to deliver supports and services to thousands of individuals.

That particular email list is seldom used for discussions of popular culture; the norm is more akin to social policy papers, government proclamations, or minutes from provincial networking minutes. To interrupt regular programming to talk about a department store flyer is an interesting indicator (in my little world) that something important is going on.

That’s more than enough preamble, if you’ve read this far, you deserve to know I’m going on about: a young boy who happens to have Down syndrome was part of a Target ad for t-shirts and pants earlier this month. So what’s the big deal?

He was not in a back section of the flyer for “Specially Abled” kids.

He was not in a “disability catalogue” with a title like “Exceptional Clothes for Exceptional Children.”

He was not included in a special feature to celebrate “Down syndrome week.”

In fact, there’s nothing “special” about the ad at all. He’s just doing what all the other models in the flyer are doing: helping Target with the selling of clothes.

If you aren’t getting this, that’s OK. Only a small percentage of citizens are aware that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most systemically segregated populations in Canadian society (and elsewhere). Although shifts are underway, for the most part their education, housing, vocational, and recreational experiences are segregated – people with intellectual disabilities learn, live, work, and play separate from others. That’s what “Special Education” is all about. That’s what group homes, sheltered workshops, day programs, and “special needs recreation” are all about.

Things are starting to change, but these are massive and complicated systems, and direct and indirect resistance is strong. This is not without reason. There are legitimate fears that resources – once stripped away from segregated activities – will simply vanish. Welcoming and including people with intellectual disabilities in our community requires a variety of critical supports. It’s hard work.

Most people with intellectual disabilities have literacy and numeracy challenges. Difficulties with abstraction, reading the emotional states of others, understanding social contexts, and sequencing are common. Life doesn’t like to slow down for people who need more time, and supporting them to make their way in the world is not easy. It just needs to be done. But that’s a blog for another day.

So what is the advantage of segregated programs? Their artificial existence. They are “there” – insulated from life’s realities. You don’t get fired from a day program. The group home provides a bed and three meals. The special needs recreation program offers bowling and swimming (even if you don’t like bowling or swimming) without the social challenge of non-disabled peers. It’s all about having a guaranteed “place to go” 24/7.

I’m not ignoring the need for acute care for people with physical and mental health problems, and the ability of institutional settings to deliver those resources. I’m talking about the vast majority of individuals with intellectual disabilities who are spending their time in segregated environments because either no other options have been presented to them, and/or they cannot access the support they need to live their lives in community settings.

If you can’t understand how segregated environments can be attractive (why would any parent want their child to have such limited life opportunities, you ask?) consider that the resources available to help people with intellectual disabilities exist outside of these segregated environments are very limited; how long would your adult child need to live an isolated TV-watching experience in the family basement before special programs would start to look attractive? At what point would you decide that ANYTHING must bet better than a future without hope? It’s a pretty rational response to a loss of hope.

Aside from loss of hope and acute care needs, there are other arguments to be made in favour of these altered realities (the words “risk” and “safety” are sure to arise, even though segregation is a very dangerous place to be) but to understand why so many object to these segregated practices and want them to change, ask yourself: are any of these situations a dream I ever had for myself or my loved ones? Well, guess what, they aren’t the dreams of people with disabilities either. Just ask them (I have, lots of times).

I’m generalizing here, but with a high degree of accuracy I have a pretty good idea what most people with intellectual disabilities are after in life: they want a home of their own – to start out in a tiny little apartment just like so many of us did – to have their own dishtowels and a bottle of squeeze ketchup in the fridge. They want a real paying job. They want real friends – not just paid people catering to their “needs.” They want to love. And to be loved.

Two real stories of struggle and triumph!

And so, I am overly jubilant about this young boy’s appearance in the weekly Target ad. Because it gives me hope. If he can just be a kid helping sell a t-shirt, then maybe he can just be a kid in a real high school classroom. He’ll pursue his love of track and field with other local athletes where he’ll consistently finish 7th out of a field of 12 and no one will give him a “participation medal.” They will however invite him out for chicken wings. He’ll eat too many. None of his friends will lecture him about his dietary habits. His nickname will be “Bond” in honour of his 007 finishes. He will retort with a rude limerick that brings the house down.

Bond will go on to be a student in a college classroom, during which time he will support himself with a part-time job at local restaurant, where he will also meet his first serious girlfriend. They will take a bus to a distant city to see the Lady Gaga comeback tour. Their friends will mock them on Facebook for idolizing the music of their parents. Bond will propose to his girlfriend at sunrise the next day, and they’ll settle into a nice little affordable apartment, where they will befriend their much older neighbour, who will the very next winter slip on some ice. Bond will call 911 and save his neighbour’s life. A few years later the neighbour will drive Bond’s wife to the hospital when she goes into labour two weeks early. There will be heartbreak. There will be celebrations. And on his life will go.

That’s a nice story. I made it up. But it’s one that is actually being written daily. There are individuals with intellectual disabilities in your own community – wherever you may be – that are living a Rosa Parks existence through their efforts to enjoy a routine existence (not “special”) as students, employees, neighbours, and friends. Their struggle is real.

Does your workplace reflect the diversity of the community it serves?

For the most part, the systems we have built, from education to developmental services to municipal recreation, continue to point these individuals down a segregated path. We, the citizens and taxpayers who have accepted these practices as assumed norms, reinforce them through ignorance, fear, and discrimination instead of being welcoming and inclusive.

Would you like to help change this?

You can do what Target has done by NOT doing anything SPECIAL and NOT supporting approaches that seperate people with disabilities from others. Make it REAL.

Be a neighbour. Be a co-worker. Be an acquaintance. I can’t guarantee friendship, because that takes two and it doesn’t always happen. But friendly, you can be. Sure, you might have to be a bit deliberate about it. You might even require some help finding ways to get involved. I’ll be happy to help if I can – with anything from connecting with a person who shares your interests (could be music, a hobby, a sport, other) to thinking about how your workplace could diversify their hiring practices to include people with intellectual disabilities. Click here for all my contact information.

Further reading: see “Target Is ‘Down’ With Down Syndrome: 5 Things Target Said By Saying Nothing At All” on the blog Noah’s Dad – to the best of my knowledge, this blog was responsible for much of the word of mouth about this story.

Addendum: For their part, representatives of Target Corp. say that Ryan’s appearance in their ad is part of the company’s long-running effort to reflect diversity.

“Target is committed to diversity and inclusion in every aspect of our business, including our advertising campaigns,” company spokeswoman Jessica Carlson said in a statement. “Target has included people with disabilities in our advertising for many years and will continue to feature people that represent the diversity of communities across the country.”

Please don’t be shy to leave a comment below. Due to spam prevention, they are held for approval, but 99% of the time – unless you are trying to get readers to send you money so they can access a long lost fortune you’ve recovered for them – you will have your comment quickly approved.

About Keenan Wellar

Keenan is a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of a social change and community benefit organization, LiveWorkPlay.ca, a registered charity which helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was named Ottawa's Best Non-Profit of 2019 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal "Best Ottawa Business Awards " With Julie Kingstone, Keenan is co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, dedicated to supporting a culture of excellence for non-profit, private sector, government organizations, collaborations, and partnerships. Keenan is a founding member of the leadership group for the From Presence To Citizenship collaborative. Keenan is a regular guest (monthly) of the News 1310 Power Lunch radio show, and he writes the monthly NPQ North column for Nonprofit Quarterly. When not working and supporting various social causes, Keenan loves kayaking and wildlife photography, cheering for the Ottawa RedBlacks and Pittsburgh Steelers, and causing a disturbance on social media.
This entry was posted in advocacy, disability, intellectual disabilities, Uncategorized, values and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On Target: T-Shirt Model Generates Hope for a World that Includes People with Intellectual Disabilities

  1. Levi Lexier says:

    Hi Keenan,
    I really enjoyed your blog article very much about the unfortunate reality of people with intellectual disabilities being forced into segregation instead of living in the community, having real jobs, having real friends instead of just staff friends, living in the community instead of in big institutions or hospitals, and the best one of all (being loved and being able to love, such as Julie Huber and me being able to love one another and hopefully one day get married to each other) etc.
    Levi Yitzchak Lexier


    • Thank you Levi! In the end “inclusion” is when the full range of life opportunities are available to people, and we just aren’t there yet for people with intellectual disabilities. Our taxpayer funded systems need to support progress, not create barriers. Right now it is a mix of both. We have to do better.


  2. gotepi says:

    Wow! Good for Target for getting that a cross section of society means more than just a cross section of ethnic cultures.
    Someday none of this will be news worthy because it’s just the way things are. For now though, I want to shout from the roof tops, “Hurray!” Of course he can model a t-shirt!
    When you fail to see the person behind the label, who is intellectually disabled?


    • A good point – when we talk about “diversity” the conversation still tends to exclude a great many people. Even within the framework of “disability” it is not yet well understood that it encompasses a lot more than “a person who uses a wheelchair.”


  3. rebeccahappy says:

    Great article Keenan. What I find disconcerting though as well in terms of diversity is that even within the ranks of service providers we do not necessarily build on inclusion. For example, how many sector meetings that ask for delegates send people with disabilities? or how many protests do we help people participate in whether it is for the field or something like occupy Ottawa or wear red Friday or earth day whatever their interests as citizens of our community may be? Do we even consider it?
    I went to changecamp a couple of years ago and I always look at demographics…I don’t think there was anyone there with a visible form of any disability let alone intellectual., there were maybe 3 old people, no new immigrants, no street people. etc…People are unaware. They need to hear what you have to say.


  4. Sharon Toji says:

    I agree this is wonderful. It is so difficult to get attention paid to issues like this. I have been on the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Committee that develops standards for physical access to the built environment. I tried to get them to recognize an organization that dealt with brain trauma, and was turned down. I now represent people with hearing loss (HLAA) and on the California Access Advisory Committee for the Building Standards Commission, I have represented cognitive disabilities for four years. Years ago, when I was on a Communications Subcommittee to revise our ADA standards, I tried to get the Committee to recognize just a handful of pictograms — for restrooms, enclosed stairs, elevators, information or assistance booths and perhaps a couple of others I’ve forgotten. It was turned down on the grounds that the pictograms would be “ugly” and people wouldn’t allow them in their buildings! My goal was to have a few standard pictograms so that people with various cognitive disabilities could find the restrooms alone, find stairs or elevators if they needed them, and find assistance if they needed it. People with dyslexia and stroke spoke on behalf of it. I had participated in a study of pictograms in transportation venues that proved that a few simple pictograms were helpful to people with developmental disabilities. But no! They would be ugly! This, despite the fact that you find them in airports, and also used all over the world where people from other countries travel.

    I think there is nothing more demeaning for an adult who has any kind of communications impairment to have to ask to have someone else take him to the restroom, because otherwise he or she might confuse the women’s or men’s restroom and enter the wrong one.

    And speaking of signaling people out. Kids who use wheelchairs are, in many schools, forced to have their lockers and the spaces at the cafeteria tables where there is no bench (so they can pull up and sit there), labeled with the wheelchair symbol! It isn’t even in the law, since it’s obvious that school lockers are assigned, so you don’t need a symbol, and no one else can sit at the space at the table, unless they want to sit on the floor. For a kid trying to fit in, it’s kind of like having to wear some sort of tag: I am disabled. Don’t forget it!

    I know how hard it is to be “invisible” when your appearance or actions or some sort of assistive technology you have to use in public shouts out “this person is different.” And I get so tired of hearing “Oh, we won’t need braille signs because we always watch out for blind people and help them.”

    Sorry about the long rant, but this is an important subject for me.

    Sharon Toji
    ADA communications and signage consultant
    Irvine, California


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