For five years, Katie Driscoll of Palos Park worked day and night trying to persuade retailers to use more children with disabilities in advertising. She flew all over the country offering photo clinics to parents of children with special needs so they would have images to use while promoting the mission as well.
She emailed, called and met with dozens of corporations that told her "no" — which only inspired her to email, call and meet with them again.
So this month, when a Facebook friend posted a photo of an advertising banner hanging above the seasonal aisle at Walgreens depicting an 8-year-old girl with Down syndrome happily holding a fuzzy chick, Driscoll probably shouldn't have been caught off guard.
"Is this Grace?" the Facebook friend asked, referring to Driscoll's daughter, her blond-haired, blue-eyed youngest child and the inspiration for all her efforts.
"I was shocked," Driscoll recalled. "I definitely did not expect for her to be in such a visible position."
Much has changed since 2012, when Driscoll, 42, launched ChangingtheFaceofBeauty.org from a makeshift photo studio she opened in her south suburban garage. Back then, the stay-at-home mother of six thought she was creating an online gallery of images of children with disabilities — a place where advertisers could see adorable children with special needs and consider casting them in a campaign.
But in a few short years, Changing the Face of Beauty has surprised even Driscoll with its success. Bombarded with images and inquiries from around the world, Driscoll registered Changing the Face of Beauty as a nonprofit organization in 2015.
The organization has landed big-name corporate partners, including Matilda Jane Clothing, The Land of Nod and Nordstrom. Driscoll and Grace have been featured on the "Today" show and will appear in an upcoming photo spread in Women's Health magazine. Editors from American Girl magazine have asked for a meeting.
The success mirrors, and is likely one of the reasons for, progress in the way people with disabilities have been represented in the media in recent years, said Gail Williamson, a talent agent at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, one of the few casting agencies in Los Angeles that has a department designated for landing jobs for people with special needs. Williamson represents five of the seven actors with Down syndrome featured on the Emmy Award-winning A&E reality program "Born This Way."
"For 25 years, I've been saying there's a wave coming and we have to be ready to catch it," Williamson said. "It feels like the wave is starting a little bit."
For the last three years, Williamson has had one or two actors with disabilities called in for auditions each year. This year, nearly 30 have been asked to audition. And there are more shows than ever featuring characters with disabilities: Two shows have characters with autism, two have characters with Down syndrome and two have characters who use wheelchairs, Williamson said.
Still, while companies may be showing interest in hiring people with disabilities as actors or to promote their products, another setback still exists: Most talent agencies in Chicago and across the U.S. do not yet choose to represent people with special needs in their portfolios, Williamson said.
Some of the lack of inclusion from talent agencies is due to long-standing stereotypes about people with disabilities not being able to perform well. Another reason is that talent agencies may be fearful of offering up a person with disabilities if one is not specifically requested. Why risk losing commission on a contract if you don't have to? Williamson asked.
For her part, Williamson is working to cast people with disabilities in the background of as many scenes as possible. She believes that in doing so, the public will become so accustomed to seeing people with special needs as part of the landscape that they will eventually not do a double take when the same people are seen in main roles.
"Baby steps," Williamson said. "I don't know if (casting agents) will ever all ask for people with disabilities. But I do think we'll see more and more roles."
At Changing the Face of Beauty, Driscoll has hired three staff members to help with the many ongoing efforts. In the next six months, the organization is scheduled to hold 10 "head shot clinics" around the country in which parents may pay a small fee to have professional photographs taken of their child with special needs.
They are creating the first "stock imagery database" for people with disabilities. The database will allow photographers to showcase photos of people with disabilities and advertisers to purchase the images to promote their products, Driscoll said.
And Driscoll is working with representatives from the Chicago-based advertising company Ogilvy & Mather to prepare a presentation for talent agencies that will encourage them to understand the importance of using people with disabilities in their work.
"We have to change the business world out there," Driscoll said. "Because if (people with disabilities) are valued as consumers, then they'll be valued as potential employees."
With so many ongoing projects to promote using people with disabilities in advertising, Driscoll had papers scattered around her kitchen counter on the day her Facebook friend noticed the photo of Grace hanging at her local drugstore.
Walgreens executives have worked for more than a decade to integrate people with disabilities into the organization. Until recently, the bulk of those efforts were focused on creating job opportunities and central roles for people with disabilities at its distribution centers and within stores, said Steve Pemberton, global chief diversity officer for Walgreens.
Last fall, the company requested that one of the models for an upcoming photo shoot be a child with disabilities.
Amanda Gray, whose company, Amanda Gray Productions, does casting for Walgreens, said she was delighted when she saw the request but had to borrow headshots — provided by Changing the Face of Beauty — from another agency because she didn't have any of her own.
Walgreens advertising officials didn't know they were choosing Driscoll's daughter when they selected her for the sign, which is now hanging above the Easter aisle in more than 8,000 stores across the U.S., Pemberton said.
"I feel the most powerful message here is perhaps what we are not seeing — this is not in celebration of the American Disability Act, it's simply, "Happy Easter,'" Pemberton said.
It's a message that makes Driscoll very happy.
"I wanted to cry," Driscoll said. "I eat, breathe and sleep this change. So it's a profound feeling when it's your own child out there changing the face of beauty."
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