WeThe15: Disabled Community Skeptical of New Disability Awareness Campaign

man in basketball uniform in wheelchair


Key Takeaways

  • Last week, global organizations headed by the IPC and UNESCO launched the biggest-ever disability rights campaign, called WeThe15. The campaign aims to improve inclusion for disabled people.
  • Using the Tokyo Paralympics as an initial platform, WeThe15 aims to improve the lives of 1.2 billion disabled people.
  • Many disabled people are skeptical of the campaign and how effective it could actually be.

To coincide with disabled people from around the world gathering for the Tokyo Paralympic Games this week, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and International Disability Alliance (IDA) have launched the biggest-ever human rights movement for disabled people.

The campaign, called WeThe15, was launched ahead of the Games on August 19. The name is a nod to the 15% of the world's population (1.2 billion people) that is disabled. The goal of the WeThe15 campaign is to end discrimination toward disabled people and to publicly campaign for disability visibility, accessibility, and inclusion.

Committing to Real Change

The campaign will start by focusing on Paralympic athletes but will expand to promoting equity for disabled people from across disciplines—from sports and business to arts and entertainment— for the next 10 years. This year, in light of the pandemic, the organizers are concentrating on COVID-19 vaccine access for disabled people.

While the goal is admirable, many disabled people do not expect the campaign to bring about meaningful change. Branded badges and social media hashtags make it easy for people and companies to make a show of supporting disabled people, but some experts predict that their support will be empty.

"Companies ought to commit to real change," Dr. Amy Simmons, a doctor of sociology in disability studies and currently a research assistant at the University of Kent, tells Verywell. "If a company edits their logo to include a patch of purple [from the campaign], but their actions do not indicate any commitment to change, their involvement in WeThe15 only serves to boost their moral capital and sales."

WeThe15 Objectives

  1. Put persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda
  2. Implement a range of activities targeting governments, businesses and the public over the next decade to drive social inclusion for persons with disabilities
  3. Break down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society
  4. Ensure greater awareness, visibility, and representation of persons with disabilities
  5. Provide education on the social model of disability to dispel global societal and cultural misconceptions and explain that disability is created by societal and systemic barriers rather than an individual’s impairment
  6. Promote the role of assistive technology as a vehicle to driving social inclusion

The Power of Disabled Sport

The IPC, the Special Olympics, the Invictus Games Foundation, and the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (Deaflympics) have teamed up for the first time for WeThe15. A major part of their Paralympic strategy is promoting the role of assistive technology in improving accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people.

In a statement, IPC President Andrew Parsons said that "by partnering with Special Olympics, Invictus Games, and Deaflympics, there will be at least one major international sport event for persons with disabilities to showcase WeThe15 each year between now and 2030."

Parson added that sports events, in particular, "add great value to the campaign and underline the hugely positive impact sport can have on society," and that they "strongly believe WeThe15 could be a real game-changer for persons with disabilities.”

A 90-second video detailing the realities of disabled life aired during the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games, reaching an estimated global audience of 250 million people.

Organizations Working Together

A host of organizations from across the globe will be supporting WeThe15 alongside the aforementioned athletic groups, including the Internal Disability Alliance, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Human Rights, The European Commission, The Valuable 500, Global Citizen, and Global Disability Innovation Hub, among others.

These organizations say they will work with governments, businesses, and the public over the next decade to initiate lasting change for disabled people. This includes taking steps to put disabled people at the heart of diversity and inclusion agendas.

In the IPC statement, Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, said that "more than one billion people live with a disability today, and yet the world is still far from truly recognizing and honoring this 15% of society" and that "it is time to change our perception of people with disabilities and make their voices heard everywhere."

To that end, Azoulay added that the sporting achievements of Paralympic athletes are "formidable sources of inspiration and examples for all of us. UNESCO is proud to join the WeThe15 movement and its unique coalition to build a world that puts inclusion front and center."

Response From the Disabled Community

While many members of the disabled community celebrated the high ambitions of the movement and looked forward to what is to come, others were cynical. Countless awareness campaigns over the years have failed to lead to any real change.

Elizabeth Wright

[We need to] shift the view of disability from that as inspiration porn or a tragedy trope.

— Elizabeth Wright

Some people have pointed out that the Paralympics are a great launchpad for WeThe15, including Elizabeth Wright, a swimmer who competed in the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games.

"With the rising profile of the Paralympics, I can say that it is about time and so important that we use this movement to tackle the wider disability injustices and inequalities," Wright tells Verywell."[We need to] shift the view of disability from that as inspiration porn or a tragedy trope."

The Games are a good start, but they're far from the end-game. Wright says that the movement needs to "amplify the nuance of disability" beyond the lens of sport and "shift the narrative to be more inclusive of that wider lived experience."

Deaf journalist Liam O'Dell says that the campaign is misguided in its approach. "I can’t take a campaign seriously when it pledges to educate people, yet uses person-first language in its launch; lights up buildings in purple as a meaningless gesture; has organizations posting promotional images without alt text and focusses more on awareness."

What Is Person-First Language?

Person-first language describes people by identifying them as people before mentioning a condition or state. For example, "a swimmer with disabilities" is person-first language, as opposed to the identity-first language of "a disabled swimmer."

While this type of phrasing is often recommended to avoid stigma and to identify people beyond their condition, person-first language is usually not preferred by disabled communities. Identity-first language acknowledges that disabilities are a part of an individual's experience and identity.

It's important to ask how people would like to be identified. The fact that WeThe15 uses the person-first language—"people with disabilities"—as opposed to identity-first language—"disabled people"—is a contentious subject. Many disabled people believe that this shows that the campaign is not serious about affecting change for them.

On Twitter, the International Paralympics Committee stood by the campaign language.

However, the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Paralympic team took to Twitter to clarify that they say "disabled" and "non-disabled."

Who Is WeThe15's Intended Audience?

For Connor Scott-Gardner, a blind student, WeThe15 misses the mark. "I'm uncomfortable with the whole idea that we must humanize ourselves and go around saying, 'Look, I am a human being, just like you,'" Scott-Gardner tells Verywell. "It feels like this is a campaign for other people, and like we're trying to make ourselves more acceptable for them."

According to sight loss and disability advocate Jon Attenborough, it might a good thing that WeThe15 is not aimed squarely at the disabled community.

"Sometimes I feel like things are shared within our own community too much and can be a bit of wasted effort, as you’re essentially sharing it among people who are already converted to the cause," Attenborough tells Verywell. "So targeting people outside of the disability community is really important."

What This Means For You

With COVID-19 disproportionately impacting disabled people, now is the time to draw attention to the disabled community's needs. Despite criticisms of the campaign, WeThe15 and the organizations are trying to ensure that over 1 billion disabled people are not left behind in COVID vaccination efforts and —eventually and more broadly—in a post-pandemic world.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. World Report on Disability.

By Rachel Charlton-Dailey
Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is a health and disability journalist. They serve as editor-in-chief of The Unwritten, a platform for the stories of disabled people. Their work features in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider.