One woman’s push to get Madison Avenue to put children with disabilities in ads

 

Chicago Tribune

Katie Driscoll never wanted anyone’s pity. And so, when her daughter, Grace, was born with Down syndrome Driscoll picked up a camera. She wanted to show the world what she saw when she looked at her daughter.

Day by day, taking photos of Grace turned into taking photos of other children with disabilities. There were kids with cerebral palsy. And kids with dwarfism.

As Driscoll looked through the lens of her camera, she couldn’t help but think that these children were just as beautiful as other kids. Why, she wondered, is it so rare to see them appear in advertisements for toys or clothing?

Two years ago, the 39-year-old mother of six began posting photos of children with disabilities to a website she called ChangingTheFaceOfBeauty.org. And then she sat down at her kitchen table and emailed companies, asking them to consider including one of the children in an advertisement.

Take a look for yourself, Driscoll wrote, in her pitch. These kids are gorgeous.

Sunlight streams into the photo studio.

The props — a lemonade stand, six cupcakes and a jar of fresh flowers — are ready.

But 4-year-old Grace, dressed in frilly green shorts and a pink T-shirt, does not want her photo taken. She whines and cries and drops to the floor. When her mother picks her up, she clings to her mom’s neck and refuses to let go.

This studio was once the garage of Driscoll’s rambling home. Then she persuaded her husband to move his lawn mower to a shed, and now the room has white walls, hardwood floors and professional lights hanging from the ceiling.

Driscoll presses a button on a remote. Pop music fills the room.

She dances with Grace in her arms.

Grace begins to laugh.

The mood lifts.

Soon, Grace is in front of the lemonade stand, sitting next to another model, 4-year-old Molly Doyle.

Grace sways to the music. Little Molly grins.

This is the moment.

Driscoll lifts her camera.

Click, click, click.

“When you are working with children who have different abilities,” she says later, “you have to wait until they get comfortable. And that’s when it happens.”

It’s the moment, she says, “you see the light in their eyes.”

Nearly five years ago, a doctor stood before Driscoll and explained that an ultrasound had picked up several markers for Down syndrome. Driscoll was 20 weeks pregnant, a busy mother of five boys and about to leave on a vacation to the Wisconsin Dells.

Down syndrome was not in her plans. “I didn’t really even know what Down syndrome was,” she said.

She mourned for weeks, crying so often she was afraid that she would never be able to leave her house. She had never known a person with a developmental disability. “I would rock my youngest son to sleep and think, ‘My perfect life is over,’ ” she said.

She read articles online, she said, “trying to find resources that would tell me my baby was going to be OK.” She met with parents of children with Down syndrome. But her biggest comfort was her husband, Tom. Late at night, when she whispered her fears, Tom Driscoll held steady. He told her: “This child is going to teach us a lot more than we will ever teach this child.”

Indeed, there were many lessons and many surprises that lay ahead. The first came in the delivery room when the doctor turned to Driscoll and said: “You have your girl.”

Driscoll had given birth to five boys. She had been so sure she was going to have another boy that she had refused to consider names for a girl.

But here was a beautiful daughter.

A nurse asked: What will you call her?

Driscoll didn’t know.

The nurse smiled and said: “She looks like a Grace.”

Weeks passed in a blur of pink. Friends brought onesies, hats and dresses.

Driscoll was so happy, she said, “I had a perma-grin.” Her gratitude only increased when tests showed that Grace had few of the health complications that often accompany Down syndrome.

Driscoll was soon taking pictures of Grace and posting them on Facebook and later to a blog she launched, 5boysand1girlmake6.com.

“The one thing I didn’t want people to do is to feel sorry for me or to feel sorry for my daughter,” she said. “I used those pictures to say, ‘Look! She’s beautiful!’ 

As part of her blog, Driscoll posted pictures of Grace in outfits from small online boutiques. Those boutiques would, in turn, sometimes repost the pictures to their own websites.

Before long, parents of children with disabilities were sending heartfelt emails to say how touched they were to see Grace in an advertisement.

Steve English, a friend who has a son with a disability, began urging Driscoll to do more. “I started to say to her, ‘We need to take this further,’” he said. “‘Why aren’t there kids like this in the mainstream media?’”

Driscoll was among many parents who cheered for Nordstrom when in 2011 the retailer ran an ad featuring a boy with Down syndrome. She was equally heartened when Target followed suit with one picturing the same child the following year. She hoped the trend would catch on. But the buzz died down, and she recalled, “nothing changed.”

And so, in spring 2012, Driscoll and English launched a Facebook page and a website, ChangingTheFaceOfBeauty.org. The goal: to create an online gallery where advertisers could see children with disabilities and consider casting them in a campaign.

Driscoll started by posting two dozen photos. To collect as many images as possible, she asked parents to send professional photographs of their children. If the parents couldn’t afford a photographer, Driscoll and English found one willing to donate the time.

Photos poured in from families as far away as Australia and the Netherlands. Within a few months, the effort was being praised by Maria Shriver, whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics in 1968.

Driscoll kept sending her emails to different companies — always attaching photos of the children.

Slowly, companies began to respond.

In the fall, one of her pitches landed in the in-box of Casey Silver, who oversees social media for Tori Spelling’s children’s clothing line, Little Maven. “We get emails all the time,” Silver recalled. But this email was different.

When Silver opened the message, she saw that Driscoll had recreated a Little Maven advertisement using kids from the neighborhood. One of the kids was Grace. Driscoll wrote so movingly about her passion for including children with disabilities in advertisements that, Silver said, “by the end I was crying.”

“I was thinking, ‘We have to do something with this,’” Silver said.

Now, two years after she launched her campaign, Driscoll has landed modeling gigs for two dozen children and adults with disabilities.

When Abby Scott, an energetic 8-year-old with strawberry brown hair, learned she had landed on the cover of Chicago Special Parent magazine, she broke into a huge grin and burst out laughing.

In the whimsical photo, Abby, who has cerebral palsy, posed in a pale pink dress, tipped her head adorably and leaned so gracefully against her walker she almost seemed to be dancing. “These kids have so many extraordinary challenges. ... The modeling is something that is fun and cool and unique,” said her mother, Denise Scott.

Driscoll’s models have appeared in ads for Los Angeles-based Little Maven, San Diego-based Infantino toys and St. Louis-based Sweet Petunia clothing, among many others. This summer, Driscoll organized a professional fashion shoot in a South Loop loft, complete with three photographers and a make-up artist/stylist. The event culminated with a gallery exhibit, where models with disabilities circulated among advertising executives.

“I’m going to cry now talking about it,” said Kathie Lyall, recalling how her 22-year-old daughter, Kiley, who has autism, lit up with excitement when she learned she had been chosen to participate in the fashion shoot. “You work so hard for your kids just to be normal, just to fit in to everyday things. This was a really cool thing.”

Today, when strangers look at Grace, they no doubt see the classic features of Down syndrome. But friends and family simply see a beautiful girl, with blond hair and blue eyes, who pirouettes in the kitchen, who loves to wear dresses, who is chatty and affectionate and, her father says with a gentle laugh, “is as stubborn as her mother.”

“The one thing I don’t see is a disability,” he said.

With a half-dozen more shoots scheduled, Driscoll says she hopes the subliminal power of advertising can make the world a more tolerant place.

“Advertising is such a vehicle for change. People make decisions based on what they see on TV and in the newspaper. The more the media embraces people with disabilities, the more people will realize that people with disabilities are capable,” she said.

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