March 23

Capturing Authentic Disability Student Stories

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Despite fifteen percent of the world’s population having a physical disability, most higher ed marketing teams struggle to tell authentic disability student stories to attract a more diverse student body.

Unfortunately, the disability community of students is often an afterthought in DEI-focused higher ed marketing.

While some schools have made massive strides in telling these students’ stories, many others could do so much more—and it starts with building relationships.

First off, let me say that this can be a delicate topic leaving many of us without a clue as to how to go about telling these disability student stories authentically.

Team Trust Production's Ryan Wilson shows us how to more authentically tell disability student stories in higher ed marketing. So that’s why my co-host, Troy Singer, and I invited Ryan Wilson to come speak with us on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

Ryan Wilson, CEO of Team Trust Productions, tells us how colleges and universities can make top grades in authentic storytelling for students with disabilities.

Positivity in Disability

Without that experience, it’s easy to play into common stereotypes which come across as inauthentic. 

This is exactly what Team Trust is trying to fix in the world of digital marketing.

Team trust is a production company that produces films and video concepts. One of the main goals of what we do is to authentically showcase and tell the stories of the disability community, a lot of times with higher education in particular. 

One of the stereotypes of disability is that everyone who is disabled is constantly living in a state of crisis. 

While these critical times of course happen to people with disabilities, for many disabled persons, medical crises are by no means the main aspect of their everyday lives. 

The main focus of any content (whether it’s written or visual) on disability is the disability itself. 

I have a disability myself. I’m in a power chair, and when I grew up, I always saw kids who looked like me on TV. But man! They were always in the hospital. 

I don’t know what the deal was, but we were always wrapped in bandages, like a mummy plugged into a number of devices and surrounded by friends and families as if the end is near.

I know what that experience is like. I mean, I almost didn’t make it out of last year, when I had a pretty significant surgery.

We as individuals with disabilities do have challenges, but at the end of the day, we also play basketball, do marathons, earn PhD’s, and work in engineering. We do all these great things!

If we take a moment to highlight those great things, not necessarily in an inspirational way, but in an authentic way in which we acknowledge the reality of the person’s experiences, it’s going to change a lot of lives. 

For example, I probably would be playing basketball today if I had seen somebody like me playing basketball when I was younger.

Empathy Leads to Authentic Disability Student Stories

We’ve had several guests on The Higher Ed Marketer who talk about DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion). In all these conversations, there is a common theme that I’m hearing: authenticity.

Courtney Cannon, a deaf individual and CMO, shared with us some things from her perspective. 

We also had Katie Jensen from University of St. Thomas who put together the DEI lens viewfinder. 

Each one of them emphasizes the need to share authentic disability student stories.

Sometimes we get stuck in—especially in higher ed marketing—where we just want to check off the boxes. 

Strong messaging? Check. On brand? Check.

Racial diversity? Check. Ethnic diversity? Check. Ability diversity? Check.

This way of thinking has gotten a lot of schools in trouble. In fact, about 20 or 30 years ago, some schools were photoshopping people into crowds, because they wanted to show diversity.

It was a really bad idea. 

So let’s not talk about DEI in terms of percentages, or checking boxes. 

Let’s talk about it in terms of just, “How would I feel, what would I want to see, if I were a disabled, minority, or marginalized student looking for a school like ours?” 

Higher education is so interesting and complex.

It’s unfortunate that 25%—that’s one in four—students with disabilities drop out of college after the first year. And then after the next year, it’s 35%. 

So those are not good numbers, but they are numbers to really pay attention to. 

The reality is—and I’m not bashing anybody—but the reality is, disability is not necessarily top of mind for anybody until we have a personal relationship with someone who has a disability.

But then there’s the other side of the spectrum of disability which is that it is not necessarily top of mind until, “Whoa! We have this big problem going on with our campus. It’s not ADA compliant, and we need to do something now!” 

So how can we capture and tell authentic disability student stories?

Ryan shares some of the heart behind his production company.

What we try to do with Team Trust is we try to be proactive instead of reactive.

We look at how can we address disability from respectful and empathetic angles so you don’t have any problems down the road, when, let’s be honest, there are going to be more individuals with disabilities coming through your campus, whether they’re alumni, current students, you know, or future students. 

When we talk about authenticity, it’s also going beyond just doing a video on somebody like myself or somebody who has a disability on campuses. 

Then, Ryan shared some very helpful ways to “go beyond just doing a video.”

  • Go beyond the video, and spend some time with the person. 
  • Show up to a disability student group. 
  • Tap into local nonprofits that have all these connections and build relationships with disabled persons.

If we begin to approach our education marketing in this incredible personal way, we’ll make sure they know we care about them.

Through authentic relationships, we’ll begin to tell authentic disability student stories. 

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Ryan Wilson to get even more insights into:

  • Why higher ed is lagging behind in disability inclusion (8:54)  
  • Approaching storytelling for the disability community (20:00)
  • How schools can close the gap with students with disabilities (26:24)


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Featured image by Xavier Lorenzo via Adobe Stock

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