Last week I wrote a column for Pacific Standard on the Gerber Baby. He has Down syndrome. Yay! Now what?
I contacted Gerber to find out more about their commitment to disability rights. Initially, Business Insider reported on parents who complained that Gerber Life, the baby food company’s sister affiliate, was refusing to provide life insurance to kids with Down syndrome. A spokesperson at Gerber’s parent company, Nestlé, contacted me to say that, in fact, the company does insure some children with Down syndrome. Gerber and Nestlé did not respond to questions about how often children with Down syndrome are rejected for life insurance as opposed to children without the genetic condition. I also asked about the company’s rates of employing adults with disabilities. The spokesperson wouldn’t tell me much about Gerber specifically, but emailed to say that Nestlé employs 2,696 people with disabilities around the world. They would not tell me how many of these people have Down syndrome, or how many receive full wages rather than sub-minimum wages. Nestlé employs around 328,000 people, so the reported number is less than 1 percent. The spokespeople also didn’t respond when I asked for more information about plans to capitalize on the current publicity and take concrete steps for inclusion and accessibility within their company.
If a company is going to slap a cute picture of a child with Down syndrome on a bottle, it’s fair to ask them how they plan to use the publicity and resulting profits to build a more inclusive company. If Down syndrome organizations and celebrities are going to tout this advertisement as a significant first step toward more widespread acceptance, it’s fair to ask them what second step they envision. Advertising is just as important as any other form of representation. Wherever they are images of people, there should be images of all kinds of people from across the beautiful diversity of the human species. If Gerber’s brand identity requires a different phenotype of baby every year, I’m glad Down syndrome is in the mix. But what’s next? When is coasting on a feel-good wave of publicity about a conventionally cute child not enough? I don’t want a revolutionary new corporate move; when it comes to disability and inclusion, I want a revolution.
I have been going back and forth with Nestle’s spokesperson over the past week and have made no progress. I am assuming that the number of employees with Down syndrome employed by Gerber is zero. I am assuming that the number of employees with Down syndrome employed by Nestle is also zero. I am assuming that while Gerber Life sometimes grants insurance policies to kids with Down syndrome, they mostly don’t, or at least at rates VASTLY below their approvals for kids without Down syndrome.
I get why Gerber wants to reap the rewards of feel-good inspirational publicity, but it’s far past time for the formal Down syndrome and broader intellectual disability community to hold their corporations accountable.
When corporations like Gerber do these stunts, I want the NDSS, The Arc, Special Olympics, and whoever else has clout to say – great! What’s your jobs plan? What’s your equal services plan?
Because otherwise these publicity stunts are empty.