Diversity and Disability in Illustrations: Part 3

Diversity and Disability in Illustrations: Part 3

The final instalment of our insight series focuses on how disability and diversity are represented in illustrations in Australia and around the world.

In Part One we addressed how our mindset affects diversity and disability representation in illustrations and gave tips on how to choose or draw more inclusive art.

In Part Two we examined how different companies around the world represent diversity and disability through illustrations.

In Part Three we show how different countries around the world represent diversity and disability through media and reflect on how authentic representation still has a long way to go.

How are Diversity and Disability represented in Australia?


Australia is composed of more than 24.6 million people of different cultural backgrounds. Multiculturalism has always been a part of Australia’s roots; however, diversity has historically not been Australia’s strongest pursuit. Today, we celebrate a culturally diverse society with over 49% of Australians (as of 2016) being First Generation Australians.

Australian media does not often represent how culturally diverse our country is, nor does it always respectfully represent other cultures. However, representation of diversity in Australian media has been improving over the past decade, with more public figures in our media coming from different cultures whilst still identifying first as ‘Australian’.

View image on Twitter
A divisive caricature of Serena Williams throwing her tennis racket after her loss against Naomi Osaka at the US Open by The Herald Sun, 2019. Exaggerating Serena Williams’ facial features, presenting her as ‘ape-like’. Naomi Osaka is presented as blonde haired and slim to contrast against Williams’ exaggerated features.

In contrast, Australian Children’s Books are contextually rich, and many celebrate Australia’s cultural diversity. The NCACL, National Centre of Australian Children’s Literature is a database of Australian picture books that celebrate diversity.

Indigenous Australians represent 3.3% of our population. They are however not often represented in mainstream media or are misrepresented in the media, particularly with respect to illustrations.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Illustration of Indigenous person with body paint on Shutterstock. Poor representation of Indigenous people’s culture as the ‘dot paintings’ are insensitive to the importance of dot paintings to Australian Indigenous peoples.

Illustrations of Indigenous culture are sensitive to misappropriation as patterns, animals and illustration styles may mean something significant to particular Indigenous peoples. Cultural misappropriation of Indigenous Australians impacts their right to self-expression and insults their cultural practices and traditions. We should all seek to work with Indigenous people to respect their cultural heritages.

Avoiding Indigenous Cultural Appropriation Animation

Disability representation in Australia is still evolving. Whilst there are laws in place to prevent disability discrimination, there is still the issue of social norms and the media’s impressions about disabled people. 18% of Australians are disabled. However, in a 2016 analysis about Australian media, only 4% of TV drama characters were disabled on Australian TV dramas between 1990 – 2015, highlighting an enduring a lack of representation.

Disabled people in the media aren’t usually represented as ordinary people living regular lives, but instead are often framed as people who need to be fixed, protected or who require help. In illustrations, it’s important to frame disabled people as ordinary people who can live everyday lives, much like the rest of us.

How are Diversity and Disability represented around the world?


Japan is home to some of the world’s most strictest foreign visa and migrant policies. Japan is one of the most homogenous countries in the world. There are little to no ‘minority groups’ in Japan as minorities are considered ‘foreigners’ under these strict policies.

In 2019 Naomi Osaka, half-Japanese, half-Haitian, was whitewashed in an advertisement linked to her sponsorship from Nissan to look more ‘commercially appealing’. (The Guardian, 2019)

A person holding a tennis racket

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Naomi Osaka at the US Open, Nissin’s advertisement with a whitewashed Osaka
(The Guardian, 2019).

As more diversity and disability policies are being implemented in Japan, the representation of diversity and disability evolves. More media campaigns today aim to teach minorities and foreigners to value their cultural backgrounds, whilst teaching native Japanese citizens that their society is made up of a diverse range of people.


In 2019, a census identified that 9.7% of France’s population of 66.9 million citizens are immigrants. France is one of Europe’s most ethnically diverse nations as they welcome migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from around the world.

However, despite having some of the world’s highest ethnic populations, France’s ethnic diversity still struggles to be represented across French media and culture. A Gender Diversity Law passed in 2011 has greatly improved representation across French media, especially in illustrations.

Representation of disability in French media is limited, indicating that there are still many things to address before inclusive representation becomes the norm.


Unity in Diversity”, Indonesia’s motto, celebrates its cultural diversity and ethnically diverse nature. In Indonesia, citizens identify primarily through which religion they believe in. The country embraces their differences in ethnicity, religions, languages and cultures. In Indonesian illustrations, it is common to find representation of different religious groups, different genders and cultures that are common in Indonesia.

Disability in Indonesia is not as well represented however, with ableism prevalent in media, official documentation and daily conversation. Indonesia media maintains that disabled people need to be “fixed” in order to fit into society and are people who need to be protected, creating a binary community of ‘abled’ people and disabled people. (Priyanti, 2018)

Whilst laws and policies have been written to improve accessibility for disabled people, it is Indonesian society’s responsibility to improve representation of Indonesian disabled people.


Hollywood and American media arguably have the largest influence on how diversity and disability are presented and viewed. America’s media has evolved to become more inclusive in diversity as its population has grown both racially and ethnically. Whilst minority representation has improved, there are still challenges in improving the representation of this diversity with underlying racial tensions in America’s history and culture.

America has a long history of colonisation of Native American communities, African slavery and minority segregation. Even today, these communities are often not represented or misrepresented in illustrations.

Pocahontas (1995) is a popular retelling of the story of a Native Powhatan woman, however this is a false narrative. The story of Pocahontas was a tragic tale of kidnapping, sexually assault and alleged murder. In contrast, today there are new movies and media that authentically represent Native people. Molly of Denali (2019), Pachamama (2019) and Victor and Valentino (2019) are three new animated series that all teach children about their respective Indigenous cultures.

In the PBS program Molly of Denali, Alaska Native Molly Mabray helps her mom run a trading post in an Alaskan village. Courtesy WGBH Educational Foundation
Molly of Denali (2019), America’s first TV series that features a lead Alaskan Native American character.

Only 2.1% of characters on American TV have a disability, an underrepresentation of the one-in-five Americans with a disability. People with disabilities are usually represented in American illustrations when it is ‘relevant’ to the context it is illustrated for. Diversity and inclusion need to be a norm in the media industry to help create more natural, consistent and accurate representations of minorities.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, about 13.8% of the UK population is from a minority ethnic background (2018). Minorities of other ethnic backgrounds, races, religions, genders and sexualities, are still largely represented stereotypically or are only hired as token characters to fill the ‘diversity quota.’ 

Representation of disabled people on UK media has jumped from 5.6% to 6.5%, with over 13.9 million people in the UK having a disability. In earlier years, representation of disabled people in British media was only used as a story telling device. Today, British dramas feature more disabled characters and many studios have hired disabled actors to play them. However, like most of the world, the representation of disabled people still needs improvement.

The Future of Diversity and Disability in Illustrations

Our research into the representation of diversity and disability in illustrations highlighted that while there is a good amount of development in authentic representation of diversity and disability by Western companies, there is still a long, long way to go to fairly represent diversity and disability in illustration (and general media) across the globe.

Whilst researching this topic, it became clear that to have authentic representation of diversity and disability, our society’s views of ‘the norm’ needs to change first. We need to emphasise that illustrations and media need to reflect the world around us, which is filled with different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, cultures, abilities, and bodies.

Thank you for reading our final insight into diversity and disability in Illustrations. We hope this guide has been useful to you and helps you contextualise “diversity is the norm”.