If you’re interested in learning about how life for a disabled adult model can be quite different from the life of an able-bodied model, this article will discuss ableism in the fashion industry, and what is being done to combat this. Disabled model is not the best terminology to use, so from this point on, I will use the terms model with a disability or people with disability to better describe the fact that while people’s disabilities are not shameful or unimportant, they are also not the most important aspect of their identity. “Disabled person” implies that a person as a whole is disabled while “person with a disability” implies that that disability is one aspect of this whole individual human’s life.
Aaron Philip, Jillian Mercado, Marsha Elle, Kelly Knox, and Madeline Stuart are five talented models who have experienced the ways that the fashion industry and our society at large disable them and disadvantage them. I encourage you to look into their rich portfolios of beautiful fashion and modeling work. These highly successful and talented individuals are just that, highly successful and talented individuals. Although they all fit under the category of models with disabilities, their physical and societal experiences in this world are all quite unique. Each of these five models lives with a different disability, and each disability is one that affects a portion of the population, a portion that would like to see themselves reflected in the media they consume.
Slightly over 1 in 4 adults living in the United States lives with a disability, so the importance of seeing people in fashion magazines and catalogs who aren’t perfectly able-bodied is huge. Something that models with disability and disability activists strive towards is a world in which individuals with a disability are seen as individuals and not tokenized, pitied, or made to feel invisible as they have a long history of being. It is important for the able-bodied and not able-bodied population of the world to see people with disabilities as normal, to judge them based on their talent and not on society’s construction of perfection, normalcy, or aesthetic.
Something that I found to be a particularly important through-line when reading interviews with these models and others was that it isn’t necessarily the public who don’t want to see models with a disability or people with disability in magazines and runways, but the brands and labels who don’t give an opportunity to those who aren’t thin, able-bodied, models with Eurocentric features, the time of day. There is a huge market for visibility, for companies to publish and broadcast a product that reflects the consumers they’re selling to, where they can see themselves and not an airbrushed version of the 0.01% of people who fit into the ideal standard of beauty. There are several brands with more inclusive models and clothing that is adaptable to a variety of bodies, but as Kelly Knox mentions in an interview with Who What Where, there are no major fashion brands with a person with a disability on the cover. Meanwhile, people want to see a variety of bodies! The support for the diversity of bodies by clothing companies who care about visibility has been skyrocketing. Positive feedback about Rhianna’s Fenty in the catalog and online store has been through the roof. There are some people who are only now for the first time seeing models who display the clothing they’re buying in a way that allows them to visualize what that garment might look like on their body. This is not to say that the career of a model with a disability is easy, or that the average person is not inherently ableist.
Our society is ableist in its construction, and there will be those who are against ending the tradition of only using models who fit into this tiny percentile. However, even those who are able-bodied and who wish to become more of an ally take visibility for granted often. It is the norm to see able-bodied people represented in the media. If you are an able-bodied person, think about ways that you can challenge that. My recommendation, and the recommendation of many people living with a disability, is to promote companies that do practice inclusivity and equity, by sharing their products, buying their products, and even posting about their products and brand on social media. Sometimes social media can unite people from all corners of the globe in ways that we never thought possible.