New York Fashion Week’s models were not the typical tall and thin young woman most people associate – or perhaps even prefer – to see at glamorous events. Instead, these models were people with disabilities resulting from spinal cord injuries, amputations and Down Syndrome.
To be honest, I didn’t expect the organizers of an event such as this to fully embrace the concept of inclusion – at least not this soon. It’s not that I don’t think people with disabilities want or deserve to be models, but I have experienced firsthand the long and treacherous road it often takes to convince so-called “normal” people to include us, people who are too often so-called “not normal.” After all, the majority of society focuses on what we can’t do instead of our many virtues and talents. Take the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities. It’s estimated to be 80 percent. This is not because we are lazy or not looking for jobs. But, rather, because immediately after employers find out about a job seeker’s disability, people assume we are incapable of doing the work — whatever it is — and those employers are unwilling to give us a chance.
Before New York Fashion Week, I had read about Madeline Stuart, one of the models who has Down syndrome. Saying that I was thrilled is an understatement. People with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities are often perceived as less intelligent and less capable than the average person. Not only will this show the general public that those of us with disabilities are as talented and capable as everyone else, but I also believe it can encourage others who are in the same situation to have a role model such as Stuart.
As a child, I would have loved to see a model walking with a white cane in hand. It’s not that I didn’t know any successful blind people or that I was ashamed of being blind. Rather, this would have helped reinforce the notion that as a blind person, I can achieve whatever I want to pursue. OK, being a professional model has never been on my list of dream jobs, but at least I would have known it was a possibility.
I strongly hope more fashion shows will continue including and integrating disabled models, just as I strongly hope society will escalate its integration of disabled people into the “norm.”
As a person with a disability, I know we are also eager to show society our abilities, and models with disabilities have an enormous potential of shifting peoples’ negative attitudes and perceptions about us. I sincerely hope that rather than just viewing them as courageous or inspiring, people will see and recognize these models as talented and beautiful people. After all, it’s perfectly OK to be and look different.
In her powerful acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards last Sunday, actress Viola Davis remarked, “the only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”
I strongly believe that the same can be said of people with disabilities.
It is my dream that there will come a day — hopefully soon — when it is no longer news that the fashion and media industries are fully including people of color and/or disabled individuals. Because I know it will be a better world for all of us, when we expand the definition of normal to include all our differences.