Defying Expectations, Disabled Models are Landing Major Campaigns

Danielle Sheypuk, clinical psychologist, advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, model and 2012 Ms. Wheelchair New York.

From RJ Mitte for Gap Inc. in billboard size on New York City’s Fifth Avenue last spring to the viral #IMREADY campaign where child models with Down syndrome took the spotlight in the fall, 2014 was a landmark year for people with disabilities in the fashion industry.

The fight for recognition has been a long one, and at times, frustrating. Ignored by many clothing brands and high-profile designers, disabled models have been forced to take the initiative in pushing for greater acknowledgement of their abilities.

Danielle Sheypuk is a clinical psychologist and advocate on behalf of people with disabilities.  She is also a model, and in 2012 was appointed Ms. Wheelchair New York.  Perhaps most notably, Sheypuk was the first disabled runway model featured at New York Fashion Week in 2014, modelling clothes by designer Carrie Hammer.

Sheypuk is of the opinion that models with disabilities are “virtually ignored” by the fashion industry in the United States.  

“Essentially, we are not valued as consumers by designers, despite our vast numbers,” she says.

“If designers are not recognizing us, then they are not marketing to us—which is their big financial loss—and therefore, they are not calling for any models with disabilities.”

According to the most recent figures, the United States Census Bureau estimates there are currently 56.7 million people living with some form of disability in the U.S.which is 19 percent of the population.  More than half report a severe disability.  This number does not account for the millions of people around the world living with disabilities, and Sheypuk says fashion designers are ignoring the purchasing power of this key group.

Many disabled people have reached out to Sheypuk about fashion modeling as a career, but Sheypuk says that there simply aren’t many opportunities around, and disability advocates were essential in the continued effort to get designers to “smarten up”.

Models of Diversity is a UK-based nonprofit devoted to greater diversity in fashion modeling around the world.  Established in 2010, the organization recently partnered with consultancy Global Disability Inclusion to increase the availability of models with disabilities in the U.S.

The campaign advocates at fashion events, holds street surveys to understand consumer perspectives on disabled models, offers workshops for aspiring models and promotes greater diversity through media interviews and social networking.

Chelsey Jay Reynolds is the Director of Disability at Models of Diversity, and a disabled model.  She says that the fashion industry views disability in a “very old fashioned and outdated way.”

“The fashion industry hasn’t evolved like the world around it has, so it’s way behind on attitude on minorities,” Reynolds says.

She believes that the fashion industry has yet to change its attitude on a large scale, but agrees that certain individuals and brands were contributing to the growing number of disabled models in fashion advertising.

“Disabled models are not invited to castings like able models are.  They are not asked for by brands and not represented by agencies.  Fashion has closed out employing models with disabilities entirely, and it’s truly shocking,” Reynolds says.

Jack Eyers, a British model with a prosthetic leg, found his way into modeling via the Models of Diversity campaign.  He first took part in the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony in London, which prompted his interest in pursuing a career in acting and modeling.

Speaking to the BBC last year, Eyers says he never expected to be a model, as he had never been exposed to any kind of disabled role models in the public eye.

“They just assumed that this is not a path a disabled person would go down, whether they look good or not,” Eyers says.

Eyers says that in the past, he has done fashion shoots for certain clothing brands that only wanted to use him for a one-time, “X-factor sob story” effect.

“It was just because we were disabled that they wanted to use us, which I don’t think is the point of what I’m trying to get across,” Eyers says.

“I want people to look at people with disability and not think anything of it, you know?  To just be another model.”

Angel Sinclair, former model and founder of Models of Diversity, told the BBC the only disabled role models in the public eye tended to be Paralympians.  However, she believes that disabled fashion models could offer inspiration to other people living with disabilities.

“There are a group of models out there who have the potential, and they have the capability, to do high fashion,” Sinclair says.

The history of physically disabled models in fashion is painfully short.

Department store chain Nordstrom was one of the first retailers to include disabled models in its catalogs and marketing in 1997, setting a benchmark that few fashion brands have dared to meet.

Emily Sterken, a spokesperson for Nordstrom, says that the company wanted to ensure that it was reflecting the diversity of its customers.  As for the models themselves, the selection process is much like choosing any other model to represent the Nordstrom brand.

“We look at our needs for the catalog and work with agencies to select models we think look great and reflect our customers,” Sterken says,.

Last year the catalog for Nordstrom’s anniversary sale included four disabled models, including Shaholly Ayers, Jillian Mercado, Alex Minsky and Emilia Taguchi, a seven-year-old girl with Down syndrome.

High fashion soon followed Nordstrom’s example, with designer Alexander McQueen featuring former track and field paralympian Aimee Mullins in his Autumn/Winter runway show in 1998.

Mullins went on to pursue a highly successful career as a model and was featured across a range of notable fashion magazines, leading to her appointment as a L’Oreal model and global ambassador.

Other fashion brands to embrace models with disabilities include GAP, Diesel, Carrie Hammer and India Vasquez, all of which have used disabled models in the past decade. International recognition of disabled models has also been growing.  United Kingdom retailer Debenhams used its first disabled model in 2010, featuring wheelchair-bound Shannon Murray in campaign photography.

Aware of the growing demand for more diversity in fashion modeling, British producers invited disabled models to take part in a reality television show called Britain’s Missing Top Model.  Airing in 2008, the show featured eight women competing for a modeling contract, with final contestant Kelly Knox winning the competition.

Sheypuk was the first disabled runway model featured at New York Fashion Week in 2014, modelling clothes by designer Carrie Hammer.

Sheypuk was the first disabled runway model featured at New York Fashion Week in 2014, modelling clothes by designer Carrie Hammer.

The show only ran for one season.  However, for the first time, disabled models were competing in a national televised competition that drew millions of viewers, and plenty of commentary.  Importantly, the television show revealed that disabled models had many of the same concerns and goals as able-bodied models.

And in Russiaa country where minorities are frequently outcastseveral disabled models were featured at the Moscow Mercedes Benz Fashion Show in 2014, modeling a couture collection for people with physical disabilities and achondroplasia, or dwarfism.

Sheypuk says that her decision to become a model was born out of a desire to bring about change in the fashion industry, after moving to New York and discovering how difficult dating was with a disability.

“There are so many stereotypes that we come up against, including misconceptions that we are undateable, asexual, and not glamorous or physically attractive,” Sheypuk says.

“That is when I decided to integrate psychology and dating with a disability in a large-scale effort to try to make a big change.  I became Ms. Wheelchair NY in 2012, hired a publicist, and began to speak out very publicly to transform our image into one that is hip, sexy and powerful.”

The advocacy movement for greater representation of disability in fashion modeling has been gaining momentum in recent years.

There are only a handful of brands using disabled models, which limit opportunities.  But Reynolds says that the effect of the models already featured had caused “quite a stir and mass conversation”, and that consumers enjoyed seeing models that reflected the wider community.

“If you ask people, the fashion-buying public, they actually prefer to see models that represent ‘real people’ in all different shapes, sizes, colours, ages and abilities,” Reynolds says.

Sheypuk agrees that consumers with and without disabilities want to see greater diversity in fashion models.

“We have seen a major change in recent years for other minority groups in the fashion industry, including the wide acceptance of ethnically diverse and plus-size models.  It is now our turn,” Sheypuk says.

A large-scale statistical study measuring the number of consumers with a disability and their purchasing habits is due to be released in Spring 2015 by non-profit organization disABILITYincites, and Sheypuk hopes this will influence retailers and designers to incorporate greater opportunities for disabled models in their fashion.

“Both consumers with and without disabilities are reacting with rave reviews. Everybody wants and needs to see diversity normalized by large-scale media.  It will help us grow as a society with significant, positive effects on our psychological well-being,” Sheypuk says.

Fashion is quick to discard old trends and move on to the new. But greater diversity in modeling is a demand that isn’t going anywhere, and greatly overdue.