Fashion’s Shameful Failure to Represent People With Disabilities

Striking model Gemma Flanagan has Guillain-Barré syndrome. Photo: Jade Baker

When it comes to diversity in fashion, it’s fair to say that 2015 has been a year unlike any other.

In February, designer Antonio Urzi sent an array of striking models down the catwalk for FLT Moda’s fall/winter collection in New York. Their bodies splattered with white paint, and black lipsticked mouths pursed with feeling, their presence at the show swept away every scrap of convention, and not solely for the new-wave fashion.

Urzi was out to embrace difference, leaving the usual cookie-cutter models behind in favour of a roster of disabled models, including amputees, models in wheelchairs and the first male amputee model Jack Eyers (who recently made the front cover of Mens Health).

Then, in March, designer Takafumi Tsuruta called upon the presence of an amazing line-up of Paralympic athletes, blind models and models with prosthetic limbs to showcase his newest creations for Tenbo.

There’s exciting stuff on the horizon too; Madeline Stuart, an effervescent 18-year-old model with Down’s syndrome, has been scheduled to walk at New York fashion week this month. It’s seemingly the first time concerted efforts have been made toward the inclusion of disabled models in fashion, an industry troubled by its propensity to exercise age, sex, race and ability-based selection.

In a world dedicated to the increasingly unattainable body beautiful, this apparent shift away from a singular body type seems progressive. As we gaze beyond the glass of the shop window, leaf through glossy magazines or watch the spotlights beam down on the latest teenage supermodels, it’s clear that certain physical attributes have ascended high in the desirability stakes. A toxic mixture of visible characteristics – jutting rib bones, cut-glass cheekbones, pale skin – in combination with other subliminally filtrated messages pertaining to race, physicality and creed have created impossibly distorted images of body image.

Though much ground has been gained in the last few years in fighting against deeply ingrained injustices, many have begun to question just why fashion views itself as the exception when it comes to the inclusion of disabled individuals, when virtually all other industries have long since adopted a diversity-friendly stance.

Although 2015 has seen increased visibility of models with disabilities, most would agree that when the media hype and the flash of the photographer’s bulb are dimmed, the rate that diversity has drip-fed into the mainstream has been painfully slow. Their inclusion has come to feel either like an occasional act of appeasement to placate those calling for diversity or a showy publicity stunt, orchestrated expressly to boost profiles.

Despite the fact that about 19 percent of people in the US and Britain have a disability, the industry is still dragging its heels on providing decent representation of disabled body types both on and off the catwalks.

In progressive societies that have long since operated zero-tolerance on workplace discrimination, the fashion industry is flying free of a duty to respect diversity.

For models trying to forge a career in an already competitive field takes nerve. Chelsey Jay Reynolds, a director of disability at Models of Diversity and fashion model with POTS, points out that stubborn industry apathy must change if opportunities for disabled models are to improve.

“I think the treatment of disabled people both in fashion and in mainstream media is shocking,” says Reynolds. “There’s no excuse, but they simply do not want to be the first one to take that step. No one wants to upset the status quo. They’ll either 100 percent not use any disabled models; or worse, use one every few years in a ‘real women’ campaign. It’s so damaging.”

Gemma Flanagan, a model with Guillain-Barré syndrome and ambassador for Models of Diversity, says the representation of disabled models has fallen by the wayside of developments in diversity.

“It’s completely unbelievable that we’re still fighting for equality within the fashion world,” she says.

“Shockingly, not one major UK brand currently represents any diversity. Disability is definitely not represented, despite the millions of people living with disabilities throughout the UK. We buy the products, brands and magazines, so why aren’t we represented?”

The failure to incorporate a decent proportion of disabled models into the mainstream may show the industry is morally defunct, but Shaholly Ayers, an amputee fashion model who has been working in the industry for 10 years points out that it’s also “puzzling because they are missing the value of using models with disabilities.”

“I think some individuals within the industry are afraid of what consumers think,” she says. “They may also feel that their target audience is not made up of people with disabilities. However, the reality is, one in five people have a disability within the United States. That is a huge number of consumers who have not been adequately represented or marketed towards.”

Model Shaholly Ayers. Photo: Livia Alcade

Model Shaholly Ayers says the fashion industry needs to wake up and start representing people with disabilities. Photo: Livia Alcade

Disability representation might have been meagre in the last few decades, but the might of the consumer voice has grown exponentially. Flick back to July, and major UK retailer Topshop was hitting headlines after being taken to task over its use of a dramatically thin mannequin. The controversy ignited when customer Laura Berry posted a photograph of a size 8-10 mannequin on Facebook, calling the company out on its “lack of concern for a generation of extremely body conscious youth”  by sanctioning an unhealthy “cult image.”

Within a matter of hours, the photo had generated more than 3,000 likes and 700 comments, including a response from the retailer. Topshop stated that while the unrealistically skinny mannequins weren’t meant to be “not meant to be an average representation of the female body,” they had made the decision not to place any more orders of the mannequin in the interests of the consumer.

Taking a grievance to the public sphere has worked in Berry’s favor by sparking worldwide conversations about body image and forcing the hand of a global retailer. But it was the will of a receptive, caring audience that supported the move to enact change.

The considerable might of social media is not only a tool with which to project public opinion. Reynolds believes that the advent of social networks has helped models build connections with their audiences, and so too magnify the public’s calls for the industry to provide proper representation of a diverse social demographic.

“Through social media developing and the internet giving us this wonderful power to put pictures of ourselves everywhere, and being able to see ourselves represented through each other and not directly through the media – it’s making things be questioned, which is fantastic,” she says.

Flanagan agrees that there is a clear distinction between public and industry attitudes toward disability.

“The public are quite open to seeing a change within fashion,” she explains. “They want to move away from the typical models we see all the time, who in no way represent the customers who are buying the products and the brands. Whenever we at Models of Diversity ask for public reactions and comments, they are always so positive.”

It’s not just high fashion that needs a diversity overhaul though. Mass-market brands have done little to improve the visibility of disabled models in advertising campaigns, or even in shop windows. Mannequins – the very tools with which commercial brands communicate messages of style, power and beauty to potential customers – are noticeably exclusionary of disabled body types, something that a Swiss charity named Pro Infirmis tackled back in 2013 when they created a series of mannequins that reflected a range of bodies of people with physical disabilities for a project entitled “Because Who Is Perfect? Get Closer.”

It’s a potentially straightforward development for diversity in shopping, but Flanagan believes it could inspire confidence in oft-forgotten disabled consumers.

“Something as simple as having a mannequin in a wheelchair would do wonders for disabled shoppers, as I know from my own experiences something that looks great on mannequin, does not look good sitting down in a chair,” she explains. “It is almost as if fashion is afraid of disability and it’s something that needs to be hidden.”

It remains to been seen as to whether public pressure can make retailers take responsibility for the representation of diverse body types in shop windows, but one thing is clear: when retailers disregard people with unconventional body types and needs, they automatically disregard a large portion of business.

Disabled people should be adequately represented with disabled models – and if figurines can be specially “stylized to have more impact,” as Topshop said in its public statement, why can’t retailers cater to other body shapes and sizes?  

“By including models with disabilities into your advertising, you increase your target audience, brand recognition, and most importantly – boost your sales,” Ayers explains. “All of that adds value to your company. This not only helps the fashion industry profit but it creates inclusion of a large population of people who have been ignored. This helps society become more accepting in the long run. With that, everyone wins!”

If the fashion world reached a point where diversity informed its business, instead of tokenism being the only concession to difference, then greater discussion surrounding the warped ideas of body image might begin to be dismantled.

Ayers believes that improving visibility of disabled models could be a way to target perceptions of perfection and encourage body acceptance, irrespective of age, size, gender, race or ability.

“My main mission for modeling is to make people think and to discuss not only what is acceptable in fashion but what is acceptable in society,” she says. “To consider our ideals and question why we place so much value on perfection, when perfection really doesn’t exist. This is an opportunity for us to think collectively about what we value and why.”