Fashion is far from the cliquey, exclusive, snobby world it used to be. Both affordable brands like H&M and high-end fashion houses like Dior are embracing diversity in powerful, palpable ways. Models and inclusivity advocates like Jillian Mercado, Alesandra Kutas, and Danielle Ann Sheypuk are taking the catwalk by storm in wheelchairs, while Madeline Stuart (who has Down syndrome) has become no less than a worldwide phenomenon. While it is a true pleasure to visit a website like Zara and see models of all ages, sizes, and shapes, the fashion industry needs to make bigger advances if it is to truly represent over one billion people in the world who have a disability.
Going Beyond Tokenism
Celebrity model and advocate, Ryan Zaman, has modelled alongside Kate Moss and graced the cover of many magazines, but his mission is more ambitious—to encourage people to learn more about people who are different from them. Zaman, who was born with cerebral palsy, hosts a podcast, The Right Food Forward, which is focused on disability and inclusion in fashion. He shuns tokenism and argues for an industry in which people with disabilities are given real opportunities, both behind and in front of the camera. His own life story is fascinating and worth delving into. There are many cerebral palsy types, some of which have more severe symptoms than others. When Ryan was a baby, his parents were told he might not ever walk and had to have his knees broken to relieve tension in his hamstrings. He has achieved many great things, obtaining a degree in American studies and landing prestigious campaigns.
Encouraging the Industry to Advocate for Authentic Inclusivity
Aaron Philip, a black, transgender model who is signed up with Elite Management and who has cerebral palsy, hit the nail on the head when she said that the big players in fashion—fashion schools, agencies, designers, and more—are the institutions that should be advocating for inclusivity, rather than those who are marginalized. Philip, who was interviewed by Naomi Campbell for Paper’s Pride issue, told Vogue that although black and queer people exist in fashion, their representation “is almost non-existent,” adding that Jillian Mercado (who has muscular dystrophy) and herself are the only two models signed to major agencies.
The Numbers Speak
Disabled people are still left out of most ad campaigns and runway shows, as reported recently in Teen Vogue. It is therefore important for people in positions of power to call attention to brands that embrace and lack inclusivity. This is an important way to get companies to take action. As stated by Vogue writer, Madison Lawson (who has muscular dystrophy) fashion is a world of color, artistry, and fantasy that can be a vital escape for those who may be facing tough challenges in their daily lives. By including people with disabilities in the boards and marketing and creative teams of major fashion companies, fashion can become a lens through which to make disabled people feel truly “seen,” not “stared at.”