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6 Models on Ableism, Visibility, and Personal Style


Fashion has always been based on labels: which labels are the trendiest at the moment, which ones are worth buying, and which ones are being worn by celebrities. But these labels aren't just sewn into the hem of our newest slip skirt. Labels, on a deeper level, are what have also contributed to the homogeneity of the fashion industry. You see, these visual signifiers or societal labels determine who the industry deems valuable, and as a result, anti-blackness, fatphobiatransphobia, and other prejudices permeate every aspect of the industry. And while the industry is taking strides toward inclusive sizing and hiring more POC, ableism is still very much an issue that needs to be addressed. 

Ableism is defined as when able-bodied individuals are viewed as "normal" or superior to those with a disability. This manifests in various forms of discrimination, from who gets hired for the runway to who can afford to and can actually wear the ready-to-wear collection to if a brick-and-mortar store is handicap-friendly to if a digital publisher uses ableist language. And while you may be thinking this is fashion, and it's supposed to be fun, I’m in no means saying that we can’t enjoy fashion. But it’s naïve not to acknowledge the fact that clothing has always been a visual signifier of ability or inability to socially assimilate for Black, queer, disabled, and marginalized people that has often led to discrimination, poverty, violence, and even death

And as such, it’s critical to advocate for an industry in which all bodies—including those we’ve labeled as disabled—are worth designing for and regarded as beautiful, including in campaigns. But you don’t have to solely take my word for it. Ahead, we’ve spoken with six models on their experience in the industry, visibility, and of course their personal style. 

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling?  . AP: I started my modeling career via social media—specifically a tweet from 2017 that went vira, which had let people know of my aspirations to be a model and sign to a major agency. The success of that tweet led to odd jobs and test shoots, and then press, major publications, and certain retailers started booking me. Everything was very, very public, which eventually led to Elite wanting to sign me.  What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like? AP: My experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry has been anything but easy. The image of a disabled person and their body in high fashion is almost nonexistent. As a model who is disabled and is pushed toward high-fashion clients/runway, it can be very hard having conversations about inclusion and the importance of seeing people with disabilities in major fashion campaigns, editorials, and runway shows. It’s been a constant battle throughout my entire career with trying to start conversations in the fashion industry as a whole about people with disabilities in the industry and how to include us more.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion? AP: The industry can be more accessible by taking the steps to prioritize physical accessibility as a core value, whether that’s socially and/or institutionally. The industry can do more by hiring more talents with disabilities and creating the proper accommodations, and spaces to assist us. My hope for the future of fashion is that models and talents with disabilities in fashion are working and seen consistently for who they are versus being tokenized or seen as a singular moment of “doing things differently.” . How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style? AP: Being disabled has made me want to experiment more and more with my style, and the way I view myself is that I like my body enough to know that my body is and should be seen as chic, stylish, sexy, etc., as my disabled body. Lately, I’ve really been into everything but especially bodysuits, baby tees, and formfitting clothes, in general.

Where do you love to shop? And what’s the one piece of clothing that’s currently in your cart? AP: Lately, I’ve really loved The RealReal, Ssense, and Poshmark! I don’t quite have anything on hold right now.  Are there any designers you love to wear?  AP: I love Eckhaus Latta, Hood by Air, Savage x Fenty, Telfar, and Collina Strada!

What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? AP: To me, representation means being able to recognize yourself. Fashion can adequately represent disabled people by integrating us into whichever necessary spaces/clients as who we are for what we are without infantilizing us and portraying us as beacons of hope to clients when we are just trying to do our jobs. What do you hope people take away from your career? AP: I hope people can take away a lot of resilience in my career. Nothing has been easy about it within and out of the industry. I’ve gone through immense bullying and harassment throughout my entire career for being a model with a disability. But I always stayed focused, and motivated, even in really difficult times. I scheme and plot ways to change things a lot. 

What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  AP: When it comes to the conversation about disabilities, they’re almost not had at all by clients and the industry itself, so a start to conversations is great, but action is what is needed the most at this point. It is essential that we see representation and visibility for people with disabilities in fashion, and it’s adamant that the industry takes that into account and finally takes the steps to build on it. 

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling?  MS: It all started when I went to a fashion show in my hometown Brisbane, Australia, in 2014. I fell in love with it. I was watching the models on the catwalk, and they were having so much fun. They looked confident and beautiful. I knew right away I wanted to have a career on the catwalk. After the fashion show, my mum booked me in for my first photo shoot, which was the beginning step in my journey. I had so much fun, and the photos turned out amazing! My mum thought they were stunning, and she wanted to share them with the world. That’s exactly what she did! She posted them to a public Facebook page encouraging people to be fit and live long lives. Overnight, they went viral. They were seen by over seven million people, and from that point, my career took off. I started receiving offers from around the globe to come and model and attend amazing events. It has been very exciting, a dream come true! 

What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like? MS: I have had a fairly positive experience. I have been approached to do the majority of my work, so I have rarely felt discriminated against. I think the only obstacle I faced was people did not always expect to pay me. There were not a lot of models around when I started and even fewer on the official catwalk scene. Unfortunately, for a long time, people thought including someone with Down syndrome in an event was payment enough. It took a long time to educate people that everyone, even people with disabilities are valuable and should be paid for their work. Thankfully, that has changed now, and we rarely have to face that obstacle. I have also made so many wonderful friends and got to travel to many, many exotic places and experienced amazing adventures. I do truly feel blessed to be a model.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion?  MS: I think the fashion industry is slowly changing, and still has a way to go to be totally inclusive, but it has come a long way in the past five years. For instance, in France a few years ago, they brought in minimum body sizes so the models would not be so thin. It created a healthier environment for the entire industry, and it was far more realistic. Companies and the industry at large need to realize that their customers value authenticity and want to see real people promoting their products and that it should be a true reflection of our actual society—and that’s my hope for where the industry goes in the near future.  What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? MS: It means that on every catwalk, you see a reflection of what our society really looks like. In every magazine, you see people with disabilities. In every textbook at school and every children’s storybook, you see people with disabilities so the younger generation grows up with it and knows how to relate. And if you hire a person with a disability, don’t just add them to one small part of the campaign. Make sure that person with a disability is equally represented in the same proportion as everyone else so they know their worth and they know you value them and you want people to know your brand is authentic and not scared to be real.

How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style? MS: I think as a person with Down syndrome, I am quite short compared to the average person, so most of my clothes have to be taken up. The easiest way for me to combat this if I am not on my way to a meeting or a show is to enjoy the comfort of leggings. They fit most people and are super comfortable. Are there any designers you love to wear?  MS: Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel, and Desigual.

What do you hope people take away from your career? MS: That everyone is capable, beautiful, and can be successful if given a chance. I also want them to realize that people with disabilities do give back to society and make the world a better place. What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  MS: I wish I could change the perception that people with disabilities are not capable or that they can’t bring worth to a company. And if you want to be an ally, tell the brands that you shop at that you want them to be more authentic. You want them to represent the actual community, not the community that is unrealistic and so-called perfect. If you see a brand advertising their products using people with disabilities in their campaigns, share those stories on your socials, buy their products, and tell them what a great job they are doing.  

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling? KK: I got into modeling after entering and winning a competition for a disabled-model search. At the time, I never even realized I was disabled. I knew society viewed me that way, but I didn't see myself as disabled. I guess when you think of the term disabled, every synonym associated with it is negative.  When I became a model, I felt disabled for the first time. The world disables me, not my body. What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like? KK: Over 10 years ago, I was told I would get more work if I wore a prosthetic arm. This statement was, and still is, ignorant, hurtful, and ableist. But statements like these don’t just exist within the vacuum of the fashion industry. Since the beginning of time, disabled people have been dehumanized, marginalized, victimized, institutionalized, isolated, controlled. We are made to feel invisible in everyday life, let alone in an industry obsessed with perfection and aesthetics. And when I entered the industry, I felt like I had something to prove—I wanted to show the world what it means to be disabled in the modern world: raw beauty, authentic self, no masks, uniqueness, vulnerability, power, empowerment, resilience, courage, and strength. Over 10 years on, I still feel like I am constantly needing to prove my worth and rightful place in this industry. I am not here for tokenism or box-ticking. I am more than a model. I am more than this body.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion?  KK: I cannot name one luxury high-fashion campaign featuring a disabled model, let alone a disabled model fronting one. A disabled model in a high-fashion campaign would look powerful, empowering, striking, beautiful, and strong. We (disabled people) are invisible in the world, in the media, in fashion—especially high fashion, in beauty, and in motherhood. We want to be seen, heard, represented!

What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? KK: Fashion is for every body—from color, shape, size, age, ability, gender, sexuality. We all deserve a seat at the table and have a place in the fashion industry. Beauty is not one-dimensional, and disabled people are not any less beautiful. It’s up to brands to book disabled models not because they are disabled, but to hire them based on their professional ability and if they align with your brand ethos. And furthermore, don’t assume that the world won’t want to see us model your clothes or be the face of your beauty brand. Don’t dictate to the world what is beautiful and what should be seen!

How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style? KK: I don't know, as I was born this way. I don't know any different. I love fashion. I love standing out from the crowd. I love making a statement.  Where do you love to shop? And what’s the one piece of clothing that’s currently in your cart? KK: From high-street to designer to vintage and thrift stores, it’s really about whatever catches my eye. There's a Michael Kors floral-print midi dress on sale at Net-a-Porter I have my eye on!

What do you hope people take away from your career? KK: Never, ever, ever, ever give up! Always believe in yourself. Authenticity is everything. Uniqueness is your superpower.  What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  KK: Most of society would believe disability is something you’re born with or acquire via an accident, right? What if I told you disability is something society created? By putting up barriers to inclusion and negative preconceptions. I am not disabled by what you perceive to be my “missing hand.” This is only a perception. I am whole. I am complete. I am disabled by the attitudes of society and the lack of opportunities. I do not have to change anything about my body. Society has to change the way it views my body. Anything other than full and equal access is “oppression.” Don't pity us. Don't victimize us. Don't use us as a source of inspiration. Don't assume we need help. Don't see us as less than. Show us love and respect, follow our social media accounts, educate yourself, comment on our images, ask questions, share our posts, and book us!

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling?  . ME: Modeling and photography were tools I used to memorialize my growth and self-confidence. It took about seven years until I was signed by an agency. What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like?  ME: Tokenism is very much a thing in fashion. Not to discount the progress that has been made in the industry, but we work in this business, and we live our experiences. I respect the autonomy brands have to choose their models. Furthermore, I respect and honor brands who step out of their norm to create a new norm of inclusion.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion?  ME: I hope fashion evolves to represent the minority and the disenfranchised. Fashion is a powerful form of art that can bring healing to a culture that has been saturated with unrealistic body images. And we can combat ableism by hiring disabled models—creating roles for them so that disabled people are seen. Seeing disabled representation gives hope to our community. Seeing disabled representation at the forefront of magazines, TV, and campaigns, etc., forces ableists to look introspectively and dismantle their oppressive thinking. 

What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? ME: Representation is pivotal in any career or field. When I first saw Mama Cax modeling and sharing her life on Instagram, I was inspired to keep striving for representation. I didn’t feel alone. There she was, another Black amputee making waves, and certainly her energy was felt worldwide. Tokenization can only be dismantled by hiring more disabled people to represent major fashion brands, to be in TV shows and movies. Give disabled people multiple seats at the table.  How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style?  ME: In the past, I was afraid to show my leg because of the shame and bullying that came with being vulnerable and disabled. I would wear loose, baggy clothes to cover up my prosthetic and avoid the invasive questions from strangers like “What happened to your leg?” Now that I have learned to love and embrace my body, I choose clothing that is fun, expressive, freeing, and comfortable.

Where do you love to shop? And what’s the one piece of clothing that’s currently in your cart? ME: I love to shop at Zara and H&M for basics. For shoes, I love, Dolce & Gabbana, Bottega, Sergio Rossi, Steve Madden. I also love boutique thrift shops, as there’s nothing more exhilarating than finding a great thrift piece. As far as what I’m shopping right now, my cart is filled with bathing suits galore. Are there any trends or even specific clothing items that you wish were adaptive to make them easier to wear? ME: Shoes. With a prosthetic, heel height is almost always a concern. I wish more brands carried cute, heeled shoes under three inches.

What do you hope people take away from your career?  ME: I hope they are inspired to follow their dreams, to be empathetic to those around them, and to leave the stigma of disability in the past. What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  ME: Remember: Any person (regardless of race, ethnicity, SES, background) at any given time in life can become disabled. To be an ally to the disabled community means to advocate for change and continue to bring disabled voices to the forefront. No one experience is the same. However, there are challenges that the disabled community faces that need to change. For many disabled people, affordable healthcare, accessibility, employment equality, and employment opportunities are things that are simply don’t exist for us. That can often lead to forced poverty. We need to hold companies accountable for making reasonable accommodations that honor the humanity of everybody.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling?  . JM: I had the interesting opportunity to work at a magazine as an editorial creative director for photo shoots and got super familiarized with the industry firsthand. During that job, I met the artistic director of Diesel. We became pretty quick friends and added each other on social media. Weeks later, I saw that he posted a casting call for a new campaign he was working on. I always wanted to work with him, and a friend of mine at the time told me that I should sign up. I wasn't sure if they would pick me, not because of my disability but because it was a worldwide search, and I was scared that my application wasn't going to be seen because of the masses of applicants. Lucky enough for me, a few weeks after that, I got a call from the headquarters that I got picked to be in a worldwide campaign. That was my first job as a model.  What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like? JM: Thus far, it's been quite a journey. I’ve had to figure out a way to enter that world as being somebody who is a physically disabled model where you have never seen that in magazines or an advertisement for that matter. It's been an opportunity where I can see the good and the ugly in an industry that I love so much. And I’ve had to learn a lot about the politics behind the fashion industry, the history of the industry, and how others perceive me. I’ve had to sit down and strategize on how best to represent myself and use my voice for a community of people that are largely underrepresented. I’ve had to continually emphasize that we are valid as a community, that we are consumers, and that we should see ourselves reflected in the things that we buy and in the media that we see.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion? JM: Unfortunately, that is true. And the only reason is that I don't think the industry realizes that we were worthy of being in those conversations. We're always looked at as a community that isn't valid or seen as belonging. I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing change and what the industry can do to foster authentic change is to listen. Listen to what we have to say and work with us. Hire us. Work to best accommodate people who have disabilities. There is a vast amount of people who have invisible and visible disabilities, and we should all be heard. That's the only way that disability and fashion can meet hand-in-hand and diminish ableism.  What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? JM: Representation is survival. Especially in the media and the entertainment world, if you don't see yourself, then you are automatically seen as not valid. I wouldn't want my worst enemy to feel that way. (Trust me—it doesn't feel great.) You have to work twice as hard with your own self to make sure that you know that you are a valid person. It hurts your mental and emotional state even more so than anything. Beyond not being included, it’s important to also address the concept of tokenism if you are one of the first to be invited to a table. The only way to actually be inclusive is to keep adding more people to the table who have different viewpoints and can best represent their own community. You should never stop with only one focus group or only one time hire people to need to understand that this is a new way of representing people, a new way of working. The door shouldn't be left open; it should be completely removed because doors close, and that's not what we're wanting.

How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style? JM: In some regard yes, and in some regard no. I've always been very good at honoring my approach to style no matter what I'm wearing. But in regard to the clothing itself, it's always been very hard because there are things that I visually find pleasing, but actually being able to wear it is a challenge. For people who have visible disabilities and different body types, it's always interesting to see how the world has categorized a certain body shape and a form of clothing when we all have different types of bodies, and the ways that we move our bodies are always different. Especially for people who have disabilities, some clothing can be harder to put on and take off than others. With one in five people having a disability, the fact that the fashion industry has not taken notice of how difficult it can be to have a style of clothing or be able to put on clothes, it's really disheartening and could affect the way an average person with a disability approaches their personal style.

Where do you love to shop? And what’s the one piece of clothing that’s currently in your cart? JM: I usually shop secondhand clothing, as I'm trying really hard to not get into buying any more fast-fashion pieces. But the item you can most likely find in my cart is a graphic T-shirt or really comfy pants.  Are there any trends or even specific clothing items that you wish there were adaptive to make them easier to wear? JM: There are many to choose from since there are pretty much none that are adaptive, so anything goes in this category. But for me specifically, I love wearing leather pants and very tight leggings, but they are a little difficult to wear, and I wish there were easier alternatives.

What do you hope people take away from your career? JM: I hope the stories I share about my own life in a way that can help others continue to share their own—to give them that motivation that no matter what book has been written, you are able to write your own narrative about yourself and that other people should invite you to that table regardless of their preconceptions because we all live on one planet, and we’re all human.  What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  JM: It's actually pretty simple: It's by having those conversations. I don't think we have enough [where it] actually turns into change. Real, lifelong change, the only way companies and brands can actually be the allies to the disabled community, is to keep us in the conversation for longevity and hire us in their design process in their offices. 

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modeling?  . MK: I was scouted for the high-fashion market when I was roughly 14 years old, but after years of struggling with trying to lose enough weight (i.e., get very skinny), I left the industry when I was 17. Years later, while finishing my business degree, I was introduced to the plus-size industry, and I was willing to give it another go in my natural size. After about two years of going back and forth between New York, London, and the Netherlands (my home country), I decided to settle in Brooklyn, New York. What has your experience as a disabled model in the fashion industry been like? MK: As someone with an invisible disability, people basically assume you don’t have one. Sometimes I experience it as a blessing, as I don’t always feel like explaining or talking about it, but it can be a curse whenever people won’t believe you or don’t consider your needs. The fashion industry is a really rough industry, in general, but being neurodiverse gave me some extra challenges dealing with new places and people, not having financial security or any type of routine/structure. My first full-time year of plus-size modeling was very frustrating, as I couldn’t deal with having any control over my agenda, being asked to just hop on a flight in three hours, or not having my “safe food” options around.

Fashion is rooted in ableism. What do you think the industry can do to actually be more accessible? And what are your hopes for the future of fashion? MK: There are a lot of things the industry can do to make it more accessible, but maybe something tangible would be showcasing differently abled mannequins in the showroom, offering services to tailor clothing in-store, and using differently abled models in every aspect of their sales strategy (from emails to e-commerce to advertising and campaigns). I think it all starts with realizing that people with a disability can be just as aspirational as able-bodied people. There is this idea, not just in the fashion industry but everywhere, that you can’t be aspirational because people “can’t relate” or don’t want to be like you. That’s really a shame, as we are all valid individuals who have a story, make connections, and are looking for happiness or meaning in life. I think being able to recognize our similarities will make it easier to celebrate our differences and see the potential individual people have, which will lead to disabled people being included more and more often.  

What does representation mean to you? And how can the fashion industry strive to destigmatize disabilities through inclusion “at the table” without tokenization? MK:  At least one in 100 people have autism, and that doesn’t include many people of color and girls/womxn who still go without diagnosis due to the troubling history of autism spectrum disorder (especially Asperger’s syndrome, which was my initial diagnosis) and general medical bias. As a freshly diagnosed 19-year-old woman, there wasn’t much representation around for me, never mind ones I could actually identify with. Even though my diagnosis gave me guidance and clarity about myself and how my brain functions, dealing with low “visibility” of autistic individuals gave me doubt in how to take on my own career or dreams. Having experienced this lack of representation myself, I see the real value of representation. I think the real way forward for the fashion industry is to literally offer us a seat at the table to talk about how we want to be portrayed or included. Invite us to the events. Give us our spot in the limelight to show how much beauty and aspiration we hold.

How has being disabled impacted the way you approach your personal style? MK: My keyword is comfort. As I’m dealing with sensory sensitivities throughout my day, the last thing I want to deal with is uncomfortable clothing that makes my gut/bowel problems flare up or fabrics that make me feel itchy or irritated. Even though I feel like I’m pretty good at creating my own style while still feeling comfortable, I’m not always successful. Before I go anywhere and want to look a certain way, I ask myself a couple of questions. I’ll ask myself: Does this piece irritate me? Do I have to wear it so long that it will cause me pain? Can I take it off immediately after showing up at work? Based on how important the event is and my prediction of discomfort, I make my decision. Where do you love to shop? And what’s the one piece of clothing that’s currently in your cart? MK: Online shopping is the way to go for me, as I get completely overwhelmed in clothing stores. I think one of my most stressful days ever was shopping for a test shoot at a Zara once. Sensory overload is not fun. It can be hard to find quality fashion options being a size 14/16, so I regularly end up shopping at Madewell, Anthropologie, or some large-fitting Club Monaco items. Something that keeps returning in my cart every year is a loose-fitted tiered maxi dress with long sleeves. I absolutely love the feeling of garment moving around me in a slow, elegant way whenever I walk. The loose fit gives me all the freedom my body needs to be comfortable, and it’s really hard to look clumsy in a dress like that.

Are there any designers you love to wear?  MK: I really like Tanya Taylor’s designs. Her collections are very inclusive. They showcase personality, playfulness, and creativity in different patterns and colors while also creating a community around her brand. I got introduced to the brand when shooting a few of her collections and have purchased some of her designs since! Are there any trends or even specific clothing items that you wish there were adaptive to make them easier to wear? MK: Not an item per se, but vintage shopping is something that isn’t very accessible to me, as most of the shopping is done in-store only. Even though there are usually fewer people in a store than any high-street brand, and possibly the lights won’t give me an instant migraine, the way most vintage shops are organized just makes me want to run out right away. I just never know where to start and where I can find something in my size or which category. It gets messy real fast. I’d love some organization or for them to be more available online.

What do you hope people take away from your career? MK: I hope that it inspires other neurodiverse people to follow their dreams and forge their own paths. People might tell you that if you don’t do it this specific way, you’ll never get there, but there really is a lot of beauty and respect in creating your own journey that is tailored to you. Furthermore, I love to break more barriers and show neurotypical people that inclusivity goes beyond the more obvious markers.  What’s one thing you wish would change when it comes to the conversations around disabilities? How can we actually be allies to this community?  MK: Don’t ever pity us! Most people with a disability love themselves for who they are, and a lot of us don’t want to change anything about ourselves if we had the chance. The fact that people with disabilities struggle is often because of dealing with a lack of understanding or exclusion from able-bodied people, not because of disliking their bodies or minds. There are whole communities and cultures built around disabled people that are very valuable to us. I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t have autism. It’s intertwined with my personality. Thinking we deserve your pity or feeling sorry for us just shows that you don’t accept us for who we are.

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