Disabled models are in fashion now… Is that a good thing?

Disabled models are so on trend right now.

Takafumi Tsuruta included disabled models in his show at Tokyo Fashion Week last week, including wheelchair user Ami Sano and 2012 Paralympic gold medallist Rina Akiyama, who is blind.

Last month, Jamie Brewer, who starred in American Horror Story, walked the catwalk at New York fashion week – the first person with Down’s syndrome ever to do so. She was part of Carrie Hammer’s ‘Role Models Not Runway Models’ show, which also featured CEOs and writers of different ages and (mildly) different body types.

Also in New York, FTL Moda used models in wheelchairs and Jack Eyers became the first male amputee to model there, and also walked the catwalk in Milan. And for the last three years at Moscow fashion week, the Fashion without Borders runway show has given designers the chance to showcase their designs on a diverse range of bodies, including amputees and people who use wheelchairs and crutches.

This has to be a good thing, right?

Well… maybe.

It’s hard to see a more diverse range of people in fashion shows as a negative. For years, they’ve been the realm of young, thin, white women and men who aren’t (at least, not visibly) disabled. But the way that these more inclusive shows are being talked about proves we still have a long way to go.

A lot of the press coverage emphasises that this is a huge step forward for the fashion industry, but its tone is often patronising. Us magazine starts its article about the use of disabled models in fashion shows, ‘so inspiring!’ as if they’ve only just discovered that disabled people can do more than simply stare into space. They can move around, too, and in public!

Ami Sano’s appearance in the traditional end-of-show wedding dress at Takafumi Tsuruta was described as ‘moving’ and Carrie Hammer including Jamie Brewer on the catwalk has been praised as a ‘bold move’. Tokenism, much?

The inclusion of disabled people in any endeavour because it’s ‘bold’ or ‘inspiring’, or even out of a genuine, non-condescending desire to encourage diversity, shouldn’t be a marketing technique. But whether intentional or not, it works. Fashion houses got publicity about the fact that their shows included disabled people, rather than on the basis of their designs.

I get that it’s noteworthy to expand the range of people we see on the catwalk, and that media outlets love a new angle, but not only do the articles and news clips I’ve seen treat the use of disabled models as akin to the second coming, designers seem to be pretty self-congratulatory about it, too.

Carrie Hammer even claims not to see disability – which is about as off-putting as when people say they don’t see race. Last year her show featured Danielle Sheypuk, the first New York Fashion Week model to rock a wheelchair. ‘We were never trying to make a statement,’ Hammer said. ‘We don’t think of [Sheypuk] as being in a wheelchair. We don’t define her that way.’ But… She is in a wheelchair. She is disabled.

I should probably explain I’m defining disability according to the social model, which holds that disability is the result of barriers to lack of access and support, rather than people’s specific impairment. It’s a term that I and many other disabled people prefer, although it’s been slow to catch on in the mainstream, and even within the community.

Model and record-breaking Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins (pictured), for example, who is a double amputee, gave a hugely popular TED talk a few years ago called ‘The Opportunity of Adversity‘. In it, she rejected the term ‘disabled’ because her thesaurus listed words including ‘helpless’, ‘useless’, and ‘decrepit’ as synonyms. But surely that reflects more poorly on how non-disabled people see us?

The problem is the way we talk and think about disability, not that disability is so icky no one should want to identify with it. We shouldn’t let non-disabled people off the hook by promoting the idea that if disabled people want something they just need to work harder. The Mail Online’s coverage of New York fashion week’s increased diversity included the insight that ‘disability is very often just a mental state’. Nope. (People with mental health problems may identify as disabled, but I don’t think that’s what the Mail meant…)

Unfortunately, we’re still at the stage where visibility is in itself progress. Like other marginalised groups, disabled people are left out of so many public spaces that seeing any representation of someone we relate to is something to be grateful for. Sheypuk and Hammer were apparently inundated with emails from girls thanking them for their positive example. It’s also undeniably meaningful to the models themselves. Eyers said, ‘I just want to show that having a disability doesn’t need to hold you back.’

And that’s great. The trouble (and the objectifying) comes with marketing this as a ‘trend’. There are around 10 million disabled people in the UK alone, it’s not clear why some of them couldn’t be professional models, earning the same amount as non-disabled people, and integrated with them almost as if they’re just like anyone else. Of course, the best thing would be if we could see a wider range of people on the catwalk in general, and a lot more disabled models (and actors, singers, presenters, etc) without it being a big deal.

After all, disabled people aren’t being inspirational, they’re just being. Sometimes in fancy clothes.

Image by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.

Diane Shipley