Just one model with a disability is not enough

Actress and model Jamie Brewer struts her stuff in a Carrie Hammer A-line dress, making her the first woman with Down ...
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Actress and model Jamie Brewer struts her stuff in a Carrie Hammer A-line dress, making her the first woman with Down syndrome to model at New York Fashion Week.

Last week, 30-year-old American Horror Story actor Jamie Brewer walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week.

She was the first model with Down syndrome to feature in the event and she said she hoped to show other young women they can do anything in life.

It's important that children and young people with disabilities see themselves represented on the catwalk. And Brewer's goal also demonstrates that it's important that children – and adults - with disabilities see themselves represented in a wide range of occupations. 

Brewer modelled Carrie Hammer's clothing line, which has the tagline "role models, not runway models".

CARLY FINDLAY: "I love fashion and I want it to be accessible."

CARLY FINDLAY: "I love fashion and I want it to be accessible."

Hammer aims to "empower women everywhere" and her website features a diverse range of women modelling her workwear, including women of colour, curvy women and a woman with a disability. A person with a disability modelling workwear validates aspirations to be a part of the workforce.

By having her moment in the fashion spotlight, Brewer shows others with Down syndrome and all kinds of disabilities that they are important, they are worthy of designer fashion and they have permission to take pride in how they look.

Katie Driscoll, founder of Changing the Face of Beauty – a campaign to see retailers include diverse models in their advertising - welcomes Brewer's modelling debut.

"I think it is important that everyone see themselves represented in the media all the time", she said. 

"My daughter is part of the largest minority in the world yet the least represented in the media. The more representation there is the more confident she will feel. I want her to know that she is seen and she matters because she does."

This is a celebration of diversity.

I love fashion and I want it to be accessible. Brewer - and other models with disabilities - is a wonderful start. But accessible fashion extends to access into the store, spacious and supported changerooms, and equality and non-patronising treatment from sales assistants.

In 2013, disability activist Stella Young and Madeleine Sobb appeared in the Australian Human Rights Commission's video about clothing store accessibility.

They spoke of how it's assumed that people with disabilities aren't into fashion, and they explained the difficulties of access into stores and the difficulty of using change rooms.

Sobb lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission after sales assistants denied her from taking the clothes home to try on and return them if they didn't fit. 

Stella Young often tweeted about venues and chain stores having poor wheelchair access. 

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Through her online activism, she managed to change accessibility standards at TopShop, which included disability training for staff.

While I have very few accessibility needs, I do sometimes find I am looked down on by sales assistants, perhaps assuming I don't want to or shouldn't dress well because I look different.

I also find trying on clothes very hard, because the constant scraping of them against my skin hurts, and I worry I will soil them by leaving flakes behind. There have been times when I've just bought the garment because I left skin on it.

My friends have told me about their challenges with fashion, explaining the physical and attitudinal barriers. 

Leisa Prowd, who has achondroplasia (dwarfism) says: "They just don't make stunning women's evening wear - or anything women's fashion for that matter - in a children's size 10!"

She laments stores hanging clothing so high that only people over six foot can reach them (me too!). And she'd like to see more sales assistants around to provide help with reaching clothing.

She also said the door gap on change rooms is too big.

"Whilst they may expose the average person from the knee down, you can see all I've got from the navel down sometimes," she said.

The patronising comments and assumptions about people with disabilities loving fashion is another access barrier. Phineas Meere tells me he is often embarrassed to ask for help from sales assistants.

"I'm far from a fashion plate, and a big guy, so shop assistants look down at me." 

Fashion lover Michelle Roger, who has dysautonomia, recalls similar experiences around sales assistants' attitudes toward people with disabilities.

"It's also the attitude of what a person in a chair or with a stick should wear," Michelle said. "People seem taken aback that I should wear a mini-skirt and high heels in my chair, or that I frock up at all. Or I get the patronising 'aw isn't that cute' type of comments." 

Michelle has to wear compression stockings and she opts for brights over beige.

"For me fashion has always been part of my self expression. Just because I am sick I shouldn't have to put up with bland aides", she said.

"In the end I am a person who loves fashion who just happens to be chronically ill and disabled. Damned if I'm going to live my life in beige and grey, sick or not. It's colour and pattern all the way!"

However, the accessibility barriers are removed with online shopping. Online shopping makes purchasing clothing easier for people with disabilities who are unable to leave the house - with retailers delivering straight to their door- and there's the option to return the clothing if it doesn't fit. Friends have told me this is a big help.

Fashion has come such a long way with respect to diversity. Seeing models like Jamie Brewer on the catwalk is progress. Carrie Hammer has it right with her view for inclusivity in fashion.

Seeing mannequins depicting disabilities in stores, and clothes to accommodate non-normative bodies and movement restrictions will be further progress.

The fashion world can't get complacent by thinking one model with a disability in one fashion show is enough. More designers and retailers need to include people with disabilities. And this needs to translate from the catwalk to the shopping strip, with proper access to stores and disability awareness training for staff. 

Let's shake things up and normalise disability. Let's ensure this access and inclusion is on the ready to wear rack in all stores.

Carly Findlay is a writer, speaker, community TV presenter and appearance activist. She blogs at Carlyfindlay.blogspot.com.

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 - dailylife.com.au

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