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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell

Disability Inclusion – It’s NOT Fashionable

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Spring 2019 NY Fashion Week was a wrap last month. We saw the trends that will be hot this spring -- florals, ruffles, layers, feathers, a lot of color, the throwback ‘80s boxy blazer, along with monochromatic neutrals. What also was back was a lack of models with disabilities on the runway and the lack of ALL-inclusive shows. Disability is not fashion mainstream.

The trend for the last eight seasons has been cameo appearances at small shows dedicated to featuring new and rising designers who are “willing” to use models with disabilities. Many times these models go unpaid, or they have to find sponsors to help cover travel and expenses. Many designers don’t pay the models with disabilities because they say, “You’re not the look we are really going for in this show, but we will include you and give you an opportunity.” Then this is quickly followed up with, “Please mention us in any press you might get.” Really?

We are seeing some progress. Many brands are recognizing the need for accessible fashion--fashion that is easy to take on and off if you are person with a disability. The accessible clothing industry is estimated to be worth $287 Billion dollars. But even most of the big name designers that are creating accessible lines and reaping the benefits of this multi-million dollar industry do not/have not put models with disabilities in their designer runway shows. Instead, they are featured in a separate show dedicated to the accessible line or in non-profit shows promoting inclusion. Not exactly what we would call authentically inclusive.

It has been four years since Shaholly Ayers, a model who happens to be a congenital amputee, became our Brand Ambassador. By all accounts, Shaholly is beautiful, fit, fun, capable, and eager to change the way the world perceives disability.

When you look at Shaholly’s modeling credentials, they are impressive. She has walked in NY Fashion Week for eight seasons, she has walked in Milan Fashion Week twice, appeared on the Today Show, and the Hallmark Channel's Home & Family. (All sponsored by us, which we were happy to do as our brand ambassador). She has modeled multiple times for Nordstrom, and JOLYN, and appeared in a Third Love commercial. It is important to note that Nordstrom, JOLYN and Third Love were paid opportunities.

Head shot of Shaholly wearing a floppy hat, and long braid. She is wearing a grey turtle neck and a leather jacket.
Shaholly Ayers: Model & GDI Brand Ambassador

But what is missing from behind the list of credentials is Shaholly doesn’t have a modeling agency who will represent her. She has created these opportunities, going to casting calls, shooting her own portfolio, and working to become a social media influencer. All because agencies have told her they can't get her work.

All of this is impressive, but it demonstrates that after ten years of her successes she is still battling the stigma of disability. By the list of Shaholly’s accomplishments, and a look at almost any photo of her, you can see she is more than qualified for the role. Why are major brands, including the fashion industry, creating products for people with disabilities, but only representing them as part of their diversity efforts, if at all? We still have to go through a side door, or be part of a sideshow.

Call to Consumers: contact your favorite brands, visit their social media accounts, and tell them you want to be sure they are representing 22% of the US population and 15% of the global population. Tell them there is an untapped market opportunity and you #ShopInclusion #DisabilityDollars.

Step up. Speak up. And spend where you know companies are being inclusive.

Call to Companies: We challenge you to Step up. Speak up. #BEauthenticallyinclusive.


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