How Some Brands are Improving Disability Representation and Visibility

How Some Brands are Improving Disability Representation and Visibility

How Some Brands are Improving Disability Representation and Visibility

by Emma Levin

In 2022, brands are expected to do more with disability inclusivity simply because it’s been long overdue.

In the past few years, brands have embraced ethnicity, size, and even age in their campaigns, but sadly, physical disability representation remains dangerously low. Disabled individuals make up almost 26% of America’s population and yet are represented in less than 1% of ad campaigns. (editor's note: much of this story focuses on physical disabilities with the understanding that not all are visible. Stay tuned for expanded stories coming soon!)
A collection of individuals, models, activists, and agencies are working to change that.
Aaron Rose Philip, a model and activist, took to Twitter to call out fashion brands for not hiring people with disabilities like hers. Zebedee Management represents over 500 models of diverse disabilities for hire and gets thousands of bookings a year. Savage X Fenty has raised the bar for fashion by featuring models of incredible ranges of diversity.
While there is a long history of exclusion from the spotlight and the climb forward remains steep, we're here to celebrate the momentum and representational wins we’ve seen so far.
Lauren Zeb / ZebeeDee models. Photographed by Sølve Sundsbø for Mission Magazine
We asked Laura Johnson, co-founder of Zebedee Management, an inclusive agency that represents models of diverse disabilities, about the reasons for this long-established exclusion and some solutions for moving forward. She believes it comes down to three things:

“One, they're worried about what it means on set [like] how many changes they would need to make. Even though, sometimes, they would have to make barely any. Two, they're worried about making sure they get the language right in the first place. And again…avoiding it altogether is not going to help anyone. And three, there is still long-term discrimination against disabled people which exists in every area of society, not just in this industry, but across the entertainment industry, across education, across social opportunities…It's hard to change people's perceptions around disability.”

Sofia Jirau via Instagram
Disabled people need to be authentically portrayed in the content they consume and reflected in the brands they purchase. It's past due that people with disabilities are represented as complex, three-dimensional human beings.
A few brands are taking down notes and setting the record straight. Victoria’s Secret, for example, has recently employed a range of models for their new Love Cloud Collection. Models like Paloma Elsesser, firefighter, Celilo Miles, and their first model with Down syndrome, Sofía Jirau.
While Victoria’s Secret has lacked models of diverse ethnicities, ages, and body differences in the past, Sofía’s stunning photoshoot represents a positive turning point in the brand’s future.
Sofia’s Instagram post of her shoot with Victoria’s Secret
Sofía joyfully celebrates this life-affirming work in her conversation with NBC.

"People who have Down syndrome like me are capable of getting a job, creating their own business, and working hard like me. I’ll tell everyone to just dream. To dream, because every dream can come true."

Victoria’s Secret reached out to Sofía personally after viewing her social media pages. In today’s online landscape, individuals have to use the megaphone attached to social media to capture a brand’s attention. High fashion model, Aaron Rose Philip, used social media to her advantage to call out the fashion industry in 2017.
Aaron Rose Philip’s Tweet from 2017 © Aaron Rose Philip
Her call to action, plus her striking talent, gained her traction in the industry. She’s since modeled for Collina Strada, Sephora, and Calvin Klein. She also graced the runway for Moschino’s Spring 2022 show. It was a milestone moment for wheelchair users to witness someone like themselves on one of the biggest runways in the world.
Aaron Rose Philip is actively carving a path in the fashion industry not just for herself, but for others who share her dreams. In her interview with Vogue, she explains the significance behind her work.

“My work has always held that significance where I feel like everything that I do speaks to something larger than myself. I am a talented model who has a disability, who also happens to be a black trans woman. I want to have the same level of success and opportunities that my peers have.”

© Emily Bloomer/ Zebedee
There has been a shift not only in the fashion industry, but in advertisements altogether. It seems brands are finally opening their eyes to the range of talent available, while also getting clear on their brand's values.
When the UK opened up again in the Summer of 2021, Zebedee Management experienced a change in momentum: their booking numbers increased dramatically. Today, Zebedee represents over 500 models of all diversities: ethnicities, ages, sizes, and disabilities, and receives thousands of bookings every year.
There are a few different reasons for the shift in the industry, and some of them you wouldn’t expect. Laura Johnson, the co-founder of Zebedee, offered her explanations:

“We've made it easy for brands who want to be inclusive…they can come to us and we've got a huge variety from tiny babies to older adults, with a huge diverse set of different disabilities. We take diversity within disability very seriously.”

Most notably, she believes the pandemic offered an opportunity for accessibility to be commonplace. “The pandemic in a kind of way has helped weirdly because everything's gone remote. Two years ago, clients wouldn't want to speak to me over video.”
Laura also believes the pandemic made people more empathetic to one another and more understanding.

“I think the lockdown kind of helped in a way that people started thinking about others and not just themselves. They started feeling vulnerable, and started thinking about other people who are vulnerable.”

There are a few outstanding brands that demonstrate a commitment to accommodating an on-set experience that’s thoughtful, inclusive, and sensitive to body differences. Savage X Fenty, Rihanna’s lingerie brand, is well-known for embracing all types of diversity and treating its models like queens.
Shaholly Ayers and other models at the Savage X Fenty Amazon Prime Fashion Show COURTESY OF SHAHOLLY AYERS for Forbes
Shaholly Ayers, a model who’s a congenital amputee, sings Rihanna’s praises. “I must say that this was the most inclusive production I have ever been a part of. We had people from all walks of life together on set; almost every body type, race, sex, and celebrity all mixed together. We were all treated equally and no one was more special than the next.” She said in her conversation with Forbes.
When asked if any brands went above and beyond with their accessibility accommodations, Zebedee had a long list.

“River Island Clothing has made particular adjustments for someone who has a learning disability and sensory issues. Target and Nike have always been really good.”

Overall, Zebedee has worked with an incredible range of brands, from Disney to H&M, to Burberry!
Accommodations on set should be second nature, and it certainly shouldn’t derail inclusivity. Laura explained that telling the client about a model’s accommodations is par for the course. “We tell the client what their needs are, and the client can delve a bit deeper if they want to be really inclusive.”
She did have a fantastic metaphor for how seamless accessibility should be.

"For me, it's like asking what someone's dietary requirements are… we just have to make a few amendments to the menu.”

Not only are there strides being made in terms of representation, but there’s an expanding product market as well. More brands have designed adaptive products for people with disabilities. In fact, according to Market Watch, the global adaptive clothing market was valued at $250.1 million in 2019. Also, the global spending power of the disabled community is estimated at more than $6 trillion according to eSSENTIAL Accessibility.
The lingerie company Aerie recently introduced adaptive clothing accessories. Nike has also jumped on board with their newest hands-free sneakers, Go FlyEase, which was designed in collaboration with Matthew Walzer, a teen with cerebral palsy.
Sarah Reinertsen wearing Go FlyEase at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Originally photographed by Sage Brown for Bloomberg Businessweek. Courtesy of Sage Brown.
Whether profit is the main goal or not, it goes without saying that these products are more than needed. Shaholly Ayers spoke with Forbes about the need for clothing adaptations.
“Take zippers for instance, as an upper extremity amputee, it's difficult for me to zip my own jacket…Changing the way we think about incorporating accessible fashion may help us better bridge the gap and provide solutions for a larger population.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and brands are missing out on an entire market by leaving disabled people’s needs out of the equation.
Overall, to truly serve the disabled community, it’s crucial for brands to create a space where disabled people can represent themselves in all their human complexity, without profit overshadowing intention.
The Raw Beauty Project's goal is to expand the public’s limiting definition of disability and beauty. Founded by Wendy Crawford, Ginny Dixon, and Dr. Susan Solman, this art platform opens the doors for disabled women to be shown in an exciting new spotlight. These women are sexy, feminine, desirable, and strong. The Raw Beauty Project tells the world just how stunning these women truly are.
Maggie Redden Photographed by Rabitt and Bond for Raw Beauty
Ultimately, when it comes to representation in the media, brands must move quickly. When asked how Zebedee would like to see disabled visibility evolve, Laura Johnson put it plainly:

“My personal mission is that I want to see representation at that [UK] statistic: 20% of disabled people featured in advertising. I want brands to work towards that. I also want to see the fashion weeks around the world having disabled people on their runways.”

True representation is gaining momentum, thanks to the work of Zebedee, other talent agencies, and the sheer persistence of disabled individuals. Brands are finally stepping up to the plate, but disabled talent has been on the sidelines for far too long.
Emma Levin
Emma is a freelance content writer living a nomadic life. She writes about meditation, travelling, and the upsides of freelance. In her spare time, she's either chugging coffee or falling off her skateboard.
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