Visualizing Invisible Disabilities in the Fashion Industry

Visualizing Invisible Disabilities in the Fashion Industry

Visualizing Invisible Disabilities in the Fashion Industry

by Rosemary Richings

A look into how brands can expand representation, inclusion and accessibility for all kinds of disabilities - and how some models are taking the lead.

Accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities has become a priority for many brands over the past few years. Most visibly, the inclusion of people in wheelchairs, amputees, and other outward disabilities are becoming more prominent in major campaigns. Brands are becoming more mindful of developing accessibility-conscious products and UX/UI experiences.
But not all disabilities are visible on the surface. Many brands– especially in the fashion industry, have room to grow towards acknowledging and representing them, and many are making a valiant effort.
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The estimated number of people with invisible (‘hidden’) disabilities is 80%. To give you a better idea of how large that demographic is, one billion people worldwide are experiencing a disability. For those who are unfamiliar with the term hidden disabilities, it refers to people who have everything from:
  • Visual and hearing-based impairments, neurodivergence, and developmental disabilities of all kinds.
  • To various chronic illnesses like autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue-focused conditions.
One of the most immediate and well-crafted clothing advertisement campaign that features models with invisible disabilities, is the AerieReal Life campaign. It was  a  first glimpse of what we can and should be doing to give models with invisible disabilities equal representation.
One of the campaign’s models, Evelyn lives with type one diabetes. In the campaign, her insulin pump was visible. That meant a lot to advocates with type one diabetes and their families because it was the first time many women with type one diabetes felt seen.
The team who worked on Evelyn’s photoshoot made sure there was always food around to treat low blood sugar. They also did their best to learn how her devices to treat diabetes work. They did their homework. They also listened to Evelyn when she told them what diabetes is like.

Models with Lived Experiences are Driving  the Narrative

Models such as Nina Marker use their platform to raise awareness. She uses her platform to change the discussion around  disability by sharing her lived experience with autism spectrum disorder. She has modelled for Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana and appeared on the cover of major fashion magazines like Elle. As stories like Nina's spread, stigma reduces. The more we support and listen to lived experiences, the more we normalize disability symptoms.
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How some negative experiences are channeling models to create a better environment:

Many models with hidden conditions are leaving the industry due to stigma, which has a detrimental effect on an individual’s well-being. Cara Delavigne is one of many models who quit modelling because it harmed her well-being. Cara Delevingne was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a condition affecting the brain’s ability to coordinate movements.
Modelling didn’t allow Cara to be her authentic self, which damaged her mental health. So, she had to quit modelling and pursue acting instead. Yet, she’s not the only disabled person with a similar story.
▲ Cara Delevigne photographed for the cover of Vogue's July, 2018 issue.
Sherri Connell started as a model, dancer, and singer. She also has multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and a brain injury. Yet some articles have  blamed her inability to “make it” on the symptoms of her disability. Grace Stratton’s online platform All for All directly addresses a problem in the industry that makes people like Sherri feel like they’re not welcome.
According to Grace Stratton, the fashion industry is intimidating for disabled people who don’t fit the narrow view of what beauty is. Kellie Moody is an English make-up artist who has struggled to make it as a model for this exact reason. According to her 2009 statement to The Independent:

“The only difference between me and a model on the runway is that I am deaf.”

For Sherri Connell, leaving the fashion industry was a great idea. Currently, she runs the Invisible Disabilities Association with her husband, Wayne. She is making a significant impact by raising awareness through IDA's annual activities, blog, and podcast.
What started as a therapeutic journal that helped Sherri articulate the symptoms she experienced everyday, turned into something so much bigger. She collaborated with her husband Wayne to share her journal entries online.
Sherri and Wayne initially thought that the only readers would be their family and friends, but Sherri’s transparent accounts of her experiences attracted a global audience of people with similar experiences.
Those journal entries are now a booklet that people with chronic illnesses can share with their families and friends.
The partners combine business, medical professionals, and various volunteers to create resources that educate and support people in the chronic illness community.

Positive Changes in the Fashion Industry

Agencies specializing in disabled talent are an asset to creating positive, inclusive experiences for people with all forms of disabilities. Agencies such as Zebedee Talent are addressing this issue. Here’s how they use web copy to communicate their approach:

“Some models need more care and thoughtful planning before a shoot, and we’ll work with you to help you get it right. We offer webinars and resources to help you understand every aspect of disability. That way, you'll feel as comfortable as our models.”

There's money in the disabled talent niche.

When accessibility isn’t taken seriously, businesses miss the opportunity to engage a vital  customer base. In the US alone, the total disposable income of disabled adults is $490 billion. That number is not far off from the US spending power figures in the UK: $383 billion.
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Disabled people don't want to choose between feeling good and wearing accessible clothing. Brands need to prove this is something they can authentically offer. Pulling that off starts with hiring and celebrating disabled models that represent your average customer whether it’s an immediately obvious disability or something less visible.
Disabled consumers need to see and connect with someone like them in advertising campaigns. Small gestures like that assure disabled consumers that a product is worth their money. Since that’s not something brands can fake, the immediate solution is creating an accessible environment for all.
Rosemary Richings
Rosemary Richings is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, and author living in Marrakech. She has worked with organizations such as Uptimize, The Good Trade, Saatva Mattress Company. Rosemary gravitates toward projects that put her lived experience as a disabled neurodivergent person to work. She was born with dyspraxia, otherwise known as developmental coordination disorder, and was diagnosed when she was 4 years old. Her debut book, Stumbling Through Space and Time: Living Life with Dyspraxia is being released through Jessica Kingsley Publishers on September 21, 2022. Currently, she is serving on the board of trustees of Dyspraxic Me, a peer support group for dyspraxics ages 16-25, and helps organize events for the online global support network she co-founded, Dyspraxic Alliance.