As long as I can remember Ive always had people stare at me. I was born with a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta which means that my bones break easily and I am a full time wheelchair user.
I vividly remember shopping with my sister and mother — I must have been 16-years-old — and the stares and side glances just got the better of me and I burst into tears. Trying to console me my sister knelt down next to me and said, has it ever occurred to you that people may be staring because you are an amazing dresser and you look great?
It was true, I loved fashion and I had an innate sense of style. Her words have stayed with me to this day and fashion has become much more than just clothes to keep me warm.
Fashion represents individuality, confidence, expression, sexiness and creativity. Yet when I go shopping in-store or online I dont see myself represented. There arent mannequins in wheelchairs in shop windows, accessible dressing rooms are normally used as store cupboards and tills are so high that I cant shop independently.
I am not used to picking up a magazine and seeing models like myself, that is until recently when brands such as ASOS, River Island and Tommy Hilfiger took a chance and employed disabled models to don their clothes. Finally, I could see the representation I deserved and had been waiting for years ago!
So why is inclusive fashion so important?
People with disabilities make up 22% of the population and are consumers just like the rest of the population. Surely if there are more positive images of people with disabilities and disabled models in our shop advertisements those 22% will consume and purchase more?
It also makes good sense for businesses to target disabled people. The Government estimates that our spending power — the purple pound — is worth over £249 billion a year. Every fashion company should be looking to a get a piece of this market. There would be a huge advantage for the companies that start using disabled people in their advertising campaigns.
Research by disability charity Scope found two thirds (68%) of disabled people feel the need to disguise their disability as a result of stigma and negativity. Many disabled people hide their disability because of lack of confidence and fashion can be a form of expression that breaks down barriers as a talking point. Fashion certainly helped me to be comfortable with who I am and how I want to express myself. Believe it or not, the disabled community want to look and feel good like everyone else.
My message to ASOS: keep up the good work, you probably dont realise the positive impact using disabled models has on the disabled community who often feel segregated and undervalued, as we most certainly live in a disabling world.
To other brands that are yet to bite the bullet I would say: customers are loyal and when we dont feel as though you care about us and value our custom, then we will go elsewhere – do you really want to miss out on that £249billion spending power?
I do fear however that inclusive fashion and better representation of models with disabilities maybe a box ticking exercise and the in thing. We need more than just a few campaigns featuring models with disabilities as a one off. This needs to be standard practice for all retailers and a long term initiative.