The power of representation
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 percent of people have some kind of a disability, forming the world’s largest minority community. It’s also the only minority community that anyone can potentially become part of at any point in their life. And yet, when it comes to telling our stories, we have either been reduced to harmful stereotypes or left out of the conversation entirely.
Judy Heumann, a lifelong disability rights activist and personal hero of mine, puts this down to the misguided notion that people with disabilities somehow aren’t able to live full lives. “People have not seen us as an equal member within their communities, their schools, their mosques, their churches, their synagogues, social clubs, or whatever it may be,” she says. “They look at us and they think, ‘How could I live my life like that?’” —exactly the reason why authentic representation is so vital.
But it goes beyond that. As children, you create this image of beauty based on what society deems beautiful—so what happens when the image of beauty and desirability never looks like you? For one thing, it can have a damaging effect on your self-esteem and, at times, make it incredibly difficult to accept your own body.
This is something model Bri Scalesse—who became a paraplegic at the age of six after a car accident left her with spinal-cord injuries—can relate to. “As a child, I longed to see myself reflected in an image,” she tells Vogue. “But I couldn’t find my body or my chair represented on TV or in magazines. Disabled people weren’t models or actresses. There was no disabled princess.”
Social media and body positivity
In recent years, however, things have started to change. Social media became a tool through which people with disabilities could finally control the way they were being seen. Meanwhile, across the board, calls for greater diversity and the burgeoning body-positivity movement opened up the space to celebrate beauty in all its different forms. As a result, we’re seeing people with disabilities making appearances on the runway, on the cover of magazines, in fashion advertisements and in beauty campaigns. This long-awaited representation is slowly but surely eroding the historical stigmas surrounding people with disabilities. But it hasn’t been easy, nor has it been swift.