Ableism in the Fashion Industry
About the Author: Syanne Centeno-Bloom is a disabled model, actress, and advocate. On her platform she posts not only beautiful images of her modeling, but also works to break the stigma of disability and educate others. In this article she tells us about the barriers she faces as a wheelchair user and the way the fashion industry discriminates against those with disabilities. To learn more about Syanne visit her instagram here!
“You’re a liability,” were amongst the first words I read that were written to me by a fashion show organizer after I had applied to be a model in their runway show.
“You’re in a wheelchair and most designers do not want models sitting on their clothes.”
When I asked for further clarification, the CEO of the show proceeded to add on more excuses for the discrimination including that there were “higher insurance costs when including models in wheelchairs”. I was dumbfounded because one, I’ve never heard of such a thing and two, they had defined themselves as an inclusive show that featured models of all “races and sizes”.
As a newly disabled person I have quickly learned that while many brands profess to be inclusive, they often do not include those with visible differences and disabilities.
In the U.S alone, 6.8 million Americans use assistive devices. Worldwide, there are 2 billion people with disabilities, and 75 million of those are wheelchair users.
The disabled make up the world’s largest minority, so why are we the most underrepresented in the fashion and entertainment industry?
I believe it comes down to one, major contributing factor: Stigma.
People with disabilities are historically stereotyped as being helpless, incapable and incompetent. We are continuously used as inspiration porn for able-bodied folks while simultaneously being marginalized and pushed to the very edge of society.
My experience of being turned away from a runway show because event organizers presumed that I would “roll off the runway” is proof of ableism, which is defined as discrimination against the disabled community. The fact that there is an immediate thought that someone is going to roll off of a runway just because they are in a wheelchair is a clear, ableist mindset. We can all easily search “fashion show fails” on YouTube and find numerous videos of able-bodied models (who are walking) falling off the runway. People who use wheelchairs are not somehow mentally unable to accurately perceive the floor beneath them.
We encounter this type of discrimination every day whether it is trying to work in the entertainment industry or encountering accessibility issues at the grocery store, barriers are constantly present. But because of these barriers we have learned to adapt and become more creative than the general population, which makes us an asset.
As a disabled woman of color, I have re-entered the fashion and entertainment industry as a triple minority. I have to work even harder than ever before to show that I am worthy and more than capable to stand beside able-bodied models and actors.
As consumers of fashion, beauty and entertainment we need to be able to see ourselves represented in mainstream media just as much as anyone else. Not only would this representation and inclusion boost industry sales, it would also normalize disabled bodies in society. Brands have enormous influence and many, like Tommy Hilfiger, Vogue and Target have already begun to embrace the disabled community.
If more brands continue to follow suit by being inclusive to all types of disabilities, we would be more visible in society which could in turn enact major change.
Maybe employers would be more accommodating and less likely to turn down someone because of their disability. Maybe retail and grocery stores would have people with disabilities in mind when designing their floor plans or label items to include the visually impaired. Maybe a little girl with a walker or a wheelchair would see someone like her in a magazine and believe that she can do that too.
And just maybe, civil rights for the disabled would improve if the images we see in advertisements and television normalized and reflected the very worthy people with disabilities that exist in our communities.
About the Blog: Our blog here at Liberare is dedicated to spotlighting disabled voices and giving you awesome articles about fashion hacks, beauty tips, love and sex, self-confidence, travel, and lifestyle. Done reading? Take a shopping break and check out our new merch here!
1. The University of California-Disability Statistics Center, “Mobility Device Statistics.”22 April 2013. Disability Facts and Statistics. 8 Sept 2020.
2. Wagner, Lisa. “Disabled People in the World 2019: Facts and Figures”. Inclusivity City Maker. 8 Sept 2020.
3. “Ableism”. Merriam-webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ableism. 8 Sept 2020.