From posters at bus stops and on the tube. To advertisements in magazines and newspapers. To annoying adverts before YouTube videos. Models are everywhere. But when was the last time you saw a disabled model?
Public opinion and diversity in the modelling industry
“I wouldn’t buy my girlfriend a bikini I saw on a disabled model. I’ve got no issue with them. But for me, I’m instantly put off,” says a 20-year old student with distaste on his face. His attitude is not surprising, considering models with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in today’s modelling industry, despite 13.9 million people in the United Kingdom having a disability of some sort.
Models dominate your Instagram feed, every brand hires them and they are the face of ever popular product. However, the modelling industry comes under fire more often than it should for not being inclusive enough. According to research compiled by beauty magazine The Fashion Spot, 78.2 per cent of models in 2016 were white, only 1.6 per cent of models were over a size 12, to mention a few worrying statistics.
Despite these low numbers, the industry is slowly improving its representation of minorities. It’s hiring more people of colour, like Naomi Campbell. Or hiring people with various sexual orientations and gender identities, like Ruby Rose. Now comes the turn of the disabled community.
How is the industry changing?
Zebedee Management was founded for this very reason. According to a press release, “Fashion and advertising industries have come on leaps and bounds over recent years in terms. They’re ensuring that their advertising and campaigns are more representative of our diverse society. It is more commonplace to see plus size models, different ethnicities and ages of people in advertising. But, it is still not where it needs to be.”
The modelling agency specialises in hiring models with differing abilities, stating that “disability seems to be the last taboo”, referring to people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. “We want it to be the norm that advertising using people with disabilities becomes commonplace,” reads their press release.
Founded in 2017 by friends Laura Johnson, a qualified social worker, and Zoe Proctor, a qualified further education teacher, Zebedee Management already looks after 250 models with a variety of needs.
Bernadette Hagans, one of Zebedee Management’s models, praises them highly. “My management understands what I’m able to do and therefore I’m able to do amazing things in which my disability doesn’t hold me back,” she says.
How are disabled models setting an example?
At 22 years old, Hagans is living her dream. With her long blonde hair and bright blue eyes, she has the looks of any successful model of this era. She also has a prosthetic leg. Hagans recently had an operation that saw her lower right leg amputated as a complication of cancer. Before her amputation, she had never thought about modelling. “I had never done it before,” she says.
She sees her job as a model as one that is important to do, especially in regards to children, saying “I realised that if there were children that maybe didn’t feel good enough because of a difference or disability, then seeing me modelling might help them realise that they could do it too”.
Hagans does a variety of jobs, saying she feels “extremely lucky to be a part of the change in the industry”. She is optimistic about the future of models with disabilities. “I really do see a future. Change in the industry is happening and so many models are being recognised with their disabilities or uniqueness.”
“I believe that one day these differences won’t hold anyone back from jobs they’re capable of doing,” she adds.
Is there a place in the industry for disabled models?
Not everyone is as optimistic. Flair Talent, a modelling agency based in London established in 2004, currently has two models with disabilities signed. “We have a lady with a foreshortened arm and another lady with scoliosis,” explains Hannah, who works for Flair Talent. She chose to withold her surname for privacy reasons.
“Our models are very commercial looking,” she continues. “All ethnicities, all ages, as long as they’re adults. In the industry, they’re known as real people…people we can relate to,” she explains.
Although they currently have disabled models, Hannah is not so optimistic about the future of disability representation in modelling. She agrees disabled models are underrepresented, but does not think they will have equal opportunities in the future.
“I don’t see it as being commonplace. As we know, there aren’t as many disabled people as able-bodied people in our society,” she concludes.
Will there be a time when disabled models will be accepted as the norm?
This reasoning is logical, but the lack of models with disabilities is disproportionate to the number of disabled people who live in the United Kingdom, 3.7 million of whom are in employment.
Despite this relatively high figure, Select Model Management, also based in London, does not employ any disabled models. Although Briony Bolton, who works for the agency, emphasises that they definitely would hire disabled models.
The agency was founded in 1977 and employs the likes of singer Jess Glynne and model Sofia Richie.
Bolton explains “there’s a demand from clients, everybody is open to equal opportunities now” in regards to disabled models. “I think it’s interesting for clients if they can have a broader perception of people who are represented in their campaigns. It’s representative of the country and the audience they’re marketing to.”
Is the gateway demand from big corporations?
Both Select Model Management and Flair Talent cater to companies that aren’t known for their inclusive campaigns. Yet some brands are expanding their horizons. Recently, clothing shop River Island was praised in the news for making children with disabilities the new faces of a new clothing line.
Model Oriana Findlay confirms this story, praising River Island for being inclusive. At 22 years old, she is the same age as amputee and fellow model Hagans. Findlay is not only a model but also a fashion blogger and a writer.
She was born in Lusaka, Zambia, with German, English, and Zambian roots. In addition to her fashion-related work, she also has an undergraduate degree in politics from King’s College London. Furthermore, she is currently studying fashion journalism at a postgraduate level.
Just like Hagans, Findlay never expected to be a model. “I never really considered modelling until I was scouted on Instagram,” she laughs. “My agency messaged me and asked me to come in. They liked me and I was soon signed to the agency,” she reminisces.
Having worked for brands like Charlotte Tilbury, NARS, and 10store, Findlay has yet to work with a model with disabilities. Although she has no problem with doing so, stating: “inclusivity is really being pushed in the fashion industry right now”.
“I can see a future like this. In fact, I think it’s already happening,” she says approvingly.
Is disability the next step for diversity?
Other minority groups are slowly getting more and more representation. It is only fair the same should start happening for the disabled community. With 6 per cent of children, 16 per cent of working-age adults and 45 per cent of adults over State Pension age having one or more disabilities, representation in mainstream media is still lacking.
Where other minorities have already gotten TV shows, movies, books and indeed, models, the disabled community is following painfully slowly. Shows like Atypical on Netflix, which follows the life of a young man on the autism spectrum, are a step in the right direction. But there is still a long way to go, and the modelling industry is no exception.
In recent years, models with disabilities have been making headlines when they get signed by big modelling agencies. Unfortunately, there have only been a handful of such cases. There seems to be a general consensus the modelling industry is moving in the right direction. Yet they are moving slower than necessary.
The world is becoming an increasingly accepting and diverse place. It is important for minority groups to see themselves represented in the media. It is only a matter of time before the modelling industry opens its doors to models with disabilities.