26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability, the CDC reveals, yet as few as 0.02% of fashion and beauty campaigns include models with disabilities. Nevertheless, diversity is slowly but surely growing in the fashion industry. Models with disabilities are making waves, breaking down barriers, and paving the way for the next generation and a more inclusive future.
Aaron Philip was born with cerebral palsy, a group of permanent disorders that affect movement, muscle tone, balance, and posture. Having a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy can be a difficult time for parents, but, fortunately, cerebral palsy resources are available to provide families with holistic support. Philip, however, has never let his disability hold her back; she’s the first ever black, trans, disabled model to sign to a major agency (Elite Model Management). Philip also says disability discrimination is a major problem in the fashion industry. Last year, she was invited to appear at New York Fashion Week, but the lack of wheelchair access prevented her from doing so. “There's still a great lack of visibility and attention towards people with disabilities in fashion”, Philip said. “As of right now, I'm one of two physically disabled models in the entire industry, next to Jillian Mercado”.
However, Philip remains hopeful about the prospect of positive industry change. “The fashion industry has only known one type of body, and one type of marketable figure for so long,” she said. “(But) now we're entering this time, and this climate, where all types of bodies want to be pushed forward and celebrated — not only celebrated, but be seen as desirable and marketable”. Philip also wants to work in other areas of the industry to help facilitate positive change. “Maybe in the future I'll be a casting agent who specializes in casting people of marginalized identities in high fashion,” she suggested. “I want diversity to be pushed forward, forward, forward, and I think maybe (that's how) I can do it”.
Chella Man is an American model, actor, and Youtuber who’s amassed a large following for sharing his experiences as a deaf, genderqueer, trans-masculine, Chinese, and Jewish person of color. He’s also the first deaf, transgender model to sign to IMG and has modelled for Vogue, Calvin Klein, and Christian Cowan. Whereas Man acknowledges the positive steps the fashion industry has made to become more inclusive, he also recognizes there’s still a long way to go.
“The growth of diversity is undeniable,” comments Man. “Unfortunately, these choices are occasionally due to performative activism and tokenization rather than a true understanding of equality. I hope those in power are open to understanding the roots of harmful, systemic cycles. Education empowers empathy, and creates a collective stride towards collective liberation.”
Disability representation in the fashion industry is set to only improve. Inspiring models like Aaron Philip and Chella Man are helping to revolutionize the industry and create a more inclusive future.