Entertainment & Culture

My catwalk debut in an inclusive fashion show for wheelchair users

Diversity and disability are rarely represented in fashion. There simply aren’t enough models with disabilities or who are simply ‘different’. That’s why our Deputy Editor, Shannon, was so excited about being part of an inclusive fashion show for wheelchair users.

“You wanna be on topppp.” America’s Next Top Model’s theme song played for the fifth time that summer day in 2009 as I continued to binge a rerun season.

“YES TYRA I DO,” I screamed in my head.

I used to be obsessed with that show. I loved the crazy photoshoots, the fashion shows and the drama. And of course the makeover episode… you know, the one where they gave a girl with long brunette hair a bleached blonde pixie cut or God forbid bangs! You know there were tears. Who remembers when a dentist widened Chelsey’s gap between her front teeth all in the name of high fashion? I do!

Shannon at her homecoming in 2011 with a friendThis was my show during high school… when I was trying to do the opposite of Chelsey and close my gapped teeth with braces. When I was trying to figure out who I was as a disabled teenager while being surrounded by hundreds of able-bodied peers.

America’s Next Top Model represented a wide range of girls. Girls of all ethnicities and from all over the country. There were openly gay and transgender women cast. Plus size girls were featured and there was even an entire season dedicated to girls under 5 foot 5. There were ever spinoffs of the show all over the world.

However, in all my time watching, there was never a woman with a visible physical disability on the show. And that was hard.

I looked up to these women and was inspired to follow in their footsteps. I hoped that maybe one day I would have the chance to experience some of the glitz and glam they did on the show. Or at least rock some of the confidence they had.

But without seeing someone rolling down the runway in a wheelchair, it was difficult to see that as a possibility.

Well, little did I know then that ten years later my America’s Next Top Model dream would come true. And that day was this past April when I participated in ‘This is How We Roll’, a fashion show specifically for wheelchair users!

Shannon with the founder of the inclusive fashion show for wheelchair users
Shannon with Jenny, the founder of This is How We Roll

This is How We Roll was created by Jenny Addis in 2013. Her aim was to highlight the importance of medical research, wheelchair accessibility and inclusion within the community by breaking down barriers and changing stereotypes. It also provides each model with a life-changing experience by promoting positivity, self-worth and life skills.

When I found out about the opportunity, I quickly applied, even though it was near Milwaukee, which is around 1.5 hours north of where I live.

The inclusive fashion show for wheelchair users

Each model was assigned a specific retailer to get their outfit from, and mine was Maurices. I went to Maurices by myself – man was that a mistake. I spent almost three hours in the store making the manager absolutely crazy as I tried to decide on an outfit.

After burning a couple of hundred calories from trying on outfit after outfit, and shedding a few silent tears in the dressing room, I finally found the winning look. Cropped, fitted grey pants, paired with a light pink floral print top and a navy blue blazer. STYLIN’!

Shannon with Hayley, another wheelchair model

A week later it was the big day! I arrived at the venue in the early afternoon to get my hair and make-up done. Because my hair is as thick as a horsetail, I had not one but three people working on it at once. After admiring my freshly curled locks, I went on to get my headshots taken and then began socialising with the other models.

I quickly became buddies with a girl named Hayley (pictured above), who had traveled all the way from Ohio with her husband and two kids. She was absolutely rocking a Maurices look too.

I also briefly met Ms Wheelchair Wisconsin, Autumn Neugent (pictured below). I actually ran into her again at the Chicago Abilities Expo, an event in Chicago for the disability community. I love meeting cool chicks in chairs. Community is so important and I wish I had this kind of support and role models when I was in high school.

Shannon at Chicago Abilities Expo

Finally, it was time for the show to begin! Men, women and children, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, lined up ready to go on stage. Although we all had our differences, we were united by our wheelchairs.

About halfway through the show, when it was nearing my turn, it finally hit me: “Oh %$*! I’m actually about to go on stage in front of a bunch of strangers and strut my stuff!”

Then, suddenly, I was up next. I heard the announcer begin to say my name and where I was from. Confident by Demi Lovato started to play. This was my moment!

I turned the corner and began to make my way down the runway. Bright lights filled the room and photographers gestured at me to look at the camera so they could get a good shot. All eyes were on me and the crowd was smiling and clapping.

I made it to the end of the runway. “Make Tyra proud”, I thought. “Strike a pose. Don’t forget to smile.”

I turned to head back and halfway down the runway did a spin. I spotted Hayley in the crowd waving and cheering me on. “What’s wrong with being con-fi-dent,” Demi sang. So as I neared the end I turned to the audience to blow a kiss. And just like that, it was over. It was such a surreal experience.
Wheelchair user Shannon modelling in an inclusive fashion show

Now, I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t get as much applause as the girls who did wheelies or the kids with service dogs, but that didn’t matter.

I tried something that scared me, made a bunch of new friends and felt beautiful and badass.

I am thankful for Jenny for creating a fashion show that allows people with disabilities to feel seen.

I hope that the media and fashion industry continues to take notice of the pool of disabled talent (and billions of dollars we have in spending power) that they are missing out on.

Although we have a long way to go in terms of disability representation in the media, we have definitely made progress since my America’s Next Top Model fangirl days, and that gives me hope.

By Shannon Kelly

More on Disability Horizons…

Shannon Kelly

Shannon Kelly, who is a wheelchair user, is a Disability Horizons' editor, working closely with writers from all walks of life to tell their personal stories. She also has her own blog, where she writes about travel, the environment and her experiences of being disabled.
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