Rachel Laws is 22 years old, 6ft 1in tall, weighs eight stone and is very beautiful. She looks like a model. Not long ago, disability would seem to have ruled out a long-cherished modelling career, but times are changing. Just over a year after breaking her pelvis, collarbone and back in five places, she has been taken on, wheelchair and all, by the Louise Dyson Model Agency in Birmingham, the biggest outside London.

She is one of eight disabled women to be offered work since they won through to the final of the agency's 'Model in a Million' competition. 'We had nearly 600 entries and the standard was fantastic,' says Ms Dyson, who has no doubt that Rachel, who finished runner-up, 'has what it takes' once she has gained a little more weight. 'She is absolutely stunning and very adaptable. She still needs more practice in front of the camera, but her attitude is smashing.'

Could it be that, for almost the first time in 22 years, a bit of luck is coming the way of a young woman with no qualifications and low expectations? Twice she has glimpsed the world of top modelling and had her hopes dashed. Only now that she is confined to a wheelchair has she picked up her first payment. 'A hundred and seventy quid for two hours' work,' she says, shaking her head in disbelief.

Rachel was brought up by her white mother, who was 17 when Rachel was born. Her Jamaican father left Coventry to move to London. Rachel followed 'after a row with my mum' when she was 15. She never sat any exams.

Friends kept telling her that she had the face and figure to be a model. 'But I didn't think that was really me. I thought I'd be a shop assistant. In fact, I was for a couple of months.'

When she was 17, she was persuaded to present herself at Models One in King's Road, Chelsea. Pictures of Jerry Hall and Yasmin Le Bon beamed down from the walls. She felt out of her league. Yet to her astonishment, she wasn't shown the door. A photo-shoot was arranged, but Rachel never turned up. The night before, she had had a heated argument with her boyfriend. She also discovered that she was pregnant. At 17, just like her mum.

Another four years passed before she plucked up the courage to go back to Models One in March last year. They were very busy, but would she like to make an appointment for the following week? She would. In the meantime, with something to look forward to, she would go to Coventry to see her mother and old friends.

Two of them were with her on the way home from a shopping trip when the car swerved across the road and down an embankment. Rachel, who was sitting in the passenger seat, took the main impact and suffered the worst injuries. The doctor told her she would never walk again. Now living in Coventry, she has moved into a specially adapted council bungalow with her five-year-old daughter, Natalia. Peter, her boyfriend, lives nearby.

When Rachel leans forward to turn down the television volume control, her tracksuit bottom rides up to reveal a shin that is painfully thin. She has lost two-and-a-half stone since the accident confined her to a wheelchair for life.

Nevertheless, her wheelchair zips from room to room with surprising speed. 'I've got strong arms and I can do just about everything for myself, including getting in and out of the bath. My mum lives up the road so she can look after Natalia if I want to go out clubbing.'

Only recently has she started to wear make-up and jewellery again. 'Up till now I hadn't really thought about decent-looking people in wheelchairs. But I kept looking in the mirror and it struck me that I was letting myself go. Now I'm begining to wonder if being disabled hasn't been a blessing in disguise. It has made me grow up and see things differently. It's helped me to get my life sorted out. I've got something to look forward to.'

For that she can thank Sunrise Medical, manufacturers of mobility equipment for the disabled, and the inspiration behind the 'Model in a Million' contest. Because there were no disabled models on her books, Louise Dyson had always used able-bodied girls to sit in wheelchairs and be photographed for the company's brochures. 'Apparently,' Ms Dyson says, 'someone who is disabled can always tell those who are simply pretending. The customers started to complain. They wanted us to use people who were in the same position as them. The only way I could find them was by running a competition.'

She is now determined to push the finalists one step further - into mainstream modelling for products not necessarily associated with their disabilities. 'It's already happened in America, and sooner or later it'll happen here,' she says. 'All we have to do is persuade the clients. Once one does it, the others will follow. It makes commercial sense apart from anything else. Disabled people are also customers of their products and they're likely to empathise with a company that appears to take them into account.

'One of our clients is Cadbury's. If they wanted to advertise hot chocolate from a vending machine, for instance, there's no reason why one of half a dozen people in an office shouldn't be in a wheelchair.

'There are some products, like climbing equipment, for which they would be inappropriate. But I don't see why they shouldn't do head and shoulders work advertising cosmetics or shampoo. These are exceptionally beautiful girls.'

The competition winner, Shannon Murray from West Hampstead in London, is committed to model at the National Exhibition Centre this month for Naidex, an organisation for the disabled and infirm. But if future work depends on what she calls 'disabled this and wheelchair that', she will say no. 'To me, the whole idea is to break away from that. Only two of my friends are disabled. Some disabled people I've met are so pessimistic. I want to scream at them: get a life.'

Ms Murray is the daughter of an entertainment agent (who used to manage the Pogues). She is 18 and studying for her A-levels in the hope of going to university to read law. She has been confined to a wheelchair since diving into the sea when she was 14 and smashing her head on a rock.

Soraya Misiri, 31, was also permanently disabled by a holiday accident. She was staying with her family in Cyprus when the car in which she was a back-seat passenger blew a tyre and plunged down a dip. It was a year before she could resume her job in the housing department at Southwark Council, south London. She immediately noticed a difference in the way men treated her.

'They were reluctant or afraid to talk to me. Perhaps they thought I was going to burst out crying. I hadn't bothered with make-up because I didn't think it was worth it. Who was going to look at me now? I felt the loss of sexuality and womanhood. But not any more. Now I do my face and my hair for myself. It's a matter of caring about yourself and how you look.'

Photographs of Soraya (fully clothed) launched the 'Model in a Million' competition in the Sun. 'There should be a place for us,' she says, 'and not just in adverts associated with disability.'

Just in case, Soraya is hanging on to her day job at Southwark. That choice is a luxury denied to Rachel Laws. But if Louise Dyson has anything to do with it, her change of luck will be more than a fleeting glimmer of hope in an otherwise blighted life.

(Photographs omitted)

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