Look at us: we're beautiful too, say disabled models

THEY are the faces chosen to challenge the stigma of disability in Britain: 16 men and women who today will enter the final stages of a unique modelling competition which aims to raise the profile of disabled people and show their power as a consumer group.

Aged between 16 and 42, and with disabilities ranging from kidney disease to multiple sclerosis, deafness and spina bifida, the finalists were chosen for their looks and their independent attitudes.

The competition, at London's Riverside Studios, is a joint initiative between the VisABLE modelling agency and the Leonard Cheshire foundation for disabled people, and is part of a campaign to improve the representation of people with disabilities in television and advertising.

It's a far cry from the pathos and kitsch of the Miss World event, which returns to British television next month after a 10-year gap. But as one VisABLE finalist, 23-year-old Ben Ashwell, put it: "I thought this was a good way of showing that disabled people can be independent and look good.

"A lot of people hear the word `disabled' and lump us all together. That sort of instant labelling doesn't really change until they get to know or work with someone who has a disability. But even photographs and television portrayals can help give a sense of the individuals behind the label."

With disabled people making up 14 per cent of the UK population and representing pounds 40bn of spending power, the VisABLE campaigners are also concerned at the narrow range of images portraying such a diverse group.

While the demand for disabled models has increased following the success of Heather Mills, who lost a leg in a road accident, and Amy Mullins, who modelled for Alexander McQueen, there is still a problem of under- representation.

"In 1999, it should be unremarkable that somebody appearing in an advert also happens to be in a wheelchair," said Louise Dyson, who set up the VisABLE agency six years ago to specialise in disabled models. "Yet even when this happens, which is rare, it is still common to use models who are not actually disabled."

Miss Dyson now has clients including Ford, P&O, Thistle Hotels, the AA and the BBC on her books, while Marks & Spencer, One2One, B&Q and BT are backing the campaign. In addition, she is currently working on a project with a major airline.

A survey of consumer attitudes conducted for the campaign showed that where advertisers demonstrate a positive stance on disability, they sell more products, while 80 per cent of those polled said that they would welcome disabled people in ads.

An exception to generally slow uptake is the Co-op Bank, which says using disabled people in its advertising "is a business decision in line with our ethical stance".

For the competition finalists, that is an important statement. They do not want sympathy, but neither do they want to be ignored. Having carved out active and interesting lives for themselves, they now want greater recognition of their existence by the media and advertising industries.

Ben Ashwell, who has spina bifida and is paralysed from the waist down, is about to start a new job with a stockbroking company and says he has always been upfront about his disability.

"The last thing I want to do is to work for someone who doesn't like me because I am disabled," said the England swimmer and wheelchair basketball player.

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