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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence