Six disabled models ‘disabling’ fashion

Disabled models: a stunning woman poses in what looks like an old building of Chinese history, but there aren't many inside details, so we can't be sure. She is wearing a mustard dress with a chic black leather jacket over it.

We've featured six disabled models reshaping fashion's view on inclusion, but URevolution celebrates all disabled models working for a more diverse and inclusive fashion world. Tell us who we missed and who you'd include! | Photo Credit ©fotofrol / Adobe Stock

Six disabled models ‘disabling’ fashion

While there are dozens of disabled people who do the good work of advancing more diverse and inclusive fashion, we’re shining the spotlight on six disabled models changing the fashion industry today.

Generally, conversations about diversity and inclusion tend to focus—especially in the U.S.—on how and why corporations diversify their talent. Experts all agree that diversity and inclusion lead to better business outcomes. However, the work to advance more diverse and inclusive fashion, while steady, is slow.

This slow rate of change is surprising, especially since people with disabilities wear clothing too (unless they’ve opted for a clothing-optional lifestyle—no judgment here). This means that people with disabilities represent untapped buying potential. To be more precise, the 2016 Report on The Global Economics of Disability counted 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world, with a combined collective spending power valued at $8 trillion.

Here are six trailblazing models with disabilities changing the fashion industry for all:

1. Rafi Solaiman

Nineteen-year-old disabled model Brit Rafi Solaiman didn’t let the debilitating stroke he suffered at age 12 keep him from achieving his goal of becoming a model. The stroke caused his brain to hemorrhage, and he had to learn how to walk and speak again. 

Just five years after his stroke, he responded to an advertisement for models with disabilities, and the rest is history. Today, he still walks with the aid of a walker, he speaks with a slight slur, and he suffers from short- and long-term memory loss.

Solaiman’s story was featured in the CBBC documentary, My Life: Changing the Face of Beauty. He even competed in the 2018 Paralympic Games held in Berlin, where he represented the UK in the 100m RaceRunning race. He meets regularly with fashion industry decision-makers to persuade them to include disabled models in their campaigns or on their websites.

“Beauty is inclusion - every size, every color - that's the world I live in”

Prabal Gurung

2. Sinéad Burke

“Design inhibits my autonomy and my independence,” Sinéad Burke said during her popular TED talk on ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone.’ Burke is an Irish writer, academic, and broadcaster who was born with achondroplasia, one of the most common forms of dwarfism.

When she was 16, she started a fashion blog to talk about the exclusive nature of the fashion industry. She later co-founded the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC)—the first-ever fashion trade association for people with disabilities—with Liz Jackson, a U.S.-based disability advocate.

Burke and Jackson were specially invited to attend ‘Design for All,’ a White House event created to highlight the intersection of fashion and disability. In 2018, Burke was named one of Vogue’s Most Influential Women and is now a contributing writer for the magazine. According to Vogue, “Her mission is clear: to educate designers on how to be fully inclusive in fashion and beyond.” “I often forget that I’m a little person. It’s the physical environment and society that remind me,” Burke says.

3. Aaron Philip

In 2018, Aaron Philip became the first black, disabled, transgender disabled model signed to Elite Model Management. Born in Antigua and raised in New York, Philip has cerebral palsy, a condition that can affect motor function, and uses a motorized wheelchair. She credits her now-infamous tweet for launching her career:

“honestly when I get scouted/discovered by a modeling agency it’s OVER for y’all! by y’all I mean the WORLD! it’s real inclusivity/diversity hours folks, get into it!” 

She has since modeled for Paper Magazine and ASOS.

Philip is a vocal advocate for transgender and disabled visibility. In an interview with Vice, she recommended simple adjustments for making the fashion industry more accessible to everyone: sew garments in all sizes; make runways physically accessible for models with wheelchairs and mobility aids and cast trans models who aren’t passable or don’t conform to the gender binary. “The way we choose to dress, as trans people, directly affirms and presents our gender identities and expressions to the public in a way that is unique. It’s precious and beautiful to many of us,” she says.

4. Samantha Renke

Bag brand Mia Tui reached out to UK actor and disability activist Samantha Renke to get her thoughts on how to tweak a bag initially designed for busy mothers to serve the needs of people in wheelchairs. Renke, who was born with brittle bone disease, contacted disabled people on social media to get their input on how the design could be more inclusive. The result was Samantha, a bag designed with people with disabilities in mind, but not just for people with disabilities. It sports a bright blue inside color for visually impaired people and a non-magnetic clasp for people with pacemakers. “The little tweaks I’ve made would benefit people [with disabilities] greatly but if you didn’t point them out to someone, you would just think it’s a bag,” Renke told Marketing Week. She also writes a lifestyle column for Pos+Ability, a leading disability magazine, and blogs regularly for HuffPost UK. Samantha's book, You Are the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread, was published by Penguin in 2022.

5. Sofía Jirau

Meet history-making Sofía Jirau, a disabled model, entrepreneur and philanthropist with Down syndrome who shows the world that “inside and out, there are no limits." Jirau became the first Victoria's Secret model with Down syndrome as part of the Love Cloud Collection lingerie campaign on February 14, 2022. This groundbreaking achievement made headlines worldwide. Her modeling career started on March 26, 2019, her 23rd birthday, and since then, she has graced the runway for various designers.

Recently, from March 17 to 19, 2022, the Puerto Rican sensation participated in Los Angeles Fashion Week, captivating audiences while modeling for renowned designers such as American Bree Billiter, Colombian Nathalia Gaviria, and Mexican Jonathan Guzman. In another remarkable feat, at the age of 24, on February 10, 2020, Jirau made her debut at New York Fashion Week, a rare achievement for models with Down syndrome. She is now focused on conquering runways across Europe and the world, pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress and dancer.

For Jirau, the true significance of her dreams lies in inspiring others to break free from self-imposed limitations. Her motto, "Inside and out there are no limits," serves as a constant reminder to overcome challenges and chase aspirations fearlessly. 

6. Jillian Mercado

Jillian Mercado, a Latinx-disabled model, has made remarkable strides in the fashion industry. Despite the Eurocentric and ableist beauty standards that lacked representation, she pursued her passion for fashion. Born in New York to Dominican parents, she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her early teens, inspiring her mission to create change from within the industry.

Jillian studied marketing at FIT and interned at Allure magazine, determined to understand the politics of fashion and promote diversity by hiring people who looked like her. Her modeling journey started with a campaign for Diesel in 2014 and later joined IMG Models, securing campaigns with Nordstrom, Target, and Olay, even featuring on a Times Square billboard.

Her achievements extended beyond campaigns, as she modeled for Beyoncé's Formation world tour and graced the pages of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and CR Fashion Book. Notably, in 2018, Jillian became Teen Vogue's first disabled cover star, starring in the digital September issue.

As an activist, Jillian uses her platform to advocate for greater representation in the industry, especially at the intersection of gender and disability. In her own words, she hopes that underrepresented individuals can see themselves reflected in her journey. 

"Being positive about your body and inclusivity are so important to me because at the end of the day, we are all human. Something all of us have in common is that we simply want to be heard and felt appreciated."

Disabled Model Jillian Mercado

While we’ve shined the spotlight on just six disabled models helping to change the way fashion thinks about inclusion, URevolution salutes all disabled models committed to advancing a world with more diverse and inclusive fashion. Who did we leave out? Who would you add to this list?

"The work to advance more diverse and inclusive fashion, while steady, is slow. This slow rate of change is surprising, especially since people with disabilities wear clothing too (unless they've opted for a clothing-optional lifestyle—no judgment here)."

A close up of an Asian woman wearing an Equity Shirt.
Original Equity Shirt by URevolution
Article by
Dionne Gray

Dionne Gray, the author of "Five disabled models ‘disabling’ fashion," is a communications practitioner, resume and career coach.