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The future of fashion for women with disabilities shows promise

Dr. Sheypuk is widely regarded as a “sexpert” and leading commentator on the psychology of dating, relationships, and sexuality for the disabled population.

At Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in February 2014, I became the first woman in a wheelchair to "walk" the runway. Since then, there has been a radical shift from a complete absence of people with disabilities in fashion and beauty campaigns to several models representing this ignored population.

This all makes sense in the context of the hard, unpolished, statistics out there. People with disabilities are the fastest-growing minority in this country. One in five Americans are, in some way, affected by disability. Most head-turning is their several billion dollars of disposable income, which, if pursued by the right kind of targeted marketing, can be spent in part on fashion and beauty products.

Ilaria Niccolini sent models in wheelchairs and models with amputations down the runway in the tents of Mercedes Benz last month. Carrie Hammer used actress Jamie Brewer, who has Down Syndrome, as a model in her show. And 19-year-old Megan Silcott, who suffers from a rare neurological disorder, modeled for fashion designer Nina Perdomo, walking in her show using a walker and rocking one of the designer's original looks. Seeing ourselves as glamorous models makes us hold our heads up a little higher, allowing us to put a little "strut in our step" as we drive our wheelchairs.

A "Rosa Parks moment" is what the press has deemed my original runway walk. With that in hand, we are long overdue for the complete integration of people with disabilities into this world of fashion and beauty. It is not about another call for sympathy, nor a political statement. It is not about calling it a different kind of beauty. It is about looking at people with disabilities as equal to any other diverse group, nothing more, nothing less. It is not about using these models to make a one-time statement, and instead to allow them to serve as a true representation of the essence of modeling and beauty.

To achieve this, we need to move beyond the one-shot appearances of these models and use them consistently and frequently, not just in runway shows, but also in editorial campaigns.

As we move on the spectrum from the ingrained images of being sick, pitiful and feeling trapped by the limitations of society and our bodies, to a diversity of glamorous, sexy, and liberated icons, there are things you should know.

DisABILITYincites, which studies consumers with disabilities in depth, is about to release results that will show designers in concrete terms the revenue that they are sacrificing by ignoring this group of people. With a sample size of more than 5,000, it's impossible to imagine that this study will not have an impact, resulting in a bona fide demand for models with disabilities. Modeling agencies will need to begin recruiting these models to meet this new demand.

I recall a recent trip I made to several agencies in New York City, and how I felt as if I had three heads when greeted by young receptionists who barely knew how to say "hello" to this unorthodox visitor. Call it the nature of the industry, but the environment was thick with judgment and stigma.

Coupled with the widespread inclusion of models with disabilities, we will see designers designing clothing and products with their disabled consumers in mind, products to fit all types of bodies. Maintaining their presence also will be the clothing companies that already design specifically for this group, such as ABLEDenim and Fashion-Ability which is featured on Etsy.

There are some body types that remain difficult to dress, but that is only because design houses are not thinking or designing for them at all. With this ultimate combination of diverse ateliers, the anxiety of dressing oneself, regardless of body type, will dissipate, leading to a better self-image for all and a more progressed society.

It is a truly historic moment for people with disabilities in this country. The passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act affirmed our civil rights as citizens, and now this revolution is affording us our equally important right to glamour, sex appeal and consumerism.

There is still a long way to go, but we are now witnessing changes that few of us in our flights of optimism, as we grew from girls to women, ever thought we would see and embrace in our lifetimes.

Image: Brian Ach/Stringer/Getty Images
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