July is Disability Pride Month, this year celebrating the 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into legislation, prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of disability. Disability Pride Month is about appreciating the unique lens that life gives you that not everybody has the opportunity to look through, recognising the progress of our disabled ancestors who fought for the rights we currently have and continuing to push that needle forward.
To mark this important date, photographer Julia Comita staged a whimsical photoshoot, highlighting the strength and resilience of people with disabilities and featuring models Frenchy Minaj, Julian Gavino, Bri Scalesse, David Negron and Syanne Centeno-Bloom.
Model Julian Gavino is not only breaking down barriers in the fashion industry when it comes to disability inclusion, he is one of the first transgender disabled models too, giving representation to multiple intersectional identities that often get left out of the equation. Among Gavino’s inspirations is Aaron Philip, a transgender disabled model who has featured in campaigns for the likes of Jeremy Scott, Dove and Sephora. Becoming an industry tastemaker, Philip has an eclectic style and fearless attitude that have given her an edge over her modelling peers, making her someone that Gavino has always admired and aspired to be like.
During Disability Pride Month, Gavino featured in a campaign by Abercrombie & Fitch, working towards inclusivity, making him the brand’s first trans and disabled model. Disability is often forgotten about when it comes to diversity and people sometimes seem to forget that disability is one of many identities that a person can have. Against this landscape, Gavino is representing two marginalised communities after spending his younger life feeling isolated, not seeing other models who looked like him anywhere.
This shoot for HUNGER was the first time he had worked with other models in wheelchairs, aside from his friend, colleague and shoot co-star Bri Scalesse. Speaking of the experience, Gavino says: “When I walked in, I was greeted by other people in chairs. To go on a set and see other people in chairs is always incredible. A lot of the time, me and Bri will be on a set together and we’re the only ones and we bond in that way. To see everybody in a wheelchair that day, I felt calm and comforted.”
He admits that this sense of community is something that he doesn’t always feel when working solely with able-bodied models. “[The shoot] felt powerful, everyone was really proud of themselves and it was just good energy all around,” he says. The hope is that, one day, seeing other disabled models on set won’t be an abnormal experience, but until then it seems he will carry this shoot with him always.
Syanne Centeno-Bloom wears many hats, and not just the fabulous metallic headpiece that features in this shoot. Model, disability activist, political science student and wife are just a few of the titles to describe her. It’s a lot of roles to keep track of but, as her Instagram bio appropriately states, “If I’m too much, go find less”.
After speaking to the multi-hyphenate, it is clear that disability representation in fashion has been lacking for a really long time. “To be honest with you I really didn’t see any disability representation growing up,” she says. “That’s a huge problem.” So Bloom became the representation that she wanted to see.
As an active social media influencer, she was not surprised by, but rather disappointed in the low participation in Disability Pride Month by major companies. People with disabilities make up the largest minority in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, and it is the only minority that anybody could potentially become a part of at any point in their life. “We’re the largest minority but we’re the least represented and it’s so heartbreaking. I didn’t really see [Disability Pride Month interaction] and I am super-active on social media,” she says. “We need to be seen.”
In the future, Bloom hopes to see more shoots highlighting authentic and diverse disability representation. Looking ahead, what are her goals for the industry? “To see more than one disabled model working with non-disabled people would be great. I feel so frustrated when I see one model with a disability and 12 other models who don’t have one,” she says. “It’s not representative of society, because one in four people [in the US] have a disability.”
A model, actor and motivational speaker, David Negron is excited to be representing the disabled community as the fashion industry is finally, slowly but surely, making spaces of inclusion truly inclusive. “Disability representation has come a long way,” he says. “Previously it was difficult with travel and getting around. I’m very thankful to be a part of this movement in the right direction.”
Looking back on his experience of the shoot day, he singles out his experience of working with photographer Julia Comita. “Julia was great. She made me feel really comfortable and gave me great direction,” he says. “And working with other disabled models was great.” In the fashion industry today, it is sadly rare for a shoot to include even more than one model with a visible disability, making this fashion story’s cast of five models in wheelchairs a welcome change for Negron.
Historically, people with disabilities have only been presented in ways that made people pity them and imagine that life with a disability must be awful – but that couldn’t be further from the truth for anybody who actually has a disability. There’s a whole other side of disability that’s full of strength, beauty and resilience, and Negron was happy to participate in a shoot that shows the real, authentic side of the disabled community that many people overlook or don’t get to see. The hope is that, one day, every set will feel inclusive and comforting – not just this one – and that brands will begin hiring more diverse models without leaving disability out of the equation. Until then, Negron will continue paving the way for disabled models.
Co-host of podcast From the Throne, model and mother Frenchy Minaj didn’t see a lot of disability representation growing up. Often the representation she did see didn’t include people of colour, leaving out an entire intersectional identity and experience from the disabled community’s narrative. “I haven’t seen too many people who look like me in the past,” she says. “Even when they did start to show disabled people, it was mostly white people – it wasn’t Black people who come from where I come from.”
Given these experiences, creating representation for people with disabilities in fashion is something that Minaj has found to be very personal and empowering. “It’s amazing,” she says. “It has made me feel like we’re finally having a voice, you know? Like we’re finally getting the fame and attention we’ve [always] been deserving of.”
People tend to look at people with disabilities and immediately cling to all the things they can’t do. Little do they know that having a disability forces you to be adaptable and brings out a resilience that nothing else in life can do in the same way. There is so much strength and beauty in the disabled community and Minaj notes that her life would be so different without her disability. “I graduated in a wheelchair, I had my baby in a wheelchair, I wouldn’t have met the people I have met if I wasn’t in a wheelchair. I am grateful for that experience.”
The New York-based model and writer Bri Scalesse strives to show disabled joy, love and pride throughout Disability Pride Month and every month that follows. But as she admits, her journey to finding self-love and appreciation for her body was not always easy, especially when she never saw women who looked like her in the media. “I’ve always loved fashion and I really wasn’t seeing representation of people with visible disabilities, especially people in wheelchairs, anywhere that I looked,” Scalesse says.
After years of not seeing people who looked like her in advertisements, she finally saw a bit of herself in the model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, when she appeared in a Diesel campaign in 2014. Motivated by Mercado’s success, Scalesse decided to take on the industry and went on to be one of the first signed models who uses a wheelchair, becoming the representation she longed for growing up. “It’s emotional and amazing to be the representation I didn’t see. It’s surreal,” Scalesse says. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.”
As a kid, when the media you consume doesn’t feature people who look like you being portrayed as beautiful and desirable, it can be difficult to love the body you are in. This is why it’s particularly meaningful for Scalesse to have become one of the first people who uses a wheelchair to be a successful model. “It honestly feels like I’m seeing and holding my younger self and I’m giving so much love to that younger self who felt alone, lost and uncomfortable in her body. Showing her that you can be a loud and proud disabled woman, in her disabled body.”