Fashion + Disability

The new era of inclusivity – Better keep up, fashion!

For a long time, modelling opportunities for people with disabilities have been non-existent. The majority of agencies have not taken people with disabilities on board regardless of their talent or professionalism. Fortunately, a new British company is here to change this.

Lack of representation

Roughly 15% of the world’s population is disabled. 11-12 million people living in the United Kingdom have a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability. Nevertheless, seeing a model, actor or a celebrity with a disability on TV or in a magazine is very rare. Do you remember the last time you saw someone with a visible difference while watching TV?

In an ideal world, that question should be unnecessary, even offending. Because we should all see a variety of different people in the media. We should all be used to it and accept everyone as they are.

In reality, when we see a disabled person on TV, many of us don’t focus on what they are saying. Instead, we concentrate on the difference in their appearance. And this is exactly where our sub-conscious discrimination of others and ignorance get caught.

Why is this? Because we live in a society that do not accept people with disabilities as equal to the able-bodied ones.

As emphasised by Cat Smith, a doctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion, when a model with a disability is spotted in an advert or on the catwalk, a huge number is made out of it and the media buzz tends to be patronising and targeted at people without disabilities. This only highlights the difference of a model with a disability to other models.

In 2020, we should see an accurate representation of models with disabilities.

Zebedee Management – pushing boundaries and demolishing prejudice

The disabled community has waited for a long time to be accepted and hired for jobs with high publicity. Zebedee Management is here to end their wait.

Zebedee is a modern modelling agency that represents people with a visible difference. It was founded by sisters-in-law Laura Johnson and Zoe Proctor in 2017. They both have a background in working with young people with disabilities. I interviewed Laura for this article.

Before, Laura and Zoe often worked with disabled clients, who aspired to be models or work in performing arts. They evidenced first-hand how the clients were rejected from every job they applied for, time after time. After hearing “the same story over and over again”, Laura and Zoe decided to establish the company.

“From tiny babies to older adults”

Today, Zebedee represents a wide range of people with anything from learning disabilities to physical and hidden disabilities. They also represent people who have other visible differences, such as vitiligo, and people from trans and non-binary communities. There are no age limits.

In the beginning, the idea was to represent only models with disabilities. However, after they launched the Zebedee website, they began to receive applications from other people as well. People, who had been denied all opportunities by other agencies due to a visible difference. Laura and Zoe decided to welcome them as well.

They began to reach out to models and disability groups and many were interested. When an article about Zebedee was launched in a disability magazine, they received three applications every minute for a week. Laura: “It shows that people were desperate to get involved.”

In six months, they had created a model base with photographs and profiles. They launched Zebedee in summer of 2017 and had their first booking in September the same year. Zebedee has grown fast: they had 300 bookings during the first year, over 600 the next and this year they have already reached over 1,000 bookings.

The challenge

Laura: “The hardest part has always been encouraging brands to be inclusive in terms of disability and visible differences. In the beginning it felt frustrating since regardless of how many brands we contacted, no bookings were made at all. It still is a challenge to encourage people to be inclusive.”

“Disabled people make up 20% of the population but in advertising, they feature only 0.06%, meaning there is a disconnect between representation and reality. It is because of long term discrimination and outdated views. I don’t understand why a brand doesn’t want to be inclusive, because customers are ready and asking for it.”

Laura’s message to the fashion industry is clear: “Now, you have to be inclusive in your advertising or you’re going to be left behind. Brands have come a long way but still not far enough in terms of recognising ethnic diversity and size, somewhat with gender and age, but they are still not represented well. Disability has been forgotten by many brands. Everybody, especially the younger generations, want to see people they can relate to in advertising and if you don’t recognise that you will get left behind.”

“More than just a model agency”

Today, Zebedee is busier than ever. In fact, Laura hopes the 0.06% figure is already outdated and the percentage has grown bigger and further increasing.

Laura: “We feel that we are more than just a model agency, as we know every one of our models. The impact of giving an opportunity to the models is immeasurable in self-esteem and self-confidence. We are a community in which all models know each other and support each other. This is not what we expected. It proves how important it was for the disabled community to set it up. We’re really proud of what we have achieved so far.”

“All our models are absolute professionals. They do the same job as every other model, and you don’t need to be worried about any changes that may be needed for the shoot as they are very minimal. We have never had a bad report on any of our models and I don’t think there are many agencies who can say the same about their models.”

Zebedee Management is leading the way to a healthier fashion industry by increasing the representation of people that the society has kept hidden for so long. We will continue to follow Zebedee and the journeys of their amazing models.

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