Does a model in a wheelchair mean progress?

Jillian Mercado in the Diesel campaign.

Jillian Mercado in the Diesel campaign.

There are very specific assumptions when it comes to what a model should look like – thin, white, young, ambulatory. The word ‘model’ in and of itself makes the suggestion of physical perfection.

Nicola Formichetti set out to change this perception by casting 26-year-old fashion blogger Jillian Mercado, who has been in a wheelchair ever since being diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child, in his latest campaign for Diesel. When asked, “Why do you want to do this campaign?” in her casting call questionnaire, Mercado answered, “’Cause I wanna change the world.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an attempt to introduce greater diversity in fashion through representations of disabled people. Just last year, US department store Nordstrom cast Angela Rockwood, a quadriplegic model and star of reality series Push Girls in a campaign, and this powerful video, in which mannequins with scoliosis and brittle bone disease model the latest fashions in store windows, was enough to turn us misty-eyed.

“It’s special to see yourself like this,” said one woman of the mannequin resembling herself.


All these campaigns got a lot of positive attention, gussied up as ‘edgy’ and ‘boundary pushing’, and rightly so. Yet how effective are they in motivating actual change?

The prevailing social perceptions about people with disabilities mean that non-disabled folk are continuously shocked by the fact that, yes, disabled people can be pretty, and gosh, we really are just like them.

We’ve seen this with shows such as the cringingly titled Britain’s Missing Top Model and Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked … With A Difference, where women with a wide range of disabilities are primped and primed with gHDs and makeup brushes in an attempt to ‘normalise’ the experience of having a different level of ability. 

While most definitely a positive experience for the contestants, why make these shows one-off specials? Why are the contestants not mixed in with the regular seasons? And why allow a few to represent a large and varied population?

You can easily say that the more we push away from the ever-ubiquitous white, thin, young, able-bodied mould, the better off we are. Yet token inclusiveness in a handful of TV shows and ad campaigns will only serve to propagate the culture of isolation and exclusion that they are trying to address.

Though we see their good intentions here – to empower women that are usually invisible in the world of fashion, while encouraging a broader range of beauty and body ideals – we don’t know if they’re going about it the right way exactly.

We should never underestimate the impact of imagery in celebrating difference (especially imagery accompanied by schmaltzy rhetoric such as ‘inspiration in the imperfect’, ‘broken, yet beautiful’ or 'role models'), yet surely a better way to address this difference would be with clothing options that allow disabled people to embrace fashion in a real and practical way.

As it stands, there are very few brands – let alone trendy brands – that cater for people with disabilities. The designers lauded in glossy magazines and blogs have a pretty standard view when it comes to the average fashion customer and those who do take disabilities into account, more often than not, focus on function rather than form.

When Diesel launches a collection that takes into account different body structures or the sheer difficulty of getting dressed in a wheelchair – where something as simple as a button can render a garment unwearable – then perhaps fashion will finally feel truly encompassing.