Photo credit: Joe Marquez
“I’ve seen a lot of change in last 10 years. … I was able to model for a big company and worked with another amputee, Alex, and another model who is in a wheelchair and they didn’t try to hide our disabilities,” says Shaholly Ayers, a long-time model who is also a congenital amputee. In addition to being a fantastically accomplished model who has worked for Nordstrom, US Weekly, The New York Times, Glamour.com and walked the runway at New York Fashion Week, Ayers is also deeply invested in changing social perceptions of beauty and disability. “It’s about showing, visually, that a person with a disability, a person who is an amputee, is still capable. I still should be considered beautiful despite my missing limb. That shouldn’t be a reason why I can’t model.” And she has shown that it certainly isn’t holding her back; but her road had not been an easy one.
When asked why she wanted to be a model in the first place, Ayers said, “like any little girl, we all dream either of modelling, acting, singing, or at least I did. I always wanted to do that and had some idea that I’d be in front of the camera. I was 12-years-old when I had my first modelling competition. I got nothing. I didn’t win. And of course I wanted to try harder because of that.” However, when she approached a modelling agency in her later teens, she was told that “there was no way [she] was going to model—because of [her] arm—and that no photographers were doing to take photos of [her].” As anyone who glimpses Ayers’ portfolio and resume can see, the agency was absolutely wrong, but sadly, this kind of outright rejection of difference is indicative of pervasive attitudes in our culture.
Photo credit: Pete Mui
Ayers ardently works on changing these attitudes twofold: 1) by providing “visual proof” as she calls it, that people outside our narrow assumptions of beauty can serve as beauty ideals, and 2) by being the ambassador for Global Disability Inclusion, a consulting firm that specializes in disability employment and inclusion strategies. “I think collectively our message is that people with disabilities are capable in all sorts of different types of jobs and should have [various] careers,” Ayers said.
One employer that carries much weight in the fight against society’s attitudes toward people with disabilities is arguably the very industry Ayers works in: modelling/fashion/advertising. The biggest issue in that field is exactly the dismissal with which Ayers is all too familiar. People with disabilities are often entirely absent from visual representation in our public consciousness. As Ayers noted, “there are companies, like Dove, who try to show normal, everyday, regular people. The sad thing is that people with disabilities are not being showcased even in those natural beauty campaigns that are supposed to represent everyday individuals. It’s sad because people with disabilities aren’t being reflected, but it’s also sad for the company because one in five people have a disability. The company is missing out on growing their business. It’s a huge opportunity.”
Ayers’ big hope and goal is to make it easier for the next generation to be seen and fully included. “In the next few years I’m hoping to establish myself more fully for people with disabilities, as an ambassador,” she said. Even though it is hard work and she encounters roadblocks and highly problematic depictions, like the Vogue Brazil incident, Ayers’ remains both optimistic and determined. “We’re working on making [the changes] more permanent,” she said, “but I think there is change.”Ayers is tireless in disseminating just this message that inclusion of people with disabilities in marketing is not just good for the consumers who see themselves represented, but it’s good for the company as well. She recently attended our Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion in Hollywood where over 100 actors, producers, writers, agents and executives assembled to emphasize the same message when it comes to television and movies. People with disabilities need to be included to grow the company and to change public attitudes and stereotypes. “I was blown away. I’ve been doing this for several years, I didn’t realize so many people felt the exact same way,” Ayers said of the Roundtable. For her it can often seem like a lonely battle as a person with a disability in an industry that traditionally erases any disability or perceived flaw. “The conversation about authentic disability for me hit home because of the most recent Vogue Brazil issue where they photo-shopped able-bodied models to look like Paralympic athletes. That was very disturbing. These are actors and actresses that have had to overcome so much themselves and it was powerful and encouraging.”