December 2, 2019

Recently, a Rutgers University study found that more than 10 percent of the nation’s elected officials at the federal, state and local level has a disability. That doesn’t necessarily mean people like me have unprecedented power yet—the number still lags the 15 percent disability rate for the overall adult population—but it’s nearly 2 percentage points higher than the preceding survey four years earlier. That’s progress, no matter how small.

This is part of a trend I’ve been tracking.

The ADA effect

One of the Rutgers co-authors noted that more disabled folks have been running for office since passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Many, like Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, are military veterans. Others are young enough to scarcely remember a time before we disabled people had rights.

I’ve been researching this younger generation—the ADA generation—for a new book. It’s not surprising, really, that they’re gaining prominence in politics. They’ve been popping up in all kinds of places.

Disabled models

In the summer of 2018, for instance, the lingerie brand Aerie gained much media attention (and market share) with ads that showed women of all shapes, sizes, colors—and disabilities (amputations, scars, colostomy bags, insulin pumps, you name it).

Around the same time, a Times Square billboard for Olay featured Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy.

Last summer, Aaron Philip, a transgender woman with cerebral palsy, became the model for Sephora, Dove and a Miley Cyrus video.

Next year, Abercrombie and Fitch will brandish photos of authors/YouTube sensations Shane Burcaw, who has spinal muscular atrophy, and his fiancée Hannah Aylward.

As a 57-year-old lifelong wheelchair user, I’m stunned and inspired. When did disability become a hot commodity? People with disabilities have literally become Vogue cover models. This goes far beyond what those of us who fought for the ADA ever imagined.

No longer just beautiful on the inside

Back then, disabilities were hidden or marginalized, certainly infrequent in the public sphere. Remember Cousin Geri on the Norman Lear sitcom “The Facts of Life”? Or Corky Thatcher on the prime-time soap opera “Life Goes On”? If you do, they were surely groundbreaking. But not like what I’m seeing today.

Those portrayals may have been more realistic than what had come before, and no doubt did a lot to normalize disability for many Americans, but they were relatively minor characters. You might’ve referred to them as “beautiful on the inside.” They were far from the current disabled role models and style icons.

The beauty industry has learned that diversity sells, of course. That’s why we’re seeing so many models of color, of different ages and gender identities. Including disability in the mix just makes sense.

Disabled performers

Yet the trend extends to other branches of popular culture. Earlier this year, paraplegic actress-singer Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair-using performer ever to win a Tony Award. (And it wasn’t for playing somebody’s dear old granny, say, or The Glass Menagerie‘s vulnerable wallflower Laura, but for embodying Ado Annie, the hot-to-trot flirt in Oklahoma!)

On TV, programs such as Netflix’s “Special” and the recently canceled ABC sitcom “Speechless” bat about terms like “ableism” to mainstream comic effect. The actor-comedian Maysoon Zayid is rumored to be developing her own as-yet-unnamed series, too.

Social media

To be sure, social media has played a role in this. Young people hold nothing back on Instagram and the rest. Cyberspace is bursting with a veritable cavalcade of impaired bodies (#disabled_fashion, #wheelie_good_life, #disabilityisdiversity) in fabulous locations, engaged in fabulous activities, wearing ball gowns and bikinis.

They’re demonstrating that disabled people can go anywhere and do anything. To me, this represents a new kind of activism. It’s making a point in a way my generation of ADA veterans never could. We fought for legislative change, which was necessary to ensure our civil rights. But we thought it was all about equal access to employment and public spaces. Few of us could imagine the current celebration of disability pizzazz and sexiness!

Sure, there’s still traditional political activism. Groups such as ADAPT continue to fight for deinstitutionalization. Even the ADA’s gains have come under fire from reactionaries.

But this new generation of advocates is blazing a completely new kind of trail for disability justice. Their message is clear: We are beautiful as we are. Don’t look away. Don’t shut us away. Indeed, our presence can enhance the view.

Ben MattlinBen Mattlin’s most recent book is IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance. He is also the author of Miracle Boy Grows Up.

4 responses to “DISABILITY IN VOGUE? By Ben Mattlin”

  1. Ben,

    I don’t know if it would be helpful for your book, but I did a number of interviews with younger disabled people. I did it both to highlight them and their accomplishments but also to explore younger generation’s experiences post ADA. I came of age with the first generation of disability rights activists and wanted to know what it was like to grow up with 504 and the ADA. You can hear them on Soundcloud at:

    Keep up the good work,

    Anthony Tusler

  2. Jacqueline Tellalian says:


    Not trying to brag here, but the concept of disabled models is NOT new, despite what appears to be a current trend. As the only wheelchair user I had ever heard of who had talent agency experience, I broke away to become a personal manager, one who pioneered the scouting, development and representation of actors AND models with disabilities back in the mid-1980s. My clients were BUSY and they most certainly broke the glass ceiling by being booked to model clothes in print ads for Macy’s, Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht’s and many more – all major retailers – even if many ads were regional. In TV commercials, my clients were EVERYWHERE, appearing as principals in spots for everything from Dr. Scholl’s to Maxwell House to Kodak. Even more important, they were being requested for major roles in soap operas and high-profile primetime shows like Law & Order and NYPD BLUE as well. I had terrific clients who were all ages, colors, shapes and sizes who were in wheelchairs, were hearing and sight-impaired and several with Down Syndrome who were so well-loved that they kept in touch with cast members years later!

    My company was name-dropped in articles for Businessweek, L.A. Times and USA Today – we had “buzz” in the industry and were sought out, if not to cast one of our own clients – we were hired as consultants on projects seeking disabled talent. The media declared it “a revolution” and it sure seemed like it at the time, but then in the mid-late 90s, it stopped as quickly as it started. As with all trends, it tapered off until it became nearly-extinct. Thankfully the pendulum has swung back-around and hopefully will stick this time.

    My point is that disabled talent has ALWAYS been here, visible enough and ready to take their rightful place at the table, but society at large didn’t appear quite ready to fully embrace them. Nowadays though, I’m very encouraged by the direction that it all seems to be going and these “woke” times may have officially – and inadvertently – led the way to a more truly inclusive world. And as you know – we’re ready!

  3. Hi Ben – I appreciate everything you write. This one deserves wide circulation. I’m hoping this is a good way to contact you. I’ve tried other ways w/o success. I’ve profiled you in my new book, The Power of Disability. More info . I’d like to mail you a copy. Would you be willing to send me a mailing address? Thanks. Al

  4. Christian Habermann says:

    This is great and probably overdue. One of my good friends who’s blind is applying for some acting roles and I’m so psyched for him. He had an advocacy group help him get back on his. Thank you so much for your post!

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