Four campaigning disabled models have set up a petition to demand that ministers address the “blatant disablism” within the fashion industry.
They want the government to punish the industry for its failure to meet its legal obligations under the Equality Act.
The four disabled women – Chelsey Jay, Elesha Turner, Katie Knowles and Gemma Flanagan (pictured, from left to right, outside parliament) – are members of Models of Diversity (MoD), a campaigning group which wants the fashion industry to use a more diverse range of models.
They have launched the petition on the UK parliament’s website, and hope to gain 100,000 signatures within the next six months, which should ensure the issue is debated in the House of Commons.
They want to see a change in attitudes within the fashion industry so that its use of disabled models reflects the proportion of disabled people in the population.
Jay, director of disability at MoD, said: “I want every sixth model in shows to have a disability. The same goes for advertising campaigns.
“We certainly want punishment for people who don’t do this. The fashion industry aren’t going to change [if there are no penalties] because there are no ramifications for not doing it.
“I think a whole demographic of society is being completely excluded. People are growing up with this idea that disabled people aren’t normal, they aren’t part of anything. That is so damaging.”
She added: “The modelling agencies say they can’t take on a disabled model because they won’t get the work, and the brands say there aren’t any disabled models on the books of the agencies.”
Jay said she is “literally laughed at in my face” by the industry, including designers, fashion brands, modelling agencies and advertisers, when she suggests they should use disabled models regularly.
She said: “We have got the legislation, the Equality Act, but for some reason it doesn’t apply to the fashion industry.
“The government needs to apply this legislation. They have to regulate it. No change will happen unless all of these people accept responsibility.”
When told about the campaign, Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said: “Models of Diversity raise an important issue about equality in the fashion industry and I thank Disability News Service for bringing the campaign to my attention.
“I will look closely at this and see what action we may be able to take to address the challenges faced by people with disabilities working as, or aspiring to work as, models.”
Jay, who welcomed the minister’s response, said they wanted to do something very different to other campaigns, which have seen brands – particularly in the US – use a single disabled model in a “tokenistic” way.
She said: “That is just not what we are about. We don’t want [people] to feel sorry for us. We are saying, ‘These people are disabled and they want a job, they are employable.’
“We don’t want special treatment, we want the same treatment. The tokenistic stuff – even though the designers might have their hearts in the right place – is so damaging to the bigger picture.”
Jay said attitudes within the fashion industry were “quite shocking”.
One industry person MoD met with explained that they couldn’t use disabled people all the time because “it’s like sometimes we can’t have people with brown hair, it’s not always in fashion”.
Other companies tell Jay: “We don’t see why there’s a problem, because three months ago we used a child with a disability.”
But Jay said there was hope that the campaign could be making some headway, with MoD in discussions with next year’s London Fashion Week to hold a show, backed by a designer brand, which would feature a diverse range of models, including some who are disabled.