Disabled, different, but confident and happy

Lucy Dawson

Blogger Lucy Dawson talks about her experience with the fashion industry after an acquired brain injury changed her life. 

Unfortunately, as history dictates, the only way that the fashion and beauty industry will recognise us and cater towards us, is if they have no choice. We must be seen to exist. 

Lucy Dawson looking into a handheld mirror while applying lipgloss

It wasn’t until I became disabled at age 21 that my eyes were really, truly opened to the stark realities of society’s standards of beauty. When I was at my lowest point, dealing with my recovery from a rare brain disease, I cannot say logging onto Instagram and being flooded by thousands of images of the ‘perfect’ women – tanned, toned and…able-bodied, helped.

Time went by, and a few hundred unfollows later, I really began to think about what it meant to be ‘different’ in an age where image is everything. 

Generation Kardashian

Inclusivity in fashion and beauty means many different things to many different people. For decades, representation for black and minority ethnic individuals in the fashion and beauty industry was slim to none. Although this has improved over the years, there is still a long way to go.

And then there’s the matter of size. For such a long time the industry was inundated with stick thin ‘size 0’ models.  Now it's the idea of ‘thick’ women, who realistically are still just as slim as their predecessors, but with unrealistic curves.

This is generation Kardashian. That being said, there are more plus-sized models these days as well as body positive influencers who aim to increase the confidence of their audience by simply being themselves. 

Lack of exposure

But where does that leave the disabled community? I won’t lie, when I was recently asked who my role model was, I began to think of famous disabled models I could mention, and I drew a complete blank. A Google search later and I was still none the wiser. The reason is simple – disabled models are not given the same exposure as those who are able-bodied. 

When beginning my long road to recovery following a rare brain disease named Anti NDMA Receptor Encephalitis, which left me with a multitude of struggles, I decided I would explore the concept of disability in fashion further. On top of my invisible disability, I am also paralysed in my left leg. This was a result of complications in hospital and I also had a very large scar in the place of my sciatic nerve. Add on the fact I am far from a size zero and you’re left with someone at odds with society’s standards of beauty. 

My platform was small, my voice was loud

In 2017, I started a blog detailing my experiences. By talking about Encephalitis, I was able to drum up a few thousand followers on my social media pages. This gave me the traction to challenge the fashion industry. Although my platform was small, my voice was loud, and my story was important. 

Over the next year, I was constantly in touch with many brands in a bid to encourage them to support disabled influencers. This could be by collaborating with them or featuring them on their social media pages. The idea was simple. I wanted to ensure if a young girl with a disability opened her Instagram up, amongst the sea of perfection, she could also stumble across me. Someone who was disabled, different, but confident and happy. 

The shoe debacle

While I continue to campaign about disability representation, I still have my own struggles with the fashion industry.

My disability has left me with one great big fashion dilemma, which I am no closer to solving today than I was two years ago.

My orthotic leg splint, a white plastic moon boot monstrosity is by no means ‘on trend’.

It is frustrating enough to have to wear the great big clunky thing every day.

But when you add to that the stress of having to dress for events, for example my graduation, or just on an average summer day — the shoe debacle ensues.

Lucy smiling and posing in front of a door

Impractical and expensive

Until you wear an AFO (ankle-foot orthosis) you will be unaware that it is nigh on impossible to fit a shoe over it. They are so bulky and rigid the only chance you have is to start how I did with my grandpa’s size 11 velcro slippers or to advance onto the dark shoe web… XXX wide-fit plimsolls with tongues and laces that undo all the way down to the toe.

These are by no means stylish. I am already cringing at the thought of being alongside three bridesmaids in stiletto heels at my sister’s wedding next year whilst I plod along in my plimsolls. Not only are these unattractive, they are also highly impractical. You cannot just slip on your XXX wide-fit plimsoll. It is a strenuous act of a full unlacing and then re-lacing, making leaving the house a time-consuming task. 

Compromising style

I’ve spent hours in shoe shops trying to fit my foot into every style and size of shoe out there, but this is the only solution I’ve found so far. I’ve seen online bespoke shoe shops selling shoes for orthotics. But these are the sort of potato looking velcro shoes.

The ones with rubber grips, usually in the colour beige, you would expect your nan to wear to help her bunions — AND, they sell for over £100 a pair.

The point I am making here is although some adaptive fashion ranges exist, this is often at the compromise of style. It's making it harder for those living with disability to express themselves. I guess the industry is not prepared for the idea of 20-somethings with mobility issues!

Creating noise

In my eyes, there is only one way to prepare the industry for the issues we as disabled people face, and that is by force. In the words of Samanta Bullock, ‘we must be seen to exist’.

Thankfully, there are agencies out there now who book only disabled models as a way of increasing visibility. Unfortunately, despite much research into the world of disabled modelling, there are still very few influencers making big noise in the industry.

For this reason, it’s so important people like myself, with my tiny platform, continue to broadcast my own struggles and triumphs of living with disability. To create noise when a problem arises that no brand or organisation has created a solution for.

Unfortunately, as history dictates, the only way the fashion and beauty industry will recognise us and cater towards us, is if they have no choice. We MUST be seen to exist. 

Check out Lucy's blog

You can read more about Lucy’s experience with Encephalitis by visiting her blog, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Encephalitis’ or follow her on Instagram @luuudaw.

Read Lucy's blog