I Modeled in an Inclusive Fashion Show

“You wanna be on topppp” 

The America’s Next Top Model theme song played on the TV for the fifth time that summer day in 2009 as I continued to binge a rerun season on the CW.

“YES TYRA I DO,” I screamed in my head.

I used to be obsessed with that show. I loved the crazy photoshoots, the fashion shows and the drama. And of course the makeover episode… you know, the one where they gave a girl with long brunette hair a bleached blonde pixie cut or god forbid BANGS! You KNOW there were tears. Who remembers in cycle 15 when a dentist widened Chelsey’s gap between her front teeth all in the name of high fashion? I DO.

Chelsey Hersley, ANTM Cycle 15

Chelsey Hersley, ANTM Cycle 15

This was my show during high school… when I was trying to do the opposite of Chelsey and CLOSE my gapped teeth with braces. When I was trying to figure out who I was as a disabled teenager while being surrounded by hundreds of able bodied peers.

Homecoming 2011, with bestie Nicole.

Homecoming 2011, with bestie Nicole.

ANTM represented a wide range of girls. Girls of all ethnicities, from all over the country and in spinoffs of the show all over the world. There were openly gay and transgender women casted.  Plus size girls were featured and there was even an entire season dedicated to girls under 5’5. 

However in all my time watching, there was never a woman with a visible physical disability on the show. And that was hard. I looked up to these women and was inspired to follow in their footsteps. I hoped that maybe one day have the chance to experience some of the glitz and glam they did on the show. Or at least rock some of the confidence they had.

But without seeing someone rolling down the runway in a wheelchair, it was difficult to see that as a possibility. 

Well, little did I know then that ten years later my ANTM dream would come true. And that day was this past April when I participated in This is How We Roll, which was a fashion show specifically for wheelchair users! 

Me & Jenny Addis, the founder of This is How we Roll.

Me & Jenny Addis, the founder of This is How we Roll.

This is How We Roll was started by Jenny Addis in 2013 in order to highlight the importance of medical research, wheelchair accessibility and inclusion within the community by breaking down barriers and changing the stereotypes society has about wheelchair users. It also provides each model with a life changing experience by promoting positivity, self-worth and life skills.

When I found out about the opportunity, I quickly applied even though it was up near Milwaukee which is around 1.5 hours north of where I live. Each model was assigned a specific retailer to get their outfit from, and mine was Maurices. 

I went to Maurices by myself and man was that a mistake. I spent almost three hours in the store making the manager absolutely crazy as I tried to decide on an outfit. After burning a couple hundred calories from trying on outfit after outfit and shedding a few silent tears in the dressing room, I finally found the winning look. Cropped, fitted grey pants, paired with a light pink floral print top and a navy blue blazer. STYLIN’!

A week later it was the big day! I arrived at the venue in the early afternoon to get my hair and make-up done. Because my hair is as thick as a horse tail, I had not one but THREE people working on it at once. After admiring my freshly curled locks, I went on to get my headshots taken and then began socializing with the other models. 

Me & Hayley

Me & Hayley

I quickly became buddies with a girl named Hayley, who had traveled all the way from Ohio with her husband and two kids and was rocking a Maurices look as well. I also briefly met Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, Autumn Neugent, who I actually ran into again at the Chicago Abilities Expo. I love meeting cool chicks in chairs. Community is so important, and I wish I had this kind of support in high school. 

Me & Autumn at the Chicago Abilities Expo

Me & Autumn at the Chicago Abilities Expo

Finally, it was time for the show to begin! Men, women and children, young and old, of all shapes and sizes lined up to get ready to go on stage. Although we all had our differences, we were united by our wheelchairs.

It was about half way through the show and it was nearing my turn. That’s when it finally hit me… “Oh %$*! I’m actually about to go on stage in front of a bunch of strangers and strut my stuff!” 

I was up next. I heard the announcer begin to say my name and where I was from. “Confident” by Demi Lovato started to play. THIS WAS MY MOMENT.

I turned the corner and began to make my way down the runway. Bright lights filled the room and photographers gestured at me to look at the camera so they could get a good shot. All eyes were on me and the crowd was smiling and clapping.

I made it to the end of the runway. Make Tyra proud, I thought. Strike a pose. Don’t forget to smize.

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I turned to head back. Halfway down the runway I did a spin. I spotted Hayley in the crowd waving and cheering me on. 

“What’s wrong with being con-fi-dent,” Demi sang. 

I neared the end of the runway and turned to blow a kiss to the audience. And just like that it was over. 

What a surreal experience it was. Now, I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t get as much applause as the girls who did wheelies or the kids with service dogs but that didn’t matter.

I tried something that scared me, made a bunch of new friends and felt beautiful and badass.

I am thankful for Jenny who created this fashion show that allows people with disabilities to feel seen. I hope that the media and fashion industry continues to take notice of the pool of disabled talent (and billions of dollars we have in spending power) that they are missing out on.

Although we have a long way to go in terms of disability representation in the media, we have definitely made progress since my ANTM fan girl days, and that gives me hope.

I TRIED ZUMBA IN A WHEELCHAIR

Exercise is good for you, I don’t think anyone is going to fight me on that.

I mean…who doesn’t remember this infamous Elle Woods quote?

But seriously it is. Healthline says it can help with weight loss, increase your energy levels, is good for your muscles and bones, can reduce your risk of chronic disease etc. Which is why I’ve been exercising since I was young. First with pediatric PT at Easter Seals DFVR, then at the adaptive “DRES” gym in college, and now with personal training at Right Fit. But all these places have something in common. They all have experience working with disabilities and in my case were always in one on one sessions with a trainer or therapist.

I always envied my able bodied friends’ abilities to go to a mainstream gym without getting stared at, to use all of the machines and join the large selection of fitness classes. One class in particular I’ve always longed to try is Zumba. I’ve seen people taking this class before, and was drawn to the high energy and the smiles on everyones faces as they moved along to up beat music.

The more I though about it, the more I wanted in. Just because a class hasn’t had a participant in a wheelchair before, doesn’t mean it’d impossible for me to join. It’s time for the fitness world to be more inclusive of people with all abilities. Besides… anyone who has been out with me in Wrigleyville before knows that I got moves ;)

I felt empowered. I was determined to push society’s boundaries and try out a Zumba class in a wheelchair. But I wasn’t ready to tackle this venture alone. And luckily I didn’t have to. I went to visit my friend Deb (who is also in a chair) in Fort Lauderdale and told her about my idea.

“We should take a Zumba class together,” I said nonchalantly.

“YES!” Deb replied, “I was just thinking that I wanted to get fit but I didn’t want to go alone.”

Our plan was in motion. There’s was no turning back now. We found a class at a local LA Fitness for later that week and decided to call them to give them a heads up that two chicks in chairs were going to roll in.

I made Deb call because as a typical millennial, I have a fear of talking on the phone.

“Hi, I was just calling about the Zumba class on Thursday night,” Deb said. “My friend and I are in wheelchairs and we wanted to come try it out.”

“Um… sorry, can you repeat that?” the man said nervously, (he sounded as though he thought we were pranking him).

Deb laughed and tried again, “My friend and I are in wheelchairs and we want to come do Zumba! We just wanted to call to let you know and make sure we’ll be able to participate.”

“Well we have an elevator to get up to the studios and it is all flat once you get up there,” he responded.

Not exactly the response we were looking for, but we thanked him and told him we would see him Thursday.

When Thursday night rolled around, I had a moment of panic. What did I get myself into? I tried to convince Deb that we should go a different day but she wasn’t having it. We made our way inside and up to the studio where a room full of people were already warming up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. We got a few stares as we rolled in and stayed toward the back to draw less attention to ourselves.

We began to move to the music and followed the instructors movements with our arms. It was all going pretty well until people began to move up/down and side to side on the floor, and when they did 360 degree turns. It was difficult for us to do the dance moves while also moving our chairs, so for the most part we stayed in one place when this happened. There were also times when a lot of the moves were solely leg movements. This was a bit uncomfortable, but we tried our best to adapt the movements to what we could do with our arms and just had fun with it.

About half way through the class we were summoned to the front of the studio. This made me feel even more vulnerable especially when Deb left the class for 10 minutes to go to the bathroom and get water. But I persevered nonetheless and kept moving until the end.

After the class we got a lot of high fives and talked to a few of the other attendees. They were curious about our stories/what made us decide to come and said we did a good job for our first time.

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This is the reason why I put myself in uncomfortable and sometimes scary situations. It is important for people to see disabled people in society doing everyday things and living fulfilling lives. Society isn’t fully accessible or accepting towards disabled people yet, and the only thing that will change that is exposure. We need to be present in the workforce, on public transportation and heck, in Zumba classes to let the world know that we are worthy of equal opportunities. And hopefully us being in that class will have an impact on how the attendees view and treat disabled people in the future.

We left the class on a high. Deb was so motivated that she joined the gym and signed up for a personal training session for the next day. More to come on that later… :)

The experience overall was very motivating. It not only gave us more confidence in our abilities, but it also (hopefully) changed the mindset that the class had on disability. Did we change the world? No. But did we make an impact on disability inclusion in fitness? Yes. Baby steps, folks.