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Jillian Mercado

When will disabled representation become a priority in beauty?

The beauty industry is slowly addressing its problem with diversity and inclusion, but these conversations are still neglecting disabled voices

2020’s reckoning for brands, sparked by the riots following George Floyd’s murder, forced them to finally address their reticence around genuine diversity and inclusion. Yet, these long-overdue conversations often focus on race, size, and sexuality, leaving disabled voices neglected and without the spotlight they’re equally deserving of. 

“Growing up, I never saw myself represented in the media or by an influencer so it was challenging as a teenager because it really made me feel like I didn’t fit in,” reflects beauty influencer Isabelle Weall. “That’s why I try to use my platform so I can be that person for somebody in a similar situation.” 

Amassing almost a million followers across her Instagram and TikTok accounts, Weall is “just your average quadruple amputee” and among a new generation of disabled beauty influencers who have emerged from the pandemic. It’s hardly surprising there’s a demand for representation, given the fact that a fifth of people in the UK (around 14.1 million) have a disability. Yet, despite their large followings and millions of likes and views, Isabelle and her peers like Tess Daly and Erin Novakowski are rarely (if ever) approached about campaign appearances or branded collaborations. The newly launched Nikki Lilly x Makeup Revolution collaboration is groundbreaking, the first time a disabled beauty creator has partnered with a brand in this way.

“I’d love to see more people like myself from the disabled community to show that beauty is for all because it isn’t something that is shown or talked about a lot,” says fellow beauty influencer Gabe Adams-Wheatley. “A lot of times you see able-bodied people as the faces of campaigns, but I haven’t really seen somebody in a wheelchair as the face of a collaboration or campaign and I think it would be eye-opening for everyone – not just the disability community.”

That’s not to say disabled models don’t appear at fashion shows or in campaigns, but the handful that are, are sadly few and far between. Back in 2014, Danielle Sheypuk was the first wheelchair model to take to the runway at NYFW, but in the seven years since you can count on one hand the models that have followed – two of them making appearances at the SS22 shows for Collina Strada and Moschino. Last month, Sofía Jirau just made history as the first model with Down’s syndrome to model for Victoria’s Secret. In beauty things are even slower, with the exception of faces like Aaron Philip, Jillian Mercado, and Ellie Goldstein who have respectively appeared in campaigns for brands including Sephora, Olay, and Gucci Beauty over the past few years. 

“The problem with big brands is that they don’t want to push the envelope too far,” explains model and writer Julian Gavino, better known as The Disabled Hippie. “They want to be inclusive, but there will always be a stopping point because their main objective is making money and they don’t want to do anything that will put their larger audience in jeopardy. It’s pretty much a tug of war.” Julian shares numerous incidents over the years where he’s been invited to castings or shoots that have no wheelchair access, or asked to wear clothing that isn’t adaptive in the way that he requires. It’s almost beyond belief, but isn’t lost on the model. “They just want me to be there so it looks like they care about people using a wheelchair, but it’s not really like that,” he says. 

The solution seems simple enough: hire more disabled models and influencers, but in reality, the issue is more complex. Most importantly, the influencers agree, is to listen and learn. “There needs to be a little more of an open dialogue on how to do things,” Gabe suggests. “I was asked by a brand to film a video where I’m holding the product up to show it and I was so stressed because I can hold it up, but it’s not going to look as graceful as somebody else.”

The issue is equally as complex when it comes to accessible products and brands in beauty. Brands like Grace provide tools to make applying mascara easier, while Guide provides a package of accessible tools for eyeliner, lashes, and brows. Elsewhere, Degree recently became the first brand to provide an accessible deodorant – created to make application easier for people with visual and motor disabilities. Lagging behind, fashion’s options are fewer, with Tommy Hilfiger’s Adaptive line – launched in 2017 – the only option from a major brand. 

“The beauty world is talking a lot more about diversity and inclusion and it’s so important as a brand to widen our view,” explains Guide founder and celebrity make-up artist, Terri Bryant. “When it comes to make-up and different abilities, there has long been a misconception that you either create products for those that are able-bodied or for some niche market with a specific disability and physical limitation. These are not mutually exclusive.” 

However, despite accessible beauty brands becoming more common, there’s no way of catering to everyone. “As someone with a disability, I do commend brands who bring out products more suited to people with accessibility needs, but I understand the challenge in creating them as there is such a diverse range of people with very different needs,” Isabelle says. “I’ve always tried working with the products available to me and adapted how I used them in order to do my make-up. As a beauty creator, I want to be seen for my skills and make-up rather than just the label of disabled which is often the only thing people recognise.”

Despite facing challenges, each of the creators reflect on the importance of their visibility and share how it has helped other disabled beauty fans and influencers. “I’ve had so many amazing people reach out to me and share their experiences of what they’re going through on a daily basis. It’s touching to hear that people with disabilities are watching my videos and learning and growing,” Gabe shares. “It’s really rewarding to know that what I’m doing is being used and helping other people to learn, even though there is backlash that comes with it.” 

Unsurprisingly, the trio all have hopes the current conversations around disabled representation will improve and bring models and influencers like them to the forefront of brand campaigns and partnerships. “I would love to be the face of a campaign to show that it is possible for someone like me to be represented and the hard work does pay off,” Gabe says, a sentiment that is echoed by Julian. “I want to see disbaled people in luxury, it would do so much to change how we view them,” he adds. “It shows that we’re powerful and worthy of having nice and expensive things. I want to see it because we just don’t.” 

While it can be scary for anybody putting themselves out there, Isabelle is keen to see more disabled beauty influencers join her for a brighter, more representative future. “Just go for it,” she urges. “I know it can be easy just saying it, but we’re stuck in our bodies our entire lives so there’s no point letting an insecurity or feeling like you don’t fit a stereotype stop you from doing anything you want!”