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Rafi Solaiman shot by Christian Cassiel
Photography Christian Cassiel

Able is the new magazine banishing disability taboos

Editor and founder Claudia Walder tells us about the problem of ‘inspiration porn’ and the importance of online community

After being diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2017, fashion stylist Claudia Walder was frustrated to discover just how prominent ableism (discrimination in favour of the able-bodied) is in the UK mainstream media. A lack of diverse representation – combined with the perpetuation of deep-rooted stereotypes and stigmas – has isolated many of those living with disabilities today. Recognising an urgent need for an inclusive and welcoming space, Walder founded Able, a magazine sharing the stories of those affected by disability and spreading awareness of misunderstood and often overlooked health conditions.

The very first issue explores topics spanning from accessible activism and mental health, to sex and relationships. Aiming to bust people’s discomfort surrounding the word “disability”, the magazine’s punchy graphics and intimate shoots put a positive spin on issues that are too often skirted around. Issue one features an interview with breast cancer survivor Ericka Hart; an intimate piece on Japanese artist and amputee Mari Katayama; and a shoot with two down-syndrome models signed with Zebedee, the first talent and modelling agency in the UK to work solely with disabled people.

To celebrate the launch of the mag, we chatted to Walder about banishing myths around disability, keeping a positive mindset and coming out of the “disability closet”. 

What encouraged you to create a magazine on the subject of disability?

Claudia Walder: When I got sick in my early 20s I experienced quite a sharp decline in health. It was a really scary time for me, going from active fashion stylist to struggling to dress myself. The NHS was absolutely useless and the specialists I saw were pretty dismissive, despite the fact it felt like I was dying. I’d never felt so isolated and being young and sick is made even harder when all of the imagery of disability is targeted at the elderly. It’s still a shock to people that you can be young, disabled and proud, fashionable and disabled, sick while looking healthy. 

One day I decided to input keywords like “disability” and “chronic illness” into search engines on popular websites I knew, and they all came up blank. That was probably the first time I realised how deep ableism ran in the media and that I was contributing to the problem by choosing to remain silent. So I got in touch with gal-dem to write an article about my recent health problems, to come out of the “disability closet” as it were, and the impact it had was incredibly positive. I decided this type of content needed a space of its own, and that’s how Able began.

“Education around disability is so null, that many disabled people are harmed by companies who don’t know how to act correctly and appropriately towards them” – Claudia Walder

As fashion and beauty are getting more diverse, casting is starting to include more people living with disabilities – is this something you have noticed? 

Claudia Walder: I think it’s cool as long as it’s authentic inclusion and not tokenism. Disabled communities need their voices heard, so it’s always going to be a good thing if popular brands help make that happen publicly. One thing that worries me though is that education around disability is so null, that many disabled people are harmed by companies who don’t know how to act correctly and appropriately towards them. Representation for disabled people is key to making progress because, at the end of the day, we are citizens and consumers too. I’ve always thought it strange how brands seem to forget that or openly misappropriate us, but that’s just one of the many forms of ableism evident in today’s society. 

There is a focus on sexual and reproductive health in Able, what could the UK education system do to better inform people about navigating sex when living with a disability?

Claudia Walder: First and foremost, educators, health clinicians and doctors need to recognise that disabled people are sexual beings too. Far too often sexual pleasure is lacking from conversations around the lives of disabled and chronically ill people, especially in practice where medication, surgeries and treatments can affect libido and satisfaction. People with male genitalia tend to receive more guidance on any barriers that might occur in their “sex life”, whereas many femmes and women aren’t extended that same courtesy.

People need to let go of fear and discomfort when discussing sex and intimacy with disabled and neurodiverse people because at the end of the day most of us want physical touch and love. Consent is another key thing that must be sought and respected in lots of interactions, as historically disabled people’s bodies have been stripped of their autonomy, suffered medical abuse and endured unwanted touch from strangers day-to-day who don’t respect personal boundaries. The hashtag #DisabledPeopleAreHot developed by sex-educator Andrew Gurza and Twitter thread #AbledsAreWeird by blogger extraordinaire Imani Barbarin add to this discussion.

Able opens up important discussions surrounding periods, covering topics from PMS to endometriosis. What immediate actions would you like to see happen in this area?

Claudia Walder: The first thing I’d like to see would be healthcare settings and professionals acknowledging that not all menstruators have a feminine pronoun or outward appearance. People who bleed can be masculine-presenting and non-binary, so the language around this needs to change with the times. Secondly, they need to start rallying support and pumping funds into research for new treatments and diagnostic technologies for both reproductive and hormone-related conditions. We’re currently suffering from a major gender gap in medicine as historically men have always been the standard to measure against. Lastly, I think schools have a role to play in not belittling the impact of period pain.

In an interview with fashion stylist and curator Connor Gaffe, who suffers from blood-related cancer, the importance of keeping a positive mindset is discussed. What advice do you offer to those struggling with their mental health as a result of their disability?

Claudia Walder: It’s important to recognise that some of us don’t have the right support in place to prevent mental health issues occurring. It’s global and systematic – so many are living without medical care or welfare, and need to fundraise for their treatment or sell their belongings to get wheelchair repairs. Other countries with health services similar to the UK still neglect a large proportion of patients with long term chronic illnesses that are underfunded and heavily stigmatised. So if you are struggling, it’s not your fault. Capitalism makes living with health conditions very difficult and all of us will be impacted by financial burden one way or another – the reality is that you could become disabled at any moment. Political stuff aside, mental health investment feels like it's at an all-time low on the NHS. So, my advice would be to seek solidarity online and look into local charity services to access things like therapy. I also find physical therapy or activity classes can help ease feelings of loneliness and fulfil the need for human interaction. 

“It’s really important that people begin to understand how wide the spectrum of disability is” – Claudia Walder

What is the most important thing that needs to change in the discourse around disability today?

Claudia Walder: I think non-disabled people need to stop speaking for us. In particular, producers, curators and people in charge of things, because at the end of the day unless you’ve experienced this yourself, you just can’t relate. You further polarise us by inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes – like that we can’t do things ourselves. It’s really important that people begin to understand how wide the spectrum of disability is. One major difference can be whether you were born disabled or not, as this can greatly affect how people want to be treated and how well adjusted they are to coping and thriving with it.

Another issue is only including disabled people for their “inspirational” appeal. “Inspiration porn”, a term coined by Stella Young, is the portrayal of disabled people as inspirational despite not necessarily warranting it, by and for the consumption of non-disabled people. It makes it harder for our issues and oppressions to be heard when people think it’s our nature to “overcome” everything thrown our way, no matter how discriminatory or unethical it is.

In your editor’s letter, you thank the online disability and illness communities for their support throughout the project. How important has this circle been for you?

Claudia Walder: Honestly the people I have met since this journey began have been some of the best. Online communities are often more reliable than physical relationships, especially old ones which can become frail once new requirements are needed to sustain it. I hope that the more every day these conversations become, the better people will be at adapting. A lot of people want to learn about disability but don’t know how that’s why we’ve tried to make Able as inclusive as possible. Just like the analogy that not everyone has a mental illness but we all have mental health, the same applies to physical illness and physical health. In terms of my own disabilities which are invisible, internalised ableism and communication are the biggest hurdles. The online community is most effective at echoing your own experiences or feelings and validating the truth in them, and that’s irreplaceable.

Can you recommend some good accounts to follow? 

Claudia Walder: A few of my favourite accounts are @accesscenteredmovement@invalid__art and @hot.crip!

Copies of the magazine can be purchased at www.ablezine.com