Written by Celestine Fraser, published on 20 April 2023
Fashion has historically tended to overlook certain groups or communities, and certainly Disabled people are no strangers to exclusion within the industry. However, in recent years, there has been a growing conversation about Disability inclusion in fashion. Adaptive clothing brands are finally gaining mainstream recognition, and each year we are seeing more Disabled models walking the runways. In 2019, it felt like a breakthrough when Tilting the Lens Founder and CEO Sinéad Burke became the first visibly Disabled person to star on the front cover of British Vogue. Yet, Sinéad knew that her work was far from over: was this a moment, or the beginning of a movement? More importantly, who would be the next Disabled person on the cover of Vogue?
“I often ask myself if the fashion industry has become more accessible over the past few years, or if it has just become more accessible for me,” says Sinéad. “To create meaningful change, we must not design exceptions but pathways and pipelines.” Adaptive design and inclusive casting are important – but systemic change should lead to a fashion industry which is not only inclusive of Disabled people, but “more accessible for everyone at any point in their lives.”
Fast forward a few years, and Sinéad and her team at Tilting the Lens are sitting in Edward Enninful’s office at Vogue House. Sinéad recalls: “It was one of the most surreal moments of my entire life.” British Vogue wanted to discuss their ambition to “reframe fashion from a disability perspective,” and Tilting the Lens were exploring how they might be able to support the magazine throughout this process, as “ongoing facilitators of learning and education.” Above all, British Vogue wanted to “unpick, unlearn and really learn alongside Disabled people what a more accessible issue would look like, both in terms of the physical issue itself and the ways in which you could create safe spaces for Disabled people to engage in the process.”
British Vogue Launches ‘Reframing Fashion’ Edition
On 20 April 2023, with close collaboration from Tilting the Lens, British Vogue launched ‘Reframing Fashion’: a portfolio edition highlighting Disability justice, accessibility, equity, intersectionality and pride, with Sinéad Burke as Consultant Editor. In a historic first for the magazine – and in a rare event for magazine publishing – the May 2023 edition is available in a Braille and audio version, making the magazine more accessible to many.
The edition features five different covers, each starring an influential Disabled changemaker: Selma Blair, Ellie Goldstein, Justina Miles, Aaron Rose Philip and Sinéad herself. “It’s a dream come true,” says Aaron Rose Philip, an Antiguan-American model who in 2018 became the first Black, Transgender and Disabled person to be signed by a major modeling agency. To Aaron Rose, British Vogue’s new edition carries enormous cultural weight: “It’s imperative for the fashion industry to understand that Disabled people matter and contribute to fashion.” Ellie Goldstein, a British model with Down syndrome, agrees that “The experience was surreal and unbelievable.” Ellie, who has worked with a number of megabrands including Gucci, Nike and Adidas, is emphatic: “The world needs to see more models with Down syndrome. We need to be seen and represented. We are the same as everyone else.”
The edition not only features photoshoots and interviews with its five cover stars, but a number of other Disabled talent and advocates, including comedian Rosie Jones, racing driver Nicolas Hamilton and barrister Jessikah Inaba, who recently made history as Britain’s first Blind Black woman to be called to the Bar. With such a breadth of Disabled talent, we can’t help but wonder: is there a link between disability and creativity?
Tilting the Lens supported the British Vogue editors, marketers, operations, digital and wider teams by providing insights and actionable advice, ensuring that the lived experience of Disabled people and better practices in accessibility were at the heart of this edition.
As such, Tilting the Lens curated the talent and writers for the issue, created a checklist to scout the most accessible studios to produce the shoots, ensured the experience on set was equitable for everyone involved, held a digital accessibility workshop for the wider team, and advised on overall strategy and rollout for the edition. For the first time, British Vogue will also be made available in physical and digital Braille on May 5th, and as an audio format. This commitment will be extended to all future issues of the publication for the next year, in partnership with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
Disabled People are Innovators by Default
Christine Sun Kim, an American sound artist, has a theory: “When you grow up in a society that’s designed for people who aren’t like you, you’re forced to find alternative routes and solutions to every single thing. You basically become innovative by default and I strongly believe that it keeps your mind open to new ideas.” Fats Timbo, an author, comedian and content creator, echoes Christine: “The world isn’t mostly built for Disabled people. So Disabled people have to think of creative ways to accommodate themselves.” Looking at the innovative work of creative entrepreneur Reuben Selby, or dancer Musa Motha, or indeed Trifle Studio, a London-based collective of artists and designers with learning disabilities, one could easily be persuaded that much of the most exciting art, media and culture of the moment is being defined by Disabled people.
Choosing who to feature in the portfolio was no easy feat. Sinéad sighs: “There are so many more people who could have – should have – been part of this issue. What it illuminated was the fact that this is going to be a continuous commitment from Vogue going forward, and British Vogue in particular.” In selecting the Disabled talent who would feature in the issue, intersectionality was a priority: the contributors needed to represent a diverse cross-section of the Disability community.
The Disability Community is Intersectional
“Disability is not a monolith,” says Sinéad. “So often when disability is considered, it is largely considered from a physical disability perspective, or it’s largely considered from the perspective of a wheelchair-user.” However, British Vogue and Tilting the Lens were determined to “challenge the audience in its definition of disability, both in terms of identity, in terms of expertise and discipline, but also in terms of disability type.” For example, the team brought together four different people with cerebral palsy – Rosie Jones, Dr. Rosaleen McDonagh, Nicolas Hamilton and Aaron Rose Philip – to illustrate to an audience how, “based on their identities, their experiences, the time in which they were born, the backgrounds that they came from, that they themselves are multifaceted.” Rosie, Rosaleen, Nicolas and Aaron Rose have wildly different perspectives – and the message is clear: no two Disabled people are the same. Fats agrees: “The fashion industry needs to understand that every disability is different.”
Making British Vogue Shoots Accessible
Accessibility was embedded into every step of the process, from planning and production through to printing and publication. The team at Tilting the Lens had many conversations with British Vogue about the word “accessibility,” because often, says Sinéad, “accessibility means different things to different people.” Usually, accessibility is equated with compliance and legislation, and the word is seen as synonymous with wheelchair access. However, Sinéad explains, during the British Vogue shoots and interviews, “while [there were] many wheelchair users as part of the portfolio, [there were] also a much broader spectrum of access needs also.” The most important question became: “How do we ensure that everybody is set up for success? How do we ensure that the shoot is as equitable and as accessible as possible?”
After surveying many London studios to secure a venue which would suit everyone’s needs, the Tilting the Lens team ensured that all staff at the shoot had a good awareness and understanding of how to support each individual. “I could tell everyone had accessibility training because they were ensuring that things were as comfortable as possible,” said Christine. “I felt absolutely at home and didn’t shy away from asking for anything I needed or wanted.” Participants were sent floor plans of the studios in advance, and accessible call sheets were made available in Plain Language, as an audio, and in a format accessible to screen-readers. On set there was access to quiet rooms, bathrooms, changing facilities and the canteen, and there was clear signage and wayfinding throughout the premises. “We wanted everybody to be able to come to the set with as much confidence as possible,” explained Sinéad. She emphasizes that accessibility is about more than merely asking “Is there step free access?”, but about ensuring that everyone is, for example, “able to have a cup of coffee – with agency”.
“I felt very seen and accommodated for physically in the space of the venue,” said Aaron Rose. Fats agreed: “The crew made me feel super comfortable. They asked questions in terms of my personal accessibility needs and met them. For example, providing a stool for me to rest my feet whilst I was doing my interview.” Personalizing access to the needs of the individual was an important part of ensuring that the shoot was accessible for everyone: “We asked every member of the portfolio who was coming what their accessibility, accommodations and requirements were.”
Working with a Crew with Lived Experience
On set, the atmosphere was inclusive and welcoming – and likely enhanced by the fact that Disabled people were represented behind the camera, as well as in front of it. “Everyone was receptive, friendly, and warm,” said Christine. Working with a crew with lived experience of disability was reassuring for participants, because it meant “they had somebody Disabled that they had a relationship with and could identify with” and who they would not be afraid to “ask for whatever it was additionally that they required.” Ellie recalled being “treated so well and loving the company of all the team.”
Accessibility was also central to the process of interviews, printing and publication. In her interview with Selma Blair, journalist Frances Ryan mentions that she and Selma often used voice notes or text messages to communicate, as this better suited their access needs. “It was the same when I interviewed Aaron Rose Philip,” says Sinéad. “We often communicated by Instagram DM rather than formal email or text message because that was often what was most accessible to her.” When it came to printing, the team at Tilting the Lens received early outlines and proofs of the portfolio. There were many conversations around the use of italics, color contrast, and the readability of different fonts. The challenge was to maximize accessibility while still maintaining the aesthetic of the magazine. Sinéad describes a continuous conversation and negotiation around “What is beautiful and what is accessible? And how do we bring those two things together?”
Audio described, subtitled and transcribed video interviews with the talents featured in the British Vogue May 2023 issue.
Embracing Disability Culture, Identity and Pride
The May 2023 ‘Reframing Fashion’ edition of British Vogue represents a historic milestone in Disability visibility and representation in fashion. Its pages insist that disability is not about deficit: for many, it’s about belonging to a shared culture and identity. Certainly, there is no shortage of Disabled people who are successful, creative, and thrilled to be who they are. “Often we have an understanding or a belief that we need to bring disability in,” says Sinéad. “But I firmly believe from engaging in the fashion industry that there are many Disabled people already there. And yet there is not a safety in which they can self-identify because historically we have seen disability as less.” One solution, says Sinéad, is “to foster cultures of psychological safety and belonging,” so that there is a “comfort level for employees at all levels to self-identify as Disabled.”
So what does it mean to proudly claim a Disabled identity? Aaron Rose describes Disability pride as “the personal acceptance that living and contributing to the world around you every day whilst being Disabled is in fact triumphant, celebratory and joyful.” For Fats, it is about resilience and problem-solving: “To me, Disability pride means not being ashamed of your disability. Whatever I can’t do, I work around it. Turn my weaknesses into strengths by being courageous and resilient.” For Christine, Disability pride is best summed up in three short words: “So much joy.”
The May 2023 edition of British Vogue ‘Reframing Fashion’ is available on newsstands from April 25th, and in Braille from May 5th.
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