The Runway of Dreams Celebrates Disability in Fashion
Tuesday, September 19, 2023, 4:01 PM
On September 13, Adaptive and accessible fashion was center stage. The Runway of Dreams Foundation, …
Mindy Scheier. Photo Credit: Runway of Dreams Foundation
On September 13, Adaptive and accessible fashion was center stage. The Runway of Dreams Foundation, a public charity that empowers people with disabilities through inclusion in fashion and beauty, hosted the event at the Powerhouse Arts building in Brooklyn, NY during the highly popular New York Fashion Week. As an organization that promotes and celebrates innovative design, this year’s theme of A FASHION REVOLUTION called for models with disabilities to come down the runway in the latest apparel and footwear from companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos, Steve Madden, and Target. Victoria’s Secret also unveiled their first-ever Adaptive Intimates line. As with every Runway of Dreams show, every model highlighted the diversity of disability. There were models of different ages, BIPOC models, wheelchair users, cane users, folks with limb differences, little people, models with care assistants, and other presentations of disability.
Elicia Tate. Photo Credit: Runway of Dreams Foundation
“Every runway show is better than the last,” says Mindy Scheier, founder of The Runway of Dreams. “The most exciting part of the 2023 A FASHION REVOLUTION was having 11 mainstream brands on our runway, including Victoria’s Secret, who decided that this was the runway to debut their Adaptive Intimates. Having women with disabilities on our runway proudly wearing Adaptive bras and panties that were developed with and for women with disabilities left me awestruck.”
Mindy says conviction is what inspired her to start the charity in 2014, after 20 years working as a fashion designer and stylist. When her then 8-year-old son Oliver, who has Muscular Dystrophy, asked for jeans that he could button himself and wear over his leg braces, she adapted the jeans herself – and then conducted extensive research on how to mainstream and manufacture accessible clothing. In 2016, she partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to create the first-ever mainstream adaptive clothing line on the market.
Caitlin Connor. Photo Credit: Runway of Dreams Foundation
With an overwhelming response to the collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, companies have been looking to hire people with disabilities to build their own inclusive and accessible offerings. In 2019, Mindy founded GAMUT Management, a consulting and talent management company that represents people with disabilities across fashion and entertainment.
Mia Ives-Rublee, a client of GAMUT Management and one of the Zappos models in the Runway of Dreams show, also participated in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge as a film maker and actor. “Being able to see yourself in clothes or on screen shows that you matter as a person; that your story matters,” she says. Mia also mentioned that disabled people are often excluded from media and fashion, even though, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans identify as having a disability: “With that understanding, it is easy to explain to non-disabled people the importance of creating clothing for a variety of body sizes and needs. To understand those needs, disabled people need to be a part of the fashion industry from the designers to the board members. Working together, they can create clothing that is adaptable to wider body types and needs.”
Mia Ives-Rublee. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Runway of Dreams.
Advocate and model for Runway of Dreams, Caitlin Connor, agrees. “So many people in the disability community are left out of the fashion industry and shopping can be depressing. We need organizations like Runway of Dreams to show brands that we harness both buying and selling power and that disability impacts everyone at some point in life.” Caitlin learned about Runway of Dreams when searching for resources for her nonprofit Be More Adaptive, which is a one-stop resource and community for all things adaptive and accessible. “When I became an amputee through a traumatic accident, my world spiraled with confusion as I searched to understand my new life with a physical disability. While recovering from the accident, I was also pregnant and eventually got laid off from my job. It gave me time to research for as many resources as possible and led to me developing Be More Adaptive.”
Lachi. Photo Credit: Runway of Dreams Foundation
Runway model and music artist, Lachi, shared that we can change the fashion industry “…by supporting models who celebrate their disability as a unique part of their identity, or by spreading awareness to adaptive fashion brands and disabled designers, and by embracing the cutting edge, newness of the disabled body and the untapped stories it tells.”
Lachi is another participant of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, with the “Unlucky in Love” short film alongside Imani Barbarin and Rachel Handler. Like the Runway of Dreams show, Lachi says, “the film challenge proves that there are as many opportunities as there are ideas, that we create our own opportunities, and that we need to stop waiting to be discovered and need to start being the discoverers. Both the Runway and the Challenge allow folks with disabilities to cut their teeth in fashion or film and to grow among a supportive community of peers, allies, friends, and collaborators.”
Fashion isn’t just the stylish clothes we wear – fashion is expression, empowerment, and a part of culture. Lachi is a big fan of what she calls “glam canes” – white canes used by people with low vision to navigate and bejeweled with rhinestones from top to bottom. She has a cane to match every outfit. “It’s an instant showstopper, icebreaker, and leaves an impression,” Lachi says. “It also allows me to celebrate my blind identity in a very bold and sophisticated way.”
Self-expression and community are at the core of the Runway of Dreams Foundation. It’s evident in how supportive models are of each other … Evident in the hundreds of people who attend the runway show with enthusiasm and pride… shown through the diversity seen at every event … bringing people with and without disabilities on the same path toward possibility and inclusivity. And, with the efforts of such an incredible community, we are seeing progress in fashion – with much more ahead.
The Joy of Educating Kids About Disability in School
Monday, September 11, 2023, 3:40 PM
Before schools went on summer break this year, my Seeing Eye dog Luna and I were invited to do a spe…
Before schools went on summer break this year, my Seeing Eye dog Luna and I were invited to do a special school program at The Admiral, a senior residence where I lead weekly memoir-writing classes for older adults who live there.
Goudy Elementary is a Chicago public school located so close to The Admiral that the third-graders can walk there. They do exactly that every Friday to attend a “reading buddies” program sponsored by the Admiral. Each third grader reads out loud to an assigned Admiral resident, their “reading buddy,” and the Admiral Reading Buddy reads aloud to their third-grade buddy, too.
Things went a little differently the Friday Luna and I were there, though. “Instead of having the children work with reading buddies today, could you give a special presentation to them about what it’s like to be blind?” they asked. “And could you have your Seeing Eye dog with you, too, to explain how the dog gets you where you need to go?”
Teachers at Goudy emphasize social awareness with their third-graders. Students there benefit from having the ability to take the perspective of — and empathize with — others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, including people with disabilities.
So of course I said yes.
I love doing presentations like these for schoolkids, and the request to have my Seeing Eye dog with me was no problem: Luna comes with me everywhere I go!
Very few of the children had family members or friends who were blind, and none of the children had ever met a Seeing Eye dog before.
The timing of this visit was perfect: the “Understanding Disabilities” series of children’s books from Cherry Lake Publishing, in partnership with Easterseals, had been released a month earlier. Each book in the series is written by an author with a disability, and I wrote two of them: Service Dogs and What is the Americans with Disabilities Act? Weeks earlier, I secured 50 copies of the Service Dogs book, which meant that after our presentation, I’d be able to send each third grader a copy of the book to take home with them.
The afternoon was delightful, and so were the children. They arrived well-prepared, each of them holding a card with a question they wanted to ask me when it was their turn. Every single child told me their name, then introduced their question, a la, “Hello, my name is Sunil, and here’s my question …” Their older reading buddies were also there but sitting further away. Again, no problem — I just made a point to repeat each question so the older “Reading Buddies” could hear it too.
I have a habit of getting longwinded when I answer questions kids ask me, so I’ll limit myself here and only answer the questions that challenged me the most.
Q. How can you dress when you don’t see?
A. I have all sorts of systems for keeping track of my clothes. If a shirt is black, I put a safety pin in the tag. If a shirt is white, I put a paper clip in the tag. Every piece of clothing I own that is black has a safety pin in the tag, and everything that is white has a paper clip attached to the tag; I just memorize the color people tell me my other clothes are and figure out which is which by the way they feel.
Q. What if you need to go somewhere and your dog is sleeping?
A. I wake her up.
Q. How do you write books if you can’t see?
A. I learned to type on a keyboard when I was in high school and could still see — I wasn’t blind until I was 26 years old, and I still have the keyboard memorized. The computer I use to write books comes with a speech synthesizer. The speech synthesizer calls out letters as I type so I can hear and fix any mistakes as I go. I can manipulate keys on the keyboard to read a page of type by word, line, or paragraph when I want to check for spelling and grammar. Over the years, the synthesized voice has become more and more human-sounding, but when I let people hear it, they usually say it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie.
Q. Is it scary being blind?
A. It was scary at first, but I went to a special school for a few months to learn how to use a white cane to get around, how to cook and clean for myself, how to read Braille and stuff like that. I have been blind for so many years now that I’m used to it and it isn’t scary anymore.
Q. How does your dog know where it’s going?
A. I have to be the one who knows where we’re going, so when we get outside in front of our apartment building, I hold onto my dog’s leash and harness, turn the way we need to go, and give her a command she learned at the Seeing Eye School she went to: “Luna, forward!” She pulls forward, and I feel the pull by holding the back of her harness and follow her lead.
Q. What are your biggest challenges if you are blind?
(Note to blog readers: this was my very favorite question of them all –the question told me that the kids had enough empathy to understand that being blind could be challenging sometimes, and they weren’t afraid to ask me what some of those challenges were).
A: Oh, there are lots of challenges, but rather than focus on the things I can’t do – I can’t play video games, for example – I focus on the things I can do. I know how to play the piano, and I know how to swim and can go to the beach, and I can write books, too, and get to bring my dog with me wherever I go!
Easterseals partnered with Cherry Lake Publishing Group to come out with the “Understanding Disability” series to explore disability in a comprehensive, honest, and age-appropriate way. One of their goals was to open the door for critical conversations about disability to young readers, and those questions the Goudy Elementary School students asked me that day tell me they are eager to learn.
The senior who’d emceed our presentation that day sent an email message to Luna and me later, thanking us for our program and especially for the books: “I want you to know that when I held up the books to show the kids, they were so excited and happy!”
What a coincidence: I am excited and happy about those books, too. Even now, months after that presentation, thinking that some of those third-graders might have brought their new Service Dogs book to read to their “Reading Buddies” the Friday after our presentation makes me smile.
Editor’s Note: Allison Friedman is an educator, advocate and artist with experiences addressin…
Editor’s Note: Allison Friedman is an educator, advocate and artist with experiences addressing common barriers that people within the Deaf community might face when it comes to education. Among the many things she does, she provides ASL access for people in the Deaf and blind community. We had a conversation about the importance of inclusion in education, including what others may not realize about Deaf culture in today’s “trendy” landscape.
Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did you get where you are today?
Allison Friedman: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve always had a passion for the arts and I’m a professor and an advocate. I’m involved in several programs that are trying to spotlight different walks of life for different individuals. I’m very passionate, creative, and I work in the film industry, too. I help people get an insight into what it is like to be a person with a disability.
You have a lot on your plate, it seems.
Allison Friedman: I do! But from here, I do want to go ahead and talk about my journey as a Deaf individual and being a part of the disabled community.
What would you say is one accomplishment that stands out during your career?
Allison Friedman: Oh, that’s a tough one. I do have several, but the one that sticks out happened when I was working at Columbia College in Chicago. They invited me to do a TEDx presentation, and gave me a theme for it: essence.
Wow. That’s a pretty broad topic! What did you come up with?
Allison Friedman: My presentation focused on sign language and human connection. I am passionate about sign language and ensuring Deaf children have access to their own language. For the project, we surveyed several Deaf children who were language deprived, including my own father, who, for 13 years, didn’t have access to any of those resources for him. That really hit home for me.
I can imagine why –13 years old without any of those services?
Allison Friedman: Yes. My father, again, he didn’t have language until 13 years later. My grandparents didn’t know that there was a Deaf school.
So, your father never went to school at all?
Allison Friedman: Oh, he finally did go — as soon as my grandparents found out there was a school for the Deaf, they sent my father there and that’s where he really thrived and came into his own being. All those resources available for him there played a huge impact in his life.
How about you? What was your schooling like?
Allison Friedman: Growing up, I didn’t see ASL in the public, not until I was older. And that’s why I’m really thankful to social media and also Gallaudet University. American Sign Language wasn’t really recognized as a language until the 60s. And having it recognized as a language and also being validated as a community was really beneficial to us.
Nice! Sounds like advocating and teaching and helping people understand more about the Deaf community is paying off! What is something you wish more people understood, actually really got, about the deaf community and ASL in general?
Allison Friedman: I’m happy that ASL has gained more recognition globally, but Deaf children are the ones in crucial need of it. That’s something I want to really emphasize. Again, my father didn’t have language until 13 years. ASL is something very trendy now and something that’s seen as pretty cool. I want the world to know that ASL is not just a trend, it’s not just something to have fun with, but it’s actually some people’s main mode of communication for everyday life. I really want to emphasize that having language accessibility for children is what we need. There’s an irony in it being such a trend lately — seeing it at speeches, during the singing of the National Anthem, more out in the public in schools and colleges — while Deaf children still struggle sometimes getting access to ASL.