Just your regular models

Special needs people are now getting their turn under the spotlight

When news surfaced last month that children's show Sesame Street was introducing a new muppet character with autism, public reaction was largely positive.

The four-year-old muppet Julia made her television debut last Monday, becoming part of a growing and more inclusive representation of disabled and special needs people in the media.

In recent years, more models with disabilities have been gracing fashion runways, ad campaigns and magazine editorials. In Hollywood, which has often faced criticisms of cripping up - when non-disabled actors are cast to play disabled characters - disabled actors are now getting meatier roles on television.

Mr Victor Tay, president of the Association for Persons with Special Needs, says disabled and special needs people previously had stereotypical roles in the media, where they were portrayed as "tragic characters or "recipients" of acts of kindness.

"If they are seen as an integral part of society, then they should be featured as part of a normal functional group, whether at school or work. It's like how Julia is portrayed in Sesame Street - she is not a tragic but an integral character," he notes.

"We have been brought up to think disabled or special needs people have to be handled with extra care when in fact, they are self-sufficient and have dignity. They do wish to be part of an integral group and in a society that is inclusive."

Mr Andrew Soh, assistant director of community partnerships and corporate communications at the Down Syndrome Association (Singapore), feels that the greater inclusivity of disabled people in the media "creates a higher level of graciousness for all".

He adds: "For persons with disabilities, such inclusiveness indirectly builds their confidence while allowing them to be recognised for who they are beyond their disabilities."

But amputee Desmond Tong, 39, who lost part of his right leg due to a motorcycle accident when he was 23, has mixed feelings about seeing disabled people getting prominent roles in the media.

While the father of two is happy to see more disabled people embracing and creating awareness of their disabilities, he feels it "should be a norm to see a person on a wheelchair acting or being a news reporter".

Mr Tong, a business development manager at German prosthetic and orthotic company Ottobock Healthcare, adds: "People with disabilities are regular people entitled to a normal life just like everyone else. We should be moving towards acceptance and inclusion where seeing people in prosthetic running blades jogging around the neighbourhood is a normal thing."


In Fashion

WINNIE HARLOW, 22

The Canadian gained prominence as a contestant on reality television series America's Next Top Model in 2014. Harlow's distinctive white patches on her face, hands and other parts of her body are due to a skin disorder, vitiligo, which she has since she was four years old.

Vitiligo is when pigment cells of the skin are destroyed in certain areas of the body, leading to the loss of skin colour. The late singer Michael Jackson had the same condition.

Harlow, whose real name is Chantelle Brown-Young, has graced covers of fashion magazines such as Elle and Marie Claire, and had a cameo in American pop star Beyonce's Lemonade music video last year.

The 1.75m-tall model is currently the face for Spanish brand Desigual's Fresh Fragrance perfume.


CAITIN STICKELS, 29

The Seattle-based model was born with Schmid-Fraccaro syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in various abnormalities. Her condition causes her to have a cat-like appearance including a cleft palate and lack of coloured eye tissue.

Stickels was discovered by noted British fashion photographer Nick Knight, who chanced upon her Instagram account (@caitinkitten). He photographed her for an editorial in American magazine publication V Magazine's spring 2017 issue.

The Internet became inundated with stills from the fashion shoot, as many netizens were intrigued by the model's appearance.


LAUREN WASSER, 29

In 2012, the blonde American model lost her right leg, as well as her left heel and toes, to toxic shock syndrome, a rare, life-threatening complication of certain types of bacterial infections.

But Wasser bounced back and was cast in an advertising campaign for American luxury department store Nordstrom in late 2015.


MADELINE STUART, 20

The Australian, who has Down syndrome, first became a viral subject on social media two years ago when her mother posted before and after photos of her weight loss journey. Stuart had lost 20kg.

Her breakout year was 2015: She made her runway debut at New York Fashion Week and was named Model of the Year at international fashion show Melange in San Francisco.

She has since walked on fashion runways around the world, including Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week China, and launched her own fashion label, 21 Reasons Why by Madeline Stuart, this February at New York Fashion Week.


ALEXANDRA KUTAS, 23

The Ukrainian model, who uses a wheelchair, is paralysed from the waist down as a result of a spinal cord injury at birth.

Although Kutas, who has a psychology degree, has been modelling professionally since 2015, she made her runway debut in her home country for Ukrainian fashion designer Fedor Vozianov only this February, where she appeared in a special chair carried by male models. The fashion show, which was covered by international media such as Vogue and the Daily Mail, grabbed the attention of the fashion and disabled communities.

Apart from pursuing a fledgling modelling career, Kutas also spends her time campaigning for accessible infrastructure for disabled people, acting as an advisor to the mayor of her home city of Dnipro.


On Screen

R.J. MITTE, 24

With his tousled black hair and piercing gaze, Mitte looks just like your typical Hollywood heart-throb.

The American, who has mild cerebral palsy, is also one of the best-known disabled actors in Tinseltown. He shot to fame playing the son of Walter White, the protagonist in hit TV series Breaking Bad.

Mitte's character, Walter White Jr, also has cerebral palsy. The actor had to learn to walk with crutches and speak in a slurred manner as his condition is milder than that of his character's.

After the show concluded in 2013, Mitte acted in indie films such as Dixieland and Who's Driving Doug. In the latter, he played a character with muscular dystrophy.


MICAH FOWLER, 19

The American actor has a lead role in sitcom Speechless, which debuted last year, playing JJ Dimeo, a boy with cerebral palsy who cannot speak. The plot revolves around his family as they relocate to give JJ the best life they can.

Fowler himself has cerebral palsy, albeit a milder form, and he can speak.

Critics have largely lauded the show, and Fowler for his performance. A Washington Post review said: "Fowler is a groundbreaker. He delivers a brilliant silent performance, with a glint of mischief in his eyes."


ZOLTAN FENYVESI, 25

Hungary's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars wascomedy-drama Kills On Wheels (2016), in which two disabled teenagers befriend a disabled hitman. Two of the leading roles were played by disabled actors.

One of them is Hungarian actor Zoltan Fenyvesi, who, like his character, uses a wheelchair. He is unable to walk because of a birth defect. In the movie, his first major acting role, his character stakes out the wilderness, hunts down bad guys and shoots his attackers - all while in his wheelchair.

The good-looking blond actor is also an online celebrity in Hungary, with more than 16,000 followers on Instagram.


JULIA THE MUPPET

In last Monday's episode of Sesame Street, austistic muppet Julia made her debut on television. She ignores Big Bird when he greets her, as she concentrates on her drawing.

When Big Bird is worried that Julia might not like him, Alan, the muppets' human friend, explains that Julia has autism and may not answer him right away.

The episode acquainted the cast (and the audience) with the quirks of Julia, Sesame Street's first autistic muppet.

Julia may be afraid of loud sounds, may not respond as fast or may like to flap her hands a lot, but as Elmo explains, "none of us is exactly the same".


KATIE LECLERC, 30

The 30-year-old is best known for her role as deaf teenager Daphne Vasquez in TV drama Switched At Birth.

Leclerc is not deaf, but the American actress suffers from Meniere's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can cause vertigo and intermittent hearing loss. She has said in past interviews that the condition allows her to understand deaf people better.

The series, which is in its fifth and final season, revolves around the lives of Vasquez and Bay Kennish, who were switched at birth.

Several disabled actors, such as Academy Award- winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin, have guest-starred in the show, which won the Peabody award in 2012. The annual award recognises compelling stories from the media that are socially meaningful.

The series also pioneered the extensive use of American sign language on TV, and there are scenes where the characters converse only by signing.

Cara Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Just your regular models'. Print Edition | Subscribe