Where are all the Power Wheelchair Models?
Original published in Wheel:life.org Comfort Medical on August 8, 2016
According to a report from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation, approximately 6.8 million individuals in the United States who have disabilities use assertive devices to help them with mobility. Among these people, 1.7 million use manual wheelchairs or power wheelchairs/scooters. Nearly 6.1 million use both wheelchairs and other mobility devices like canes, crutches, and walkers.
As the disability advocacy movement continues to gain strength, our diversity in media is improving. What does that look like? Who are the “faces” of disability or in this case, “wheels” that are represented in media today? Is it fully inclusive?
We ask the question because what people see on television, film and advertising is critical to our understanding of all aspects of society. Beauty can be found in all forms of disability, yet power wheelchair users seem to be missing from the scenes shown online, in print and on air.
But change is happening. Society has made great strides in challenging stereotypes and acknowledging diversity in skin color, size, age, race, sexual orientation gender, and have now even begun to include disability.
n recent years, major brands have begun featuring models with disabilities in many ads and television commercials. For example, Tommy Hilfiger recently added a new line of clothing specifically designed for individuals with disabilities.
Wheelchairs are the International Sign for Disability
The “wheelchair” has become the international sign for disability, mainly because it is the most visual form of disability. That’s why media’s perception of inclusiveness means featuring a model in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, this has both a good and bad impact as media has a direct and profound impact on how we feel ourselves and view others.
Everyone needs someone to look up to or aspire to be like as a role model. Ten years ago, when I first acquired my Spinal Cord Injury, disability was not as prevalent in the media so it was rare to see any women using wheelchairs in media campaigns.
As an inpatient I was introduced to Joni Eareckson Tada and I later came across Auti Angeland Briana Walker while surfing the internet. Those three ladies were my light at the end of the tunnel. Reading about them and seeing how far they had come after their SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) gave me the faith I needed to roll on.
Today, the reality TV show Push Girls has helped shed light on what life is like for a manual wheelchair user and continues to inspire both able-bodied and disabled individuals who watch the series. And currently, there are many empowered and beautiful models, actresses, performers, and athletes from which the newly injured can identify with and gain inspiration from.
That is if you are a manual wheelchair user. Power wheelchair models are still amiss.
Despite significant change and growing acceptance, many forms of disability are still largely underrepresented, misrepresented, or just plain ignored by the media. Specifically, power wheelchair users are rolling way behind in terms of media inclusiveness.
In the 10 years since my injury, other than the old Hoveround and Scooter commercials promoting free power wheelchairs to “qualifying callers,”I have only seen one television commercial on air featuring a power wheelchair model.
In fact, I was that model. In 2012, I was featured in a Spanish-language+ San Diego Gas & Electric commercial. See it below.
I’ve only met one power wheelchair singer/actress starring in a major stage performance – Jennifer Kumiyama – who performed in the Disney Aladdin show for over 10 years and was cast in a major role as ‘Carmen’ in Sundance Film Festival hit film “The Sessions.”
If you search online for“wheelchair model,” you get tons of pictures of very beautiful models who utilize manual wheelchairs. But if you Google “power wheelchair model,” you get tons of pictures of different models of actual power wheelchairs. The sad reality is you will find very few pictures of an actual model who utilizes a power wheelchair for their mobility.
Why is this a Big Deal?
While manual wheelchair users and power wheelchair users face many of the same social and structural barriers, believing that we are one and the same in terms of appearance and physical function is another stereotype.
Manual wheelchair users tend to have much more mobility, therefore have the ability to be more physically active. Seeing them represented in the media so often is great for men and women with similar abilities, but what about those with limited mobility? Where is their frame of reference for society?
It’s time society introduces through media examples that power wheelchair models with more limited mobility are “beautiful and inspirational” too.
Individuals with limited mobility need to have roll models they can identify with and that will give them the faith they need to roll on. Power wheelchair models deserve the equal right of showcasing and celebrating their many abilities.
Beauty is not always demonstrated through physical activity, but rather through humility, spoken word, essence or simple presence.
I’m honored to have had the opportunity to demonstrate my beauty as a power wheelchair user as Ms. Wheelchair California 2013 and being featured in the upcoming Raw Beauty Project LA featuring models with a variety of disabilities. Yet, working as a model in this industry is painfully slow for me due to the limited opportunities, so I maintain a full time job as well.
Who is to blame for the lack of exposure of power wheelchair models in the media?
There are dozens of power wheelchair manufacturers on the market in the U.S. The average cost of a power wheelchair is $7,000 and that expense can easily reach over $30,000 dollars, depending on the complexity of the powerchair. In my opinion, wheelchair manufacturers definitely have the power to influence media. I’m excited that both Permobil and Quantum currently have a casting call out for models.
However, we need to do our part too, ladies!
When I realized how powerful my message was and the impact I had on those who listened, I chose to make my power wheelchair my brand. As Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, I have had the opportunity to meet many very beautiful power wheelchair women with amazing talents and abilities. I know there are many of us out there with the potential to succeed in this field.
So if you are interested in pursuing a modeling career, don’t be shy. Get your head shots, resume, and face out there! There is someone waiting to be encouraged by you and your many abilities, and it’s time to add power wheels to the face of disability appearing on the silver screen.