Instead of reinforcing the idea that people with disabilities can be considered handsome or beautiful in their own right, it suggests that differing from the norm is something to be ashamed of. Perhaps more worryingly, it implies that the public are not ready to be exposed to the reality of disability. Rather than seeing a wheelchair as an essential tool for independent living, we talk about people being “wheelchair bound” as if their passport to independence is in fact an evil overlord from which its victims cannot escape.
The apparent reluctance of Vogue to engage with genuinely disabled models offers a snapshot of society’s problem when it comes to thinking about beauty and disability. Disabled people are automatically seen as asexual and programmes, such as the insensitively titled Channel 4 series The Undateables (“following people with challenging conditions who are looking for love”), reinforce the idea that disabled people should be pitied rather than loved. Comments such as, “You two should get together, you’re both in wheelchairs” or, “You’re not bad looking for a guy in a wheelchair” are far too commonplace.
In short, society doesn’t need to be protected from disability. Contrary to what some people believe, disability isn’t contagious. By hiding disability away, we are denying people the chance to open their mind and stop allowing their perceptions of beauty to be overshadowed by wheelchairs and prosthetic legs. If disability is presented boldly and beautifully rather than awkwardly and apologetically, society’s perceptions will change accordingly.