Most industries need to be more inclusive. People with disabilities who attempt to break the norm should at least be given an opportunity – not discriminated against solely because of their disability
Growing up, I struggled with my body as my legs are uneven, with the left shorter and thinner because I’d had polio. I lacked self-confidence and self-esteem … at least until I started modelling. For so long, I questioned why there aren’t more representation of wheelchair users and people with disabilities in this industry.
In South Africa, especially, I feel we are lagging behind. Other countries are moving towards disability inclusion by including people with disabilities in fashion and other related industries. Why? We need to be seen more. A significant contributing factor to prejudices against people with disabilities is the perception that they aren’t competent enough.
So what happens when someone fashionable rolls proudly in a wheelchair at Soweto Fashion Week? For some it was a very interesting experience because the fashion industry is not used to people with disabilities. As a matter of fact, I was the only person in a wheelchair at this event. Although, I can understand why – it shouldn’t be like this.
As a runway model in a wheelchair who has faced adversity and learnt to love, accept and embrace her uniqueness, I came to realise that the media bombard us constantly with information about how to be perfect and flawless. But let’s face it: no one is perfect. We have to stop striving to be perfect and instead embrace our own beauty and the different types of beauty.
It meant a lot to me to be a model at the Soweto Fashion Week and represent people with disabilities. Fashion is for all, so there should be more people with disabilities in the fashion industry without shocking people. However, not everyone is as open to incorporating models or other people with disabilities.
Unfortunately I’ve faced discrimination simply because I’m in a wheelchair. At times I was not even given a chance. Regardless of what I look like, I would be refused based on prejudice. It made me wonder: am I supposed not to tell people that I’m in a wheelchair so that I’m not discriminated against? But my wheelchair is part of me. I should never hide it!
I’m up for challenges and like breaking stereotypes. Knowing what I’m trying to accomplish as a model in a wheelchair is somewhat of a challenge that makes it interesting and pushes me to go forward to pave the way for others, hopefully. At the same time, I’m not okay with knowing that some doors have been shut completely just because I’m a wheelchair user.
I don’t mind rejection based on reasonable arguments like I don’t have the look you are going for, but don’t refuse even to give me an opportunity to audition just because of my wheelchair. If all this is new to you, let me ask you: how would you like to be refused the opportunity just because you do things differently or look different compared with most people?
There must be more acceptance, tolerance and diversity inclusion!
Lebohang Monyatsi was diagnosed with polio at the age of three. She studied at North-West University and now resides in Vanderbijlpark, where she works in human resources. In 2017, she travelled to Sweden to participate in the Miss Wheelchair World competition and was crowned First Princess.