Comfort Conversations: Where are all the Power Wheelchair Models?

Join us every month for Comfort Conversations, a discussion series led by our Ambassadors who share their thoughts on issues affecting wheelchair users worldwide. Today’s topic is on the role of beauty and inclusiveness in advertising for women who use power wheelchairs, written by Comfort Ambassador Margarita Elizondo.  Learn more about the Comfort Ambassadors here.

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 assistive 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.

Power Wheelchair Models4
Margarita Elizondo

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.

In 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.

tommy hilfiger runway of dreams

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 the 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 Angel and 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.

They showed me I could dance again, and through their writing, they kept me grounded in my faith.

push girls

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.

Power Wheelchair Models1

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 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.

For example, in February 2015, multiple media outlets proudly shared, “Disabled models proudly take to the catwalk in wheelchairs as New York Fashion Week promotes diversity.” Nine manual wheelchair models were featured in the New York fashion event, but that catwalk did not include even one power wheelchair model.

Jennifer
Jennifer Kumiyama has performed in the Disney Aladdin show for over 10 years.

Power Wheelchair Models3Why 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.

margarita elizondo wheel-life comfort ambassadorWho 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 the 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 headshots, 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.

What Do You Say?
Share Your Thoughts in the Comments Below.

 Margarita Elizondo 1About the author:

Comfort Medical Ambassador Margarita Elizondo is a motivational speaker, entrepreneur, producer/host of Wheel Talk Wheel Issues, model, author and an ambassador for the Los Angeles Abilities Expo. She was paralyzed in 2006 after an intruder broke into her home. Now, a single mother of three and grandmother, she pursues a degree in Communication at Grossmont Community College, and works for Axia Management where she designed a wireless phone service for seniors and individuals with disabilities. As Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, she is a strong advocate in the disability community and volunteers for numerous nonprofits. You can follow her @Ms_Hotwheels on Twitter and Instagram, or reach her on Facebook or through www.margaritaelizondo.com.

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Comfort Medical delivers the leading brands of catheters and ostomy products to customers who use wheelchairs nationwide.

Comfort Medical delivers the leading brands of catheters and ostomy products to customers who use wheelchairs nationwide.

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Wheel:Life is now part of the Comfort Medical family! With more than 26,000 followers on social media, we served more than 100,000 website visitors with lifestyle resources in 2015.  To help us expand our community impact, we have become part of the Comfort Medical organization.

Thanks to our relationship, we are able serve even more people who use wheelchairs with lifestyle resources, helpful products, and services.

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Their attention to detail, unmatched customer service, and dedication to helping customers live a happier, healthier life are just a few of the many reasons Comfort is one of the fastest growing catheter and ostomy supply companies in the nation.

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Note: The Comfort Conversations articles are for informational use only and are not intended to be construed as medical advice. Ask your doctor about issues related to your health and medical needs.

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8 Responses

  1. I am 27, and a power chair user, after I broke my neck. I would love to model. Fill me in, how?

  2. Hi Breana,

    It is just like modeling as an able bodied model. There are lots of videos and articles online on how to become a model. Follow those very same steps. Take some classes, get a portfolio going, and start showing up for castings. Most important stay up to date on social media sites and groups for disabled models. You can follow my social media sites. I post about opporrunities all the time. Good luck on your journey! Most important have fun and just roll with it!

  3. People w disabilities definitely need wayyy more representation in the media in general!! But yes, when they are represented, it seems to be primarily manual chair users…. And there are so many other disabilities :/ There are quads/partial quads/etc who use power chairs. There are people with primarily arm paralysis (who are ambulatory but still disabled). There are other ambulatory people too! Such as those with CP that affects one side of the body (and not severely), people who are blind, amputees, etc. That’s why is stinks that the universal sign for disability is a wheelchair. There are so many ambulatory ppl w disabilities who are also very severely underrepresented, and many people don’t believe them to be disabled because they don’t use a chair. And yeah, powerchair users also seem to be pushed aside, especially ones who use head/chin/etc controlled wheelchairs :/ Everyone deserves to feel like they have a chance to become whatever they want, whether it be a model or singer or actor or… Anything else. And since disabled people (especially ones who don’t use a manual chair) are so underrepresented in movies, TV, the catwalk, the stage, and media in general, these dreams may be crushed or seem “far-fetched.” We need to change that. And kids (well, adults too) w all types of disabilities need those role models. 🙂

    Sorry this was so long lol, rant over!

  4. I think, unfortunately, where some of the problem lies is the fact that power chairs are not aesthetically pleasing. While manual chairs have been improved, streamlined, and made more stylist, very little has been done in updating the standard clunky, unattractive power chair.
    I use power chair myself and in the nearly 20 years I’ve been in a chair (I’m sure others can attest to even longer) I haven’t seen much improvement at all in the look/design/functionality of power chairs.
    I am in the need for a new chair soon and looking at my options for chairs is not something I enjoy! I’m considering going with a manual chair with power assist!

  5. I totally agree! I missed that point in this article. These articles serve as an educational tool this is a good point. DME’s will read these articles and they serve as an opportunity for your voice to be heard.

    Most “stylish” power chairs are self modified or decorated, “Pimped out” . That is how I got the name, Ms. Hot Wheels I had my first power chair custom painted with flames. It looked like a hot wheel. I am about to do the same to my current chair.

  6. Margarita this article is so necessary. I as a power wheelchair user and Model, appreciate your goal here. What comes to mind for me is the unfortunate validity segregation has played out. For us to “have” to advocate each of our own category of disabilities is hindering to the goal of unity. Yet it is empowering to see efforts like this article. This particular struggle is making waves though! With power wheelchair Models like yourself and Jillian Mercado, who just was signed by IMG agency, we are on our way to being more than included. Thank you Margarita! I am with you in this

  7. Thank you Nicole. I hope my article illistrated more of an inclussion call and not a division call. I may write a part 2 to this article as it has had a lot of great feedback and I missed key points, like advocating for men as well.

    We have to be the change if we want to see change.

    If we are friends of fb please msg me. I would love to see your pics. If not please send a friend request. I am on Instagram as well @Ms_HotWheels

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