Those involved in the fashion world shouldn't forget that one of the most beautiful women in art is

Recently I discovered that someone I knew at university is now married to Miss Wheelchair California. We don't have such contests in this country and I can't say I'm disappointed. Even if I stood a chance of winning, I wouldn't fancy entering one in my home county. Let's face it, Miss Wheelchair Essex doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

While some women are not particularly enamoured by the idea of beauty competitions, the Miss Wheelchair contests do at least have a laudable aim - to highlight the fact that just because a woman uses a wheelchair doesn't mean she has to be an ugly frump. Disabled women can have just as much flair and charisma as able-bodied women yet, up until comparatively recently, it was common for disabled women to be portrayed in the media as asexual and dowdy. Little attention was paid by designers to the desires of the fashion-conscious disabled woman.

Thankfully, attitudes are now changing. Britain's Missing Top Model on BBC3 highlighted that there are some very beautiful disabled women out there. This award-winning series followed eight young disabled women as they competed to break into the modelling industry. And last autumn Channel 4 actively looked for disabled people to take part in the fifth series of Gok Wan's How to Look Good Naked, the fashion programme that "shows us how to look great with our clothes on and off". Perhaps, in time, more fashion and personal makeover programmes will feature disabled people.

Clothes designers too have begun to realise that there is a demand amongst disabled women for trendy, high-quality garments. One important sign of progress was the pioneering fashion show In Our Fashion which took place in 2000. Organised by Artsline, London's arts and entertainment information service for disabled people, it set out to explore disabled people's contribution to fashion and to encourage more disabled people to become involved in the industry. Participants included top designers like Red or Dead, Helen David, English Eccentrics and Marks & Spencer.

Sadly, there's still a long way to go. How often these days do you see disabled women in the style sections of national newspapers? Once in a blue moon, at best. If you read only fashion magazines you'd gain the impression that disabled women don't exist. As Red or Dead's Wayne Hemingway is quoted as saying: "Fashion needs a kick up the arse. The fashion industry needs to be more accepting and adopt a more ethical stance on who it dresses and how. Fashion has always been an extension of personality, and fashion styles need to be created which reflect the richness of disabled people's lives."

As well as ignorance and prejudice, the other major obstacle facing disabled people wanting a decent choice of clothes is the economics of the fashion industry. All human beings vary in their dimensions but disabled people especially come in all shapes and sizes. How can clothes manufacturers produce garments that cater for the wide range of bodies in the real world?

Technology might one day provide a solution. Surely in this era of space travel, iPods and the mapping of the human genome, it must soon be possible to make well fitted clothes for disabled people at the same price as mass produced clothes? In theory, this would involve electronically scanning a person's body to obtain their measurements, entering this data into a computer and linking the computer to a manufacturing device. This should enable you to create a made-to-measure piece of clothing at a reasonable cost. That's the theory, anyway. Whether it ever becomes reality is another matter.

Even when technology exists, it doesn't always get used. Six years ago a company came up with a fashion collection for disabled people made from a temperature-regulating fabric originally developed by NASA. Using embedded sensors, the fabric enables its wearer to stay at roughly a constant temperature as the environment around them becomes warmer or cooler. Controlling your temperature is an issue for many disabled people, including those with spinal cord injuries. Despite the fact the fabric won a design award, I've not seen it mentioned in any clothes shops or catalogues since then.

While we must wait for technology to come to our rescue, fashion stores could help straight away by offering disabled customers a more accessible service. Wheelchair users like myself can find clothes shopping is hampered by display racks that are too high, narrow aisles, too little space in fitting rooms and a lack of understanding by staff. And until the mainstream fashion industry sells clothes that fit disabled people perfectly, it would also be useful for shops to offer a cheap alteration service.

When I go clothes shopping, I look for items which meet three criteria. Firstly, clothes must be easy for my carers to put on me and remove - I don't want my getting up routine to turn into some great Herculean struggle since it takes long enough as it is. Secondly, items mustn't make the process of going to the toilet more complicated. And thirdly, clothes must work with the body brace I have to wear all the time I'm in my wheelchair to stop myself slumping.

Made of plastic that's been moulded to the shape of my body, the brace reaches from my armpits down to my hips, and does up with Velcro straps at the front. There have been occasions when carers have referred to it as a "corset", which makes me feel as if I'm a figure in a period drama. My brace is a very effective device for keeping me warm - something I appreciate in the winter but which is considerably less welcome in the summer. During heatwaves, my brace is like a portable sauna.

So what are the practical implications of these three criteria? For a start, I don't buy dresses because they are difficult for me to get on. When I was a bridesmaid, my skirt was separate from the top half of the outfit even though in the photos it looks as if I'm wearing a dress. My carers mostly dress me while I'm lying down, which means I prefer garments which fasten at the front rather than the back. As putting a jumper on me or taking it off while I'm sitting in my wheelchair is a major challenge, I usually wear cardigans instead. Trousers aren't practical when I go to the loo, so I always wear skirts. But very long or tight skirts are also out of the question (except on special occasions) because they too can cause problems with toileting.

Although my body is a size eight or 10, my clothes have to be at least a size 12 so that they fit over my body brace. For the same reason, skirts must be elasticated around the waist. Tops with low necklines must be avoided otherwise my brace becomes visible. It might be a vital piece of equipment, but it doesn't look very fetching and I've no wish to show it off to the world.

Some women might resent these restrictions on what they can wear, but I can honestly say it doesn't bother me in the slightest. I've never been interested in fashion and the whole business of changing one's image. Shopping for clothes is not an activity I particularly relish. When I was growing up my mother usually had to drag me clothes shopping and I'm still happy for her to buy items for me when she's in town. It saves me the hassle of having to go traipsing around shops myself. Luckily, she knows my tastes well. As for my hairstyle, most of the time it conforms to the "pulled through a hedge backwards" design.

Disabled people have tended to be stereotyped as always wearing tracksuit bottoms and being wrapped in tartan rugs. Well, although I wouldn't touch tracksuit bottoms with a barge pole, I freely admit to using a tartan rug to keep my legs warm outdoors. I don't care if it makes me look like I've escaped from an old people's home. Sitting on Chelmsford station at 7.30 am on a winter's morning, my priority is avoiding frostbite, not being stylish and elegant.

I have one final, even more heretical confession to make. Fashion experts should brace themselves for this one. I'm possibly the only 32-year-old woman in the country who has never worn make-up. At this point I'd like to be able to claim that my lifelong boycott of make-up is a grand political feminist statement. But actually it owes more to the fact that there are other things I would rather do than apply chemicals to my face. Why waste time putting on make-up when you could devote those precious minutes to reading a good novel? As far as I'm concerned, foundation is what a building has. Mascara would only be of interest to me if it turned out to be the name of a Russian ballet dancer or a character in Up Pompeii.

But just because I have spent the whole of my life trying not to be fashionable doesn't mean I don't support the right of other disabled women to look stunning and beautiful. Disabled people should have as much scope to make choices about their appearance and to express their individuality as able-bodied people. And even I refuse to have a wardrobe full of Velcro-fastened, wipe-clean, clinical clothes in seven different shades of beige, which is what some occupational therapists seemed to expect disabled people to wear until comparatively recently.

Retailers and designers need to understand that disabled women want clothes which are both practical and stylish, comfortable as well as aesthetically pleasing. Fashion and disability don't have to be mutually exclusive. Most importantly, we all need to challenge conventional notions of attractiveness. We need to expand our concept of what beauty is. Society's view of what constitutes a beautiful woman has changed in the past. After all, in the 18th century it was fashionable for women to be fat (because it was an indicator of wealth). Attitudes should change again.

In my view, a wheelchair user or a woman of short stature can be just as attractive as a six foot tall able-bodied model. In fact, I would argue that the physically disabled women I know are more beautiful than the size zero, anorexic-looking models I've seen walking down the catwalks at the leading international fashion shows. Those involved in the fashion world shouldn't forget that one of the most beautiful women in art is the Venus de Milo - a woman with no arms.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.