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.