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Getting a fashion fix as a disabled model

Disability and fashion: Giving people something to stare at

Caitlin Leigh and Brinston Tchana were both young adults when they became disabled and started using wheelchairs. Caitlin loved experimenting with her hair before developing alopecia, at which point she shaved it all off. She started using a wheelchair to remain safe when she has a seizure. Brinston was about to sign as a professional footballer when he was paralysed in a car crash.

Both felt their identities had been stripped away when they became disabled and were fed up of people looking at them, so they decided to get into fashion and really give people something to stare at. It’s lead to top modelling jobs for them.

This podcast might be about fashion but it's the deepest disability dive you'll hear before 2020 arrives. Enjoy.

Presented by Natasha Lipman.

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20 minutes

Transcript: Getting a fashion fix as a disabled model

 This is a full transcript of Getting a fashion fix as a disabled model as first broadcast on 12 December 2019 and presented by Natasha Lipman
CAITLIN - If I'm just wearing normal, comfy clothes people kind of see me as just a person in a wheelchair, whereas if I'm wearing something really bold or very expressive people definitely then think, oh okay, she seems like a bubbly fun person to talk to. 
NATASHA - She's an actual person, yeah. Heaven forbid.
[music]
NATASHA - Hello, and welcome to BBC Ouch. I'm Natasha Lipman. If you listened to our podcast with the amazing Sinead Burke you'd have heard her talking about fashion, inclusive design, and her frustration at having to shop in the children's section where they sell tops that say 'Daddy's little princess'. We're going to be continuing that conversation as we roll down the runway and speak to two disabled models, Caitlin Leigh and Brinston Tchana, who both say that fashion helped them come to terms with their disabilities.I became a part time wheelchair user nearly two years ago, and the impact that's had on how I viewed fashion and my own personal style was a real surprise to me. I went from being invisibly disabled to visible. Rediscovering my love for vintage style fashion not only helped me to feel more confident, it helped me to feel more like myself when the perception strangers had of me suddenly changed. I started by asking Caitlin about her personal style and what she was wearing when we sat down to record.
NIAMH - Hey, it's Niamh from the Ouch team here. Just to let you know, during the recording Caitlin had a seizure. She told us in advance it might happen because she has one every couple of hours, but once we checked she was okay and happy she wanted to continue with the recording. Now, let's get back to the podcast and find out what Caitlin's wearing.
CAITLIN - I had a really, really bad day of feeling quite down, so my mum was like, "Okay, let's just, you know, go to a few different shops, you might be able to find something that you really like fashion wise, and that might boost your confidence." And I found the trousers that I'm wearing today which are some plaid red trousers, and I can honestly say that they make me feel so incredibly confident, to the point where I've actually gone out and bought it in three different colours I think now. I'm wearing some Timberland shoes. Paired with the trousers they just look quite edgy and cool, so I thought I'd go for it. NATASHA - What makes you feel so confident about the trousers?
CAITLIN - I think they just balance out my hair. Without being out there it is out there because it is a buzz cut, it's not the norm style for girls to wear. Paired with some bold trousers, it just it looks quite cool.
NATASHA - A bad ass.
CAITLIN - Yeah. I feel cool, and I think that's what's important. 
NATASHA - And you look cool. Brinston, can you tell us what you're wearing today?
BRINSTON - I'm wearing this leather jacket. I love jackets because they kind of like cover me a lot, and I like to be well covered, because I have tattoos like all over my body. A lot of people don't take tattoos pretty well so I just like to cover just in case. This one as well, actually it's a brown jacket and it matches my skin colour, and my hair colour as well, and when I saw it I just like completely fell in love with it, basically just because it covers me a lot. Now everyone won't look at my tattoos anymore and be like, oh maybe that's why he's in a wheelchair. 
NATASHA - Do you feel that's something that people think when they see your tattoos, that it could be part of the reason that you're in a wheelchair for whatever reason?
BRINSTON - Yes, I've had some people ask me about that. They were like, "Have you been in a gang as well?" I'm like, "No." I grew up in Spain. Most of my life it was just football till the age of 16. I was about to sign a contract with this big club in Spain called Atlético de Madrid, but I just needed me to be 17 to be able to sign it myself. It was so exciting, I was like yeah, the next day I'm going to start playing professional football. Just a month after being 17 I had a car accident. I was coming back from a nightclub with my friends and we were just walking back home and this guy, he came from behind, like with his car, and he was drunk and he just crashed into us. One of my friends died in the accident straight away, I was left in a wheelchair. Your life changes in just a second. I was down in the road, I didn't know what had happened, blood was everywhere, I was just like so confused. The next minute I went into a coma for a week. After I woke up I just realised that my friend died. It was really hard to accept it. After that I had to be in the hospital for ten months, just to figure out how your body works, because when you have like spinal damage your body works completely differently. So I was trying to regain strength, mobility, by myself and after those ten months I finally got to go back home.Going back home where your house is not adapted, my room was upstairs, so I haven't gone back to my room since then. My room was still a mess. My dad hasn't cleaned it up because obviously my dad wasn't expecting me, or my mum wasn't expecting me to be in a wheelchair, so they were like, "When you come back from the hospital you've got to clean up your room."
NATASHA - Do you feel that the style that you have is influenced by the fact that you're in a wheelchair and the perception that people have of you because of your tattoos?
BRINSTON - I would say yes. The style I actually pick right now is because of the wheelchair. If I'm just dressed casual, tracksuit on, and when I go out people just look at me and think I'm homeless or something. The other day actually I went to Birmingham city centre and I think the weather actually had a little bit to do with this, but it was raining, it was cold, so I just had on my tracksuit, I didn't have a big jacket on me, I just had a small jacket on me, so I was like waiting for my friends and stuff. I just sat on the corner shivering and stuff, so this dude came close to me, he just like gave me five quid. I was like, "Mate, what are you giving me five quid for?" And he was like, "Oh, are you not homeless?" I'm like, "No, I'm just waiting for my friends." And when I'm proper dressed, like have my boots on, have my normal jeans on, jacket on, nobody would actually come close to me and I'd be like, "Oh have you got five quid?" My style means a lot, me being in a wheelchair and stuff. It changed a lot as well. 
NATASHA - And it changes the way that people perceive wheelchair users or people with any type of disability I think. 
CAITLIN - Yes.
BRINSTON - It definitely does. 
NATASHA - I definitely find that people are more likely to talk to me than mention the wheelchair first. They'll be like, "Oh, I love your dress."
CAITLIN - A lot of the time for me I find that people feel that they can approach me more if I'm wearing something unusual, or if my hair's different, because they kind of see that as the talking point and then going on to saying, "Oh, okay so you're in a wheelchair, explain that to me," or, "Oh, you've lost your hair, explain that to me." So it's kind of like a gateway for me to get people talking and to actually then be able to raise awareness of the conditions that I've got.
NATASHA - Yeah, can you tell us a little bit about your conditions?
CAITLIN - So a year ago I started losing my hair. I very quickly realised that that is down to alopecia. A week after, I started having these seizures which were completely unexplained for just under two months. I had lots of different tests and trialled medications and stuff to try and figure out what was going on, and soon found out that I have dissociative seizures, which are basically brought on by mental health and by stress and anxiety. So the two conditions that I've got are actually linked, and subsequently I'm now in a wheelchair for long distance because my muscles just aren't coping very well with the seizures. And because my seizures are so unpredictable, I never know when I'm going to have one, the wheelchair is just a little bit of a safer option for me.
NATASHA - Before you became a wheelchair user was your fashion sense the same as it is now?
CAITLIN - No, not at all. [laughs] 
NATASHA - What was it like?
CAITLIN - I've always enjoyed fashion and always tried to dress differently every day, but I definitely think I'm more confident now to wear bolder patterns and to wear something just a little bit more unusual. For me, fashion is a way of me expressing myself. Before it was my hair, now it's my fashion. It just fills me with confidence. If I look a bit different I feel untouchable. 
NATASHA - What was it about your disability that kind of pushed you towards that change of perception around fashion?
CAITLIN - The minute I started losing my hair and I'd decided to go for a buzz cut I just felt like nothing in my wardrobe suited me. I'm still not sure if that is because of the hairstyle that I have or if it's just because of the way that I felt as a person, but over time I slowly started to find my way in fashion, and it's subsequently led to me having the job that I have today.
NATASHA  - And Brinston, before you became disabled what was your fashion sense like?
BRINSTON - I was a football player, but I was going to a professional part of it, so I was a kid, it was my mum buying my clothes. I didn't care about anything other than just football. So after having my accident obviously I couldn't play football anymore so I had to find another way of living, so as I said, I was going out just wearing like casual, everyone just looking at me. So I was like I don't want people to be looking at me that way, just because of the way I dress or just because I'm in a wheelchair, because if I'd actually dressed that way without being in a wheelchair it would be like, oh he's just dressed like that because he's a kid. But being in a wheelchair actually makes a really big difference, and right now the way I dress is my way of expressing myself as well. Sometimes when I'm at home as I'm feeling calm, I'm feeling safe, sometimes I just go with my pants on, just… I know no one is going to judge me, but when I'm out I feel a little bit I need to like show them that I'm not that vulnerable. 
NATASHA - Your fashion's like an armour I think when you have something that makes your disability visible.
BRINSTON - Yeah. 
NATASHA - I went from being invisibly disabled to choosing to become visibly disabled when I realised I needed a wheelchair, and overnight my fashion changed. I always loved vintage style pretty dresses, but it was like as soon as I was in the wheelchair people were staring so I wanted to give them something to stare at.
CAITLIN - I feel exactly the same as that.
BRINSTON - That's it. Like before me changing, getting into modelling and everything, what I'll do is that I like to do some cool tricks with my wheelchair. So when I see people staring, like especially kids, just do some quick tricks and show what I can do with my wheelchair. And they'd be like, "Oh I like your style."
NATASHA - Yeah, I think it makes such a huge difference, and especially, I don't know about you guys, but for me I spend 90% of my time in bed, so it's almost like I get to dress up and be outside Natasha, and the rest of the time I'm kind of unwashed in my pyjamas. So I make such a big distinction between being inside and outside. It changes how I feel about myself.
BRINSTON - Definitely, that's just what we're saying. Like when we're in our house we feel safe.
NATASHA - And do you think because you now present yourself in a way that makes you feel confident that has helped you?
CAITLIN - Definitely. If I go out and I look confident and I'm dressed confidently people definitely have more of a confident mannerism towards me. If I'm just wearing normal comfy clothes people kind of see me as just a person in a wheelchair, whereas if I'm wearing something really bold or very expressive people definitely then think oh, okay, she seems like a bubbly fun person to talk to. She's an actual person. 
NATASHA - Yeah, heaven forbid.
CAITLIN - Yeah.
NATASHA - And so do you find that there are any negatives for dressing the way that you do? One thing that I definitely find is that I couldn't go out dressed like this to certain doctors because they wouldn't take me seriously and that you can't kind of present in certain situations as being put together, because in some way that invalidates your health condition.
CAITLIN - 100%. Yeah I agree. I totally agree.
BRINSTON - Oh yeah, I was going to say that. Like sometimes when I'm like proper dressed some people asked me like, "Are you even in a wheelchair?" One of my most expensive items of clothing that I bought was Balenciaga. It was like 700 quid for shoes. So I went on a night out with my friends and this guy came up to me, he was like, "Yo my dude, you have Balenciagas on, are you sure you're in a wheelchair, you're not just faking it?" I'm like, "How am I faking it? How I wish I could be like you, just dancing around."
CAITLIN - I think the negative for me is definitely the fact that fashion is worn very differently when you're in a wheelchair. There's so many things that I can't wear because of my wheelchair getting in the way. And I think that's really frustrating and I know that that's all down to the person and their style, but I feel like there should be, or could be, a little bit more of accessible fashion for us to wear. Because trousers don't even look right when you're sat down in a wheelchair all day. It gets all bunched up, it's not comfortable, so I have to buy clothes that are bigger for me and then they don't look as flattering if I stand up or if I sit a certain way.I'm a festival goer, I'm like an avid festival goer. Last year at festivals I got so many stares if I wore something glittery or something a little bit shorter, because I think people just think, oh that girl's got some kind of disability, maybe she shouldn't dress like that, that's a prerogative or whatever. But to me that's just my way of expressing myself, I've always dressed like that at festivals. Why can't I, just because I've now got a disability, that shouldn't define who I am or the way that I dress. I mean, it does take time for you to have the confidence to think about fashion for yourself, rather than making other people feel comfortable. And I think that's one of the biggest things for young people growing up with disabilities, or in general, that they feel that they have to dress for other people, and that is not how fashion should be. 
NATASHA - You were talking specifically about the challenges of dressing for a wheelchair. Do you find it easy to go shopping for clothes?
BRINSTON - No.
CAITLIN - Not at all. I really have to think out when I'm going to go shopping because I actually find it harder now buying stuff online because I never know how it's going to look on me. But then with my anxiety and my body confidence at the moment being quite hard, going out shopping is a really hard task for me. I don't see people that look like me, so how am I going to know if that's going to suit me? If that's going to work with my wheelchair, if that's going to look right with my hair. The fact that disabled models are being shown in the media is great, but I feel like it needs to be the norm, it shouldn't just be, oh, they've got a disabled model on their books, that's really cool. No, it needs to be, oh, there's a disabled model as part of that campaign. That's awesome. But there's also other people. 
NATASHA - It shouldn't be a press story.
CAITLIN - No, I don't think so either. It needs to be that people growing up with disabilities or having disabilities later in life and having to slowly come to terms with them, fashion should be accessible for people. 
NATASHA - And there are so many different elements to accessibility and fashion, right? It's can I get into the shop? Can I access the website? Can I get in a dressing room? Are the clothes all too close together? The floors, the shelves, everything.
CAITLIN - A lot of the time the disabled or accessible dressing room is often like a storage cupboard as well. How am I meant to get in there if you've got a load of boxes in there or you've got a changing table in there or a rack of clothes? I can't.
NATASHA - It doesn't make you feel welcome.
CAITLIN - No. 
NATASHA - And I think the other side of it as well, which was something that I didn't realise as much, is back zips push up against my chair.
BRINSTON - Yeah.
CAITLIN - Oh god, yeah. 
NATASHA - Clothes falling in certain places on my body hurts so much more in the chair, and the lengths. And so much of that information isn't online when you're buying items and there's so many different elements that you kind of have to think about.
CAITLIN - The length of skirts is completely different when you're sat down. 
NATASHA - Oh god. How many you've destroyed in your chair.
CAITLIN - Oh gosh yeah, it just busts open. [laughs] 
BRINSTON - I don't have those problems, I'm cool. 
NATASHA - In terms of representation both of you are models. How did you get into it?
CAITLIN - In September last year I was approached through my Instagram page by Zebedee Model Management and they kind of just approached me and were like, "Oh, we're a modelling agency for people with differences, we'd really like to speak to you further." I was obviously completely taken aback by it. It was a massive compliment but I was also very nervous at the thought of it really. It took a little bit of time for me to come round to the idea of somebody actually wanting me as a model, but within three weeks of me being on Zebedee's books I had my first job with Primark. So I was actually in their spring catalogue and I was in all of their stores. And then worked with Sainsburys on their underwear campaign. You have to have some confidence to do that, but for me it was about representing another type of person and body type in the media and showing people that that is normal.
NATASHA - Do you think you would have had the confidence to do that before?
CAITLIN - Hell no. No way. I was scouted for modelling when I was about 14, 15, but it just never took off and I just never really had the proper confidence to do fashion in the way that I do now. Modelling, it gives me purpose, it gives me something to do, and it shows other people that this is a norm and that fashion is slowly becoming more accessible for people. And it's about showing young people in particular for me that alopecia is an okay thing to live with and you can walk out there without your wig on and feel beautiful. And my seizures, there's just not enough awareness around it so I just wanted to show people that you can still do the things that you love.
NATASHA - That's amazing.
CAITLIN - Thanks.
BRINSTON - That's so cool. Mine was like hell to be honest. 
CAITLIN - Really?
BRINSTON - Yeah. I started modelling three years ago, because after my accident I tried to do different stuff. I went to college and I did medical science, because I was trying to understand a little bit about my body and how it works now that I'm in a wheelchair. So I was like… Shall we stop or something?
NIAMH - Yes, we'll just leave it a minute.
CAITLIN - Sorry.
BRINSTON - Welcome back.
NATASHA - It's okay.
CAITLIN - I should have some water. I should have known that was coming because I was hot. 
NATASHA - It's okay. Do you need a minute?
CAITLIN - Okay, I'm good, thanks. 
NATASHA - Good. The fact that you guys are representing your communities and getting your faces out there is really amazing. What are your ambitions for your futures in fashion?
CAITLIN - I think for me it's about raising awareness of conditions and showing people that it doesn't matter what your disability is you can still look bomb, like you still look amazing. But as far as my personal ambitions I would love to go into London Fashion Week, just because I feel that everyone kind of looks the same. I think if you have somebody that looks a bit different you're going to grab more attention. And why as a designer would you not want to do that? It is really important that people are more represented in fashion. 
NATASHA - Awesome. And Brinston?
BRINSTON - My personal ambition is New York Fashion Week. Show them that being in a wheelchair doesn't make us less different, doesn't make us differently able. I don't like the word disabled to be honest. Like when people use the word disabled I'm like, are we not able to do stuff? Because I can still dance in my wheelchair, I'm still involved in everything, but I just do it in a different way. Basically that's what I want to show to people.
NATASHA - Well, I look forward to seeing you both on fashion week runways.
[music]
NATASHA - A huge thank you to Brinston and Caitlin for chatting with me, and to our producer, Beth Rose and studio manager, Niamh Hughes. For more disability content from the BBC you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook @bbcouch, and if you want to get in touch you can send us an email to ouch@bbc.co.uk. And don't forget to give us a cheeky little subscribe on your favourite podcast platform. 

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