CANE AND ABLE

YOUNG QUEENSLANDER OF THE YEAR AND DIS­ABIL­ITY AC­TIVIST AN­GEL DIXON STRUTS THE RUN­WAY WITH CANE IN HAND ON HER QUEST TO MAKE LIFE MORE IN­CLU­SIVE FOR PEO­PLE CHAL­LENGED BY PHYS­I­CAL IM­PAIR­MENT

Central Telegraph - - READ - WORDS: KIRI TEN DOLLE PHO­TOS: JERAD WIL­LIAMS/DE­NIS LEONOV

An­gel Dixon is an ac­tivist and ad­vo­cate for dis­abil­ity in­clu­sion and hu­man rights. But, one day, she hopes to be out of the job.

The 28-year-old model, en­tre­pre­neur and voice of sev­eral not-for-prof­its is also 2019 Queens­land Young Aus­tralian of the Year.

Dixon, like one in five Aus­tralians, iden­ti­fies as a per­son with dis­abil­ity. In 2009, a spinal cord stroke left the then 19-year-old with an in­com­plete spinal cord in­jury.

She’s blogged about “how it hap­pened” but, nearly 10 years on, says it is no longer im­por­tant.

“The chal­lenges peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties face don’t have to do with their di­ag­no­sis, it has to do with the bar­ri­ers they face ev­ery day,” Dixon says.

“I gen­er­ally don’t like to in­clude that nar­ra­tive of what hap­pened to my body. How I ac­quired my dis­abil­ity is ir­rel­e­vant.”

And that’s her mis­sion: to chal­lenge your per­cep­tion of dis­abil­ity.

“When you live with phys­i­cal im­pair­ment or any kind of im­pair­ment, you do en­counter prej­u­dice,” she says.

“For me, there was just no other op­tion. As soon as I started ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it, I had to change it. I had to help so­ci­ety move for­ward in some way.

“My gait, the way that I walk, is not typ­i­cal. If I’m not walk­ing with my cane or I’m not us­ing my wheel­chair, peo­ple think I am drunk and I will have com­ments thrown my way.

“Cer­tainly, when I’m in my wheel­chair, com­ments are most of­ten di­rected only to the peo­ple I am with and never di­rected to me be­cause peo­ple as­sume be­cause I am ob­vi­ously dis­abled that I am not able to ad­vo­cate or speak for my­self.”

There’s a be­wil­dered laugh in her voice as she re­counts the al­most daily pre­sump­tions thrown her way.

Re­cently she was com­pelled to make a “pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment” on her In­sta­gram: “if you see two peo­ple run­ning while hold­ing hands, it’s just me and bae [hus­band, Scott Dixon]. We can’t keep our hands off each other ... be­cause I’ll fall down.”

She might be on the re­ceiv­ing end of them, but Dixon’s fierce, go-get­ter at­ti­tude has seen her break down many bar­ri­ers too.

Last year she be­came the first agency-signed model with a phys­i­cal im­pair­ment to fea­ture in a na­tional tele­vi­sion cam­paign.

“At that point in time, it just blew my mind that it hadn’t hap­pened yet,” she says.

That was for Tar­get. She’s since mod­elled with her cane for a bevy of brands, the lat­est By­ron Bay la­bel Spell.

Dixon’s first time on the run­way was in Oc­to­ber 2016, after she and hus­band Scott, a soft­ware en­gi­neer, moved to Los An­ge­les for a stint. Dixon found her­self in a hub and heart of the dis­abil­ity rights move­ment.

“I was able to join some spinal cord net­works and get to know peo­ple in my com­mu­nity over there,” she says.

“It was the first time I iden­ti­fied that there was a lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in fash­ion and me­dia. I reached out to the brand who was cast­ing for LA Fash­ion Week and I was cast. It was my first real mod­el­ling ex­pe­ri­ence.”

That brand was Bez­graniz Cou­ture, a leader in func­tional mod­ern clothes and ac­ces­sories for peo­ple with non-tra­di­tional body types. With a fire in her belly, Dixon re­turned to Aus­tralia a two-time in­ter­na­tional Mercedes Benz Fash­ion Week model.

In Septem­ber, she graced the cat­walks of Mel­bourne Fash­ion Week – the first time any­one with vis­i­ble im­pair­ment had been rep­re­sented in the run­way event’s his­tory.

She ad­mits the rea­son­ing for her line of work is a “self­ish” one but also came about by ac­ci­dent.

Dixon works as an ad­vo­cacy man­ager for not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion Start­ing With Julius, which col­lab­o­rates with brands to pro­mote in­clu­sive ad­ver­tis­ing.

“There are no real role mod­els for peo­ple in this space,” she says.

“When you can’t see your­self re­flected in the main­stream me­dia and the things that are deemed ‘im­por­tant’ or ‘at­trac­tive’ around you, you can’t iden­tify with them. You don’t think you be­long.

“I re­alised it was dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple to throw in ad­ver­tise­ments so I of­ten have to throw my­self in some cam­paigns.

“It is re­ally pow­er­ful for me to know I was be­ing that role model for the other peo­ple in our com­mu­nity who I know crave and miss that in their lives.”

Dixon is also CEO of the At­ti­tude Foun­da­tion, founded by for­mer Aus­tralian Dis­abil­ity Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sioner Graeme Innes to cham­pion the fight against dis­abil­ity mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the me­dia.

“What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that one in­di­vid­ual is not go­ing to move this for­ward but a move­ment will,” Dixon says.

“Noth­ing tan­gi­ble will change for peo­ple with a dis­abil­ity un­til ev­ery­one changes their at­ti­tude. In 2018, hu­mans have the most me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing thrown at them ever.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we’re born into this ‘non-dis­abled world’ where we need to cre­ate more aware­ness of the fact that ac­ces­si­bil­ity is a hu­man right, in­clu­sion is a hu­man right.”

Dixon’s cur­rently work­ing on a line of walk­ing canes that will be mar­keted as a fash­ion ac­ces­sory – mak­ing buy­ing a mo­bil­ity tool a more pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and help­ing change at­ti­tudes to­wards dis­abil­ity.

“I got sick of us­ing canes that I don’t like. I also only have one typ­i­cally func­tion­ing hand, so to change the mech­a­nism or the height of the cane is labour-in­ten­sive for me.

“Given I’m a young fe­male who likes to wear high heels, I do change the height of my cane quite of­ten.

“At the mo­ment I am fo­cussing on stream­lin­ing a mech­a­nism that will be eas­ier to use for peo­ple who don’t have typ­i­cally func­tion­ing hands or sim­ply ease of use for ev­ery­one.”

Now in the fi­nal round of pro­to­typ­ing, she hopes to re­lease them mid-to-late 2019.

The un­ex­pected might have paved a dif­fer­ent path in life for Queens­land’s Young Aus­tralian of the Year, but Dixon says she won’t let so­ci­ety’s per­cep­tion of dis­abil­ity de­fine what she can or can't do in her life.

“I was al­ways the most out­spo­ken child in the class­room, I al­ways stood up for what I thought was right and good in the world. I was cer­tainly go­ing to end up an ac­tivist in some way… I just hap­pened to have found this as my cause.”

“IT IS RE­ALLY POW­ER­FUL FOR ME TO KNOW THAT I WAS BE­ING THAT ROLE MODEL FOR THE OTHER PEO­PLE IN OUR COM­MU­NITY WHO I KNOW CRAVE AND MISS THAT IN THEIR LIVES.”

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