Dis­abil­ity finds a guardian An­gel

A Gold Coast model is us­ing the highly vis­i­ble world of fash­ion to change global per­cep­tions of what it means to be liv­ing with a dis­abil­ity, writes

The Courier-Mail - - NEWS -

NGEL Dixon can barely con­tain her nerves. Dressed in de­signer cou­ture, the eyes of the in­ter­na­tional fash­ion elite will soon be upon her. She feels her en­tire life has been lead­ing to this very mo­ment.

Tak­ing a deep breath, she grips her cane and steps out on to the Los An­ge­les Fash­ion Week run­way to make her de­but as an in­ter­na­tional fash­ion model.

Dixon, 28, of the Gold Coast, Queens­land’s Young Aus­tralian of the Year 2019, has worked hard to make a name for her­self as some­one who “chal­lenges the per­cep­tion of dis­abil­ity”.

Mod­el­ling at LA Fash­ion Week in 2016 was an im­por­tant mile­stone for Dixon and it was the first time uni­ver­sally de­signed cloth­ing (by Bez­graniz Cou­ture) had been fea­tured on a main­stream run­way. Uni­ver­sal de­sign is the process of cre­at­ing prod­ucts and fash­ion with “di­ver­sity of peo­ple in mind” such as us­ing mag­netic strips rather than but­tons or zips.

In 2017, Dixon mod­elled at Mercedes Benz Fash­ion Week in Moscow, again for Bez­graniz Cou­ture. This year she ap­peared at Mel­bourne Fash­ion Week, mak­ing her the first woman with a phys­i­cal im­pair­ment to model in a main­stream fash­ion event in Australia. She shared that mile­stone with Mel­bourne-based model Jason Clymo, 23, who is a wheel­chair user.

Last year she be­came Australia’s first agency-signed model with phys­i­cal im­pair­ment in a national tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial with a lead role in Tar­get Australia’s win­ter fash­ion cam­paign. Dixon and Clymo are now both signed with Wink Mod­els.

Dixon, who has one typ­i­cally func­tion­ing hand, in­tends to take full ad­van­tage of her lat­est ac­co­lade.

“I al­ready take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity with two hands and run with it – or in my case with one hand – and the Aus­tralian of the Year plat­form is huge,” she says.

“I’m al­ways an ac­tivist first. Mod­el­ling is kind of the ve­hi­cle I used in the begin­ning to get my mes­sage out there.

“And peo­ple are in­ter­ested in the ac­tivism be­hind this award, rather than just my nar­ra­tive – and that’s re­ally im­por­tant to me.

“I’m not shar­ing a mes­sage that is just my own. This is a mes­sage that comes from a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who have been scream­ing for this (dis­abil­ity in­clu­sion) for a very long time.

“I’m re­ally proud to get this mes­sage out to as many peo­ple as I can.” orn in Port Mac­quarie, on NSW’s mid north coast, Dixon moved to the Gold Coast with her mother, An­neMa­ree, when she was 14 and at­tended Palm Beach-Cur­rumbin State High School.

Her mother, a re­tired real es­tate agent and teacher, was “a bit of a stage mum” who en­cour­aged Dixon into various mod­el­ling and stage per­for­mances while she was grow­ing up.

At 18, Dixon ac­quired a spinal cord in­jury with a di­ag­no­sis of Brown-Se­quard Syn­drome. But even be­fore this, dis­abil­ity had been a part of her life.

Her half-brother Garth James, 56, of Sydney, was born with a di­ag­no­sis of brain dam­age that has since been iden­ti­fied as An­gel­man’s Syn­drome, a chro­mo­so­mal dis­or­der. (Dixon says she wasn’t named af­ter his dis­or­der, rather “from the time she was preg­nant with me, mum said I was her an­gel”.)

“I am an only child to my mum and my dad (Richard James who died in 2016 aged 78) but I have Garth,” Dixon says.

“Garth has been through in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion, de­in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion and he now lives in a group home in Sydney.

“He is a very im­por­tant part of my life and an im­por­tant part of why I do what I do.”

Dixon and her hus­band Scott, 30, a soft­ware en­gi­neer, lived in San Francisco in the US for two years from 2015 and it was there she re­alised how far Australia lagged in terms of rep­re­sent­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­ity in me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing.

“Nord­strom (an Amer­i­can depart­ment store chain) has been in­clud­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­ity in their cam­paigns since the 1990s,” she says.

“It re­ally opened my eyes that Australia is quite be­hind. When I was liv­ing in the States I re­ally be­gan to un­der­stand how this could be done dif­fer­ently and bet­ter.” ixon is now a pub­lic speaker and blog­ger, CEO of At­ti­tude Foun­da­tion and ad­vo­cacy man­ager for not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, Start­ing With Julius, which was founded in 2013 by Perth lawyer and mother Ca­tia Malaquias whose son Julius lived with dis­abil­ity. She felt there should be bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion of peo­ple with dis­abil­ity in ad­ver­tis­ing.

“One in five Aus­tralians iden­tify as ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dis­abil­ity,” Dixon says. “Ca­tia was in­stru­men­tal in reach­ing out to Kmart and Tar­get about in­clud­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­ity in their ad­ver­tis­ing.

“They now au­then­ti­cally in­clude peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in all their cat­a­logues and cam­paigns which is phe­nom­e­nal. It’s not just to­kenis­tic. They are aware of the sta­tis­tics and they keep that in mind when they are cast­ing. One of the goals of At­ti­tude Foun­da­tion is cre­at­ing a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary se­ries … we aim to have more good me­dia fea­tur­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­ity.”

She is also cre­at­ing a line of walk­ing canes that will be mar­keted as a fash­ion ac­ces­sory and hopes they will be on the mar­ket by the end of next year.

“There’s a say­ing, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Peo­ple with dis­abil­ity are ex­cluded from main­stream en­vi­ron­ments in a lot of ways,” Dixon says.

“But we are get­ting there. Big main­stream brands are get­ting greater aware­ness that peo­ple with dis­abil­ity need to be in­cluded. That then puts pres­sure on mod­el­ling agen­cies to pro­vide tal­ent.

“We are mov­ing for­ward but we can still do bet­ter.”

CLASS ACT: Model An­gel Dixon; and (inset) with Deputy Pre­mier Jackie Trad.

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