A Model Who Uses A Wheelchair Is Working To Bring More Physical Diversity To Fashion

"If your whole team looks like you, that’s a problem. The world is so diverse, and that should be celebrated. "

A woman in a trenchcoat and a wheelchair poses for a portrait

Disability has been an issue that society has been grappling with, even as diversity is now at the forefront of people's’ attention — but Jillian Mercado has been thinking about this form of representation for a long time. The model and actor has used a wheelchair since childhood as a result of muscular dystrophy. As her modeling career took off, she worked with friends studying photography and began to notice the lack of physical diversity on sets. Now, she is using her platform to open doors for other creatives with disabilities who may otherwise get overlooked in the fashion industry.

This past summer, Mercado, along with her sister and a close friend, started the Black Disabled Creatives database in order to connect people with companies and brands who were preaching the values of diversity amid the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. The site offers a roster of creatives from all different backgrounds and will begin posting job listings soon. Mercado spoke with BuzzFeed News about this initiative in a phone interview that touched on the power of representation, and the need for greater discussion around disability.

How did you get started?

I had always felt like the loneliest person on the planet. I would go to school in a wheelchair and be like, OK, where are the rest of us? So I had this idea in my mind from a very long ago to expand representation. After an ad campaign with Diesel went viral, people were messaging me, being like "I always wanted to be a model, but I didn’t think I could be," and they were right. Unless it was for a hospital or a charity, the opportunities just weren’t there. I was pretty lucky at the time that the creative director and I met at an event and hit it off, and it went from there. I’m still pushing true representation, which is not about checking boxes; it’s about actually giving chances and realizing that this should have been the way to go from the beginning.

I had dabbled in being the creative director of a magazine called We the Urban, where I created photo shoots and editorials. I always noticed being on set, both in front of and behind the camera, it was always the same kind of people. It wasn’t diverse at all. It was really frustrating to know that my friends and the people that I went to school with are out there, and these magazines just don’t give opportunities or see beyond the box that is given.

When I was behind the scenes, I made sure to give opportunities to others and provide access to everyone, knowing that it is really, really hard to break in. It was just like, I had to help my Latin community out; I had to help my LGBTQ community; I had to help my disabled community. The fashion industry has this really bizarre style of hiring models who are really tall, really thin, and Eurocentric, and America is more diverse than that. That’s not what I see when I go out, when I meet people. So when I had the opportunity to mix that up and show that there is beauty in every single person, that we shouldn’t be limiting the definition, I took that opportunity in full force.

Where did the Black Disabled Creatives database come from?

I was looking through my stories on Instagram, and I noticed that a lot of people were posting about Black-owned restaurants, Black-owned bookstores, with the emphasis that they were Black-owned. I unfortunately noticed that disability was left out of the conversation.

In my lifetime so far, it’s always been hard to bring disability into the forefront, for reasons that honestly I still don’t know myself. As someone with a physical disability, I do my best to talk about it as much as possible. I come from a background of Dominican parents. My dad is Black and Dominican, so I know firsthand how different the world is for us out there — and especially combining that with my disability, I know of so many disabled Black people out there.

There was no way for others to really understand how magical this group of people is, and they don’t get the opportunity to really exercise and showcase their work. I chose to focus on creative people because that’s my background. I wrote down a few ideas I had, and it started as a Google Excel sheet, and I called out to people who follow me on Instagram, asking for recommendations.

I want to use the opportunities that are given to me to help connect those brands and companies that are preaching about being more inclusive, being more diverse, and being like, “Hey, why don’t you include people with disabilities in your workplace? If you’re a creative director, if you’re putting together a photo shoot for a magazine, how about hiring a photographer who’s disabled?” Just so that we can move the needle forward. We also need a conversation about disability because 1 out of 4 people have a disability, and it’s insane how we don’t talk about it.

A friend of mine who is a web developer was like, “Hey, I’d love to help you with this.” The website is fully accessible as far as disability goes, so there are apps for [people who are] hard of hearing, or if someone is blind, for that matter. I wanted to create a platform and a place where not only can creatives and brands hire these people, but people themselves who are submitting their work can get to know there’s a community like them, who are dedicated to their work, so that they can create a sort of community.

Are you coordinating with other collectives or groups on this?

At the moment, no, but it’s something that is definitely in our list, as our organization gets bigger and reaches more people. We are in talks with a few people about joining forces, but it’s literally only been a few months, so that is likely to happen later this year or next. At the moment, we’re all alone.

Can you talk about the Instagram account?

Social media can be such a beautiful place. It really helps people visually connect with other people. We did this account so that we can educate who may not know or what to learn about the community, to further the conversation, so that people can come across a post, feel that they’re not alone if they relate to it, and to know that there are so many great disabled people out there as far as famous people who maybe you didn’t know had disabilities, and also people who are living their best lives and need an extra push to access their to a larger community.

We hope that people can understand that disability has always been here, and we should not disregard such a huge group, especially since anyone could become disabled at any time. That is not something that should be feared, but should be accepted. And we hope that we can provide support that even if that happens, if things are not the same as they were before, they can still enjoy life just the way they are. We always come together as a community and help each other out. I wanted to remove the fear of disability, which, unfortunately, is so implemented in us, in representation, so I wanted to highlight these talents in the most beautiful way.

Last year, we really noticed the power of social media with any protests or social justice movements, and last year was really about showing images and getting into that emotional connectivity as far as how close we all are in reality. Especially with this presidency, everyone is saying we’re so divided, and in many ways we are. But if we stop and listen, we’re also so interconnected and intertwined. The great thing about this country is how much we’re willing to help each other through empathy and sympathy.

Any final thoughts on representation of people with disabilities?

If your whole team looks like you, that’s a problem. The world is so diverse, and that should be celebrated. There is not one type of look. It’s a positive thing to include those people and to speak up for those people who don’t have access. A lot of companies are really ableist and do things that impact us mentally, and that should be addressed. Our community is huge, and we welcome anyone who is curious or who is afraid, and know that we have a lot of patience and a lot of creativity to give.

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