Dori Newton suspected that when her son watched TV, he didn’t think about the fact that the boys in the commercials generally resemble him and his friends. But she knew that for her daughter Isla, it’s different.
Isla, 14, has Down syndrome, and it bothered Newton that her daughter did not often see other kids like her in ads.
So on a Saturday earlier this month, mother and daughter drove all the way from Hazlet, N.J., to Another Age Productions, a studio in Newton, to participate in a professional photo shoot run by Kristie Raymond, owner of the Clinton-based casting and talent management company HumanKind.
Raymond’s objective is to build a portfolio of faces, bodies, voices, and experiences that reflect diversity of all kinds — including physical and developmental.
HumanKind is one of numerous agencies nationwide that partner with a national nonprofit called Changing the Face of Beauty, whose mission is to bring more inclusivity into mainstream media and advertising. After all, Raymond pointed out, ad agencies and corporate entities cannot show models with disabilities if casting agencies don’t offer them this kind of model.
Isla Newton was one of many young people who were clearly having fun at the recent HumanKind shoot. “I danced. I modeled. I wore a dress with ruffles, and I made a new friend,” she said. “I did a pose like this.” She demonstrated with one hand on her hip.
With makeup artists and stylists trained in working with people with disabilities, the event was designed for anyone who wanted to take part in a photo shoot structured around their needs. Some hoped for future modeling work; others were just there to get a good professional photo taken.
“I’m no model, but I could use an updated headshot for my business,” said Keisha Greaves, a 38-year-old Cambridge entrepreneur who has muscular dystrophy and uses a large mechanized wheelchair. Greaves is the founder of Girls Chronically Rock, a fashion company that makes adaptive clothing.
Greaves knows that not every photographer is comfortable shooting someone in a wheelchair, but Raymond uses events such as this one to change that. Among the photographers volunteering their services for the day was Marcie Schein Randall, who opened the event with a workshop for her colleagues on how to work with people with disabilities. As owner of Sunschein Photography in Holliston and as the mother of a son with a disability, Randall has made a professional niche for herself in this realm.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable around individuals with disabilities,” Randall said. “They might not know how to interact or how to communicate. They might not understand the particular obstacles or challenges, such as recognizing that some disabilities require extra time or patience to get the right photo.”
For Becca Yelle, an 18-year-old from Carlisle who has Down syndrome, photo shoots with HumanKind are becoming familiar. She did one earlier in the year that landed her a spot on the runway at Rhode Island Fashion Week in October.
“Everybody was so supportive and tuned in to what the models needed to feel included, accepted, and validated,” said Becca’s mother, Carol Yelle. “As a mom of a young person with Down syndrome, it’s hard for me to step back and let her be independent. When Becca was asked to be in the fashion show, I had to dig deep and tell myself we could do this. After she disappeared into the green room, I kept wondering how she was doing. But then out she came, nailed the songs, did the walk, stopped on her mark, waved to the crowd, made eye contact. She just shined.”
Becca remembers it too. “I said, ‘Myself, Mom. I do this myself,’” she recalled. “I told my mom, ‘No help.’”
Tina Szocik of West Roxbury attended the HumanKind shoot with her daughter Gigi, 9, who has Down syndrome. “I’m thrilled to see more and more representation these days in mainstream advertising,” Szocik said. “It’s very different from seven or eight years ago.” Gigi appeared in a clothing catalog when she was younger, and Szocik hopes the photos might lead to new modeling opportunities for her daughter.
Encouraging these opportunities is critical, said Erik Kondo of Lexington, who is represented by HumanKind and has recently appeared in ads for Staples and Tufts Health Plan. Simply showing people with disabilities is not enough. As an adult who has been a wheelchair user since a spinal injury four decades ago, Kondo said that he sometimes sees what appear to be able-bodied extras plunked into an ill-fitting hospital-style wheelchair for a photo shoot.
“I’m interested in accuracy in representation, and the only way you’re going to get that is to use real people with disabilities,” Kondo said. “Advertisers say they want us but they don’t know where to find us.” Agencies such as HumanKind are creating a pipeline to fill this emerging need.
“Girls like Harper need to see other girls who look like them, and adults who look like them as well,” said Dawn Oates of Brookline, whose 11-year-old daughter’s mobility challenges inspired her to start The Play Brigade, a nonprofit that advocates for disability equity in health care, education, and recreation. Oates brought Harper to one of HumanKind’s earlier events, which led to her daughter being cast in a fashion show during Boston Fashion Week.
“She was so excited to pick out outfits and get her hair and makeup done,” Oates said. “She felt fancy as she rolled down the runway,” which is often not the case for a child more accustomed to drawing attention for her wheelchair than for her clothing.
But the value of expanding diversity in advertising is about more than making models feel included, Raymond said.
“People with disabilities socialize with friends, go out to dinner, drink alcohol, wear clothing, and buy shoes. If you are creating advertising for restaurants or beverages or fashion and you are not using disabled talent in your shoots, you are missing out on something critical. C-suite executives talk constantly about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organization. Well, it also needs to be part of their messaging. Because I truly believe the impact it can make could change the way we see each other and could ultimately change the world.”
To find out about future HumanKind photo shoot opportunities, go to youarehumankind.com.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.