When Ardra Shephard brought home her first rollator from a medical supply store in 2017, she cried. “It was so geriatric and medical,” says the Toronto-based Shephard, who writes the blog “Tripping on Air” and has become a well-known advocate for people living with multiple sclerosis since she received her diagnosis in her early 20s. Even after painting it with gun-metal grey Dior nail polish, it still didn’t look like something she would have chosen for herself. In her mid-30s at the time, Shepherd was more fond of accessorizing with statement necklaces and knee-high boots than mobility aids. But she was determined not to let her disability affect her sense of style and managed to source a sleek rollator from Europe that looked like a modernist sculpture. To commemorate her new look, she hired a photographer, makeup artist and stylist to help her execute a high-fashion photo shoot that she posted on Instagram, hashtagging the photos #babeswithmobilityaids.
Out of this experience came the idea for “Fashion Dis,” a new makeover show premiering Feb. 9 on AMI-tv, a not-for-profit digital TV channel with programming that focuses on disability and broadcasts with closed captions and described audio for those who are hearing or visually impaired. “‘Fashion Dis’ speaks to the way the disability community has been dissed or excluded from the mainstream fashion and beauty industry,” says Shephard, who serves as host.
Each episode follows a different makeover-worthy candidate whose disability complicates their ability to purchase the kinds of clothing they would like to wear. On one episode, Melissa Asselstine, a woman with dwarfism who is tired of shopping in the childrens section, wants a new wardrobe to reflect the glamourous, sexy woman she is.
On another, Christa Couture, who has an opulent floral prosthetic leg, asks the glam team, which includes renowned adaptive designer Izzy Camilleri, to lift her out of her “mom rut” and create a polished, confident look that’s just as fabulous as the prosthesis she wears every day.
Finding participants to appear on the show wasn’t difficult. After putting out an open casting call, Shephard says, the response was “overwhelming.”
Unlike traditional makeover shows such as “The Swan,” “Extreme Makeover” and “What Not to Wear,” “Fashion Dis” isn’t trying to fix anyone. Rather, “it’s about giving a platform to people to feel elevated and celebrated,” Shephard says. “The photo shoot component of the show was very important to me because the canon of high fashion images that exist [depicting] people with disabilities is virtually nonexistent.”
One of the most progressive elements of the show is its refusal to pander to common tropes regarding disability. Instead of recounting a subject’s harrowing emotional journey, “Fashion Dis” focuses on the positive, uplifting elements of each makeover. We watch subjects learn how to put on the perfect red lip and shop for clothing that works for their bodies. The show is permeated by an overall sense of joy. In each scene, it is apparent how much pleasure each participant is getting from the experience. When short-statured Asselstine’s hair goes from basic blonde to flirty fire-engine red and she trades in her casual leggings for a vampy, body-conscious outfit replete with a sexy pair of pumps — an item she’s never been able to find in her size — her confidence goes, she says, “from zero to 100 real quick.”
“The disability community hasn’t always benefited from responsible or accurate storytelling in the television and entertainment industry,” says Shephard, who sees “Fashion Dis” as an opportunity to right those wrongs.
The purpose of the series is to provide much-needed representation for disabled people as well as showcase the wealth of diversity that exists within it. Each makeover is meant to be an empowering experience because it creates aspirational images that give other “people with disabilities examples of who they could be,” says Shephard. Beyond representation, the show “is a way to help encourage advocacy and a pride in the community itself.”
And this is only the beginning. “Hopefully we get more seasons,” Shephard says, “because there are a lot more stories to be told.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION