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'Personality and Pride': Disability and Identity Explored

In recent years, the U.K. has seen an increase in disability representations across public platforms. Whilst, individually, people have their own politics, one message expressed within the disabled community is the desire to be understood for their whole self, mindful of their needs but inclusive of their passions, personalities and voice that coincide with their identity - however, they choose to express it. In a world that is quick to label, having a space that allows you to express everything you stand for is incredibly empowering. A growing number of individuals are manifesting that space through their continued pursuit to live freely. This article explores identity within such a diverse community.

"There is a lot of talk about diversity in the LGBTQ community, but we are not diverse until everyone is accepted and given a platform."

The U.K. is home to 14.6 million disabled people (Scope, 2022), and some of them are Drag Queens. Drag has had its place in British popular culture since the sixteenth century. It is an art form that has androgyny and intersectionality at its root. Consistently blurring the lines between one thing and another, drag has a fluidity that allows expressionists to come into their own. Queens entertain, perform and embrace an audience just as one should embrace oneself - they beacon the scene and exuberate pride.

Wayne Allingham is a British drag queen. Allingham lives with hemiparesis, a condition from the Stroke family that causes muscle weakness on the left side of the body. Sugar Cube, Wayne’s alter ego, is invested in spreading joy and witty humour amongst their audiences and is notably less interested in shade-throwing. In an interview for Gay Times, he stated: "Drag is all about putting a smile on people’s faces […] if I’m going to a drag show, I want to be entertained!”. “We don’t want to be felt sorry for, because disability is a gift, but it’s about understanding."

Image: Gay Times

Waye has founded a variety of inclusive events and start-ups that contribute to bringing inclusivity to the London LGBTQ scene. His club-night programme 'Disabled, Queer and Here' was put together to create a safe space for people of ranging abilities to perform and be entertained by local drag artists. The club-night invites queens to don the stage and build work opportunities for a community Wayne has previously critiqued for its lack of work and accessibility for disabled groups to thrive in the scene.

'ParaPride' is another of Wayne's projects. The empowerment charity was founded in 2019, designed to increase the visibility and safe spaces for disabled LGBTQ individuals and groups. From his work it is clear that Wayne has not only expressed himself audaciously through the medium of drag, but he has embedded his personal ethics and values into his career.

Wayne Allingham stands for true community values. His continued efforts to keep up the conversation of disability and pride has proved to be a fruitful endeavour. The make-up of his identity combines honesty, inclusivity and pure glamour.

"I'm not here to teach, I'm here to just exist" - Tess Daly

The U.K. blog scene has been in full over the past decade. With a 214k following on Instagram, Tess Daly has created a lifestyle and beauty platform that puts her amongst the rising stars of the influencer world. Tess lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2, a paralysing condition that means the head cannot be raised without support and blocks the ability to stand or walk. Her lifestyle is supported by carers and through this she has built a thriving lifestyle career that expresses her natural gift for makeup and beauty.

Image: Tess Daly

In a BBC Three interview, Tess commented that the word 'inspirational' is not something she was entirely comfortable being labelled as at the start of her career, but she is coming to accept the fact that people do find comfort and inspiration through her work and feel represented. Commenting that she is simply somebody who likes to "get on with things", Tess's attitude speaks to a broader message that disabilities do not people from being outward facing with the world. It is not to be disputed that living with a disability and/ or a chronic condition has very personal challenges, and we cannot ignore the lack of accessibility in the public realm for physically disabled people.

In a recent appearance in a podcast for PrettyLittleThing, she remarked frustration at the assumption that her being a disabled person means she must educate others on matters of disability. Tess raises an excellent point with this. While she recognises the visual impacts of having disability representation, her identity is not something that can be used as an information pamphlet simply because she identifies as a disabled person. The general lack of representation throughout her online career has resulted in viewers and followers identifying with her platform not only because of her taste and personal style, but also because her transparency online is something that people appreciate and find real.

"Disability is articulated as a struggle, an unnecessary burden that one must overcome to the soundtrack of a string crescendo, but disabilities are multi-faceted- brimming with personality, pride, ambition, love and wit." - Sinead Burke

Teacher, writer, academic, fashion-lover, disability activist and member of the Council state of Ireland, Sinead Burke is a powerhouse whose candour on life with achondroplasia, the most common form for dwarfism, is partly what has enabled her to knock on the door of major fashion brands and flagship the importance of inclusive design.

Sinead is a gifted writer and public speaker. Her roots in teaching and academia jump out in her argument and dialect, discussing societal and systematic issues with depth and sparing the convoluting language. She has performed at a variety of public speaking events, including the infamous Ted Talks platform where she sparked the discussion ‘why design should include everyone’, a question that anchors most of her fashion-work to this day.

In April 2022, Sinead spoke for the Business of Fashion (BoF), wherein she discussed the importance of ‘Making Change a movement, Not a Moment’. She opens her talk with the line “I am Sinead Burke, I have a physical and visible disability, I stand a 3ft 5inches tall. I have brown eyes and I am wearing a custom Gucci double-breasted tuxedo and some pink, velvet fur Gamo shoes”. The value of accessibility is a matter that must be centred around people who understand what it means to be in spaces that are inaccessible. A point Sinead consistently raises throughout her public appearances is that it is not enough for brands to use social arguments as buzzwords for campaigning and product pushing. No brand, or entity, can become inclusive simply by taking the language of communities and not engaging with the flesh of their argument.

We see this perhaps most commonly with words like 'accessibility' and 'sustainability'. As raised in her talk at the BoF Institute, to behave accessibly and sustainably involves people with different (dis)abilities in roles beyond ‘the consumer’. Accessibility is making space for disabled people as colleagues, peers, directors and curators. It must go beyond the buzzwords we see scattered across marketing campaigns, it must go beyond tokenistic actions and welcome those with the passion, drive and talent to succeed in professional spaces. Sinead roots herself within her love for fashion and culture, she represents the multi-faceted woman with more than one agenda to complete in her lifetime. She trailblazes the much-needed tough questioning of systemic processes for accessibility with sublimity.

Image: British Vogue

The way we present our identity is an expression that evolves the more in tune we become with ourselves. To do that, we have to come face-to-face with who we are and honour it. Identity is proven to be an amalgamation of our life experiences both in the private and public spheres. Abilities and disabilities do, naturally, fall into this, they shape the way we interact with the world, but they have in many cases shaped us to think more critically, to understand just how great a thing it is to see people stand firm within themselves and achieve their deserved successes. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it aims to celebrate the multi-layered entity that is identity and showcase the diversity of a community full of personality and pride.


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