How an Activist with Disabilities Went from Being a Role Model to a Runway Model

A disabled activist won’t let Twitter trolls stop her from seeing herself as she really is—a star.

At 39, Disability Activist Melissa Blake Is Modeling In Her First Runway Show At New York Fashion WeekChicago Tribune/Getty Images
Melissa Blake in the ensemble she modeled for the Runway of Dreams fashion show.

As a teenager in the 1990s, ­Melissa Blake was interested in fashion. Unfortunately, fashion wasn’t much interested in her.

Blake, who has a genetic bone and muscle disorder and stands a little under four feet tall, couldn’t find jeans or dresses in her size. Paging through Glamour and Cosmopolitan, she didn’t see a single person who looked like her, and it hurt.

“That would have been a game changer for me,” says Blake, who had 26 surgeries before age 17 to treat her Freeman-Sheldon syndrome. Because of her condition, she can walk short distances with difficulty but sometimes relies on an electric scooter. “When you’re a teenager—disabled or not—you deal with issues of self-esteem. If I had seen someone who looked like me, I would have felt really seen.”

Blake, 39, has spent her adult life trying to make up for that. She is a ­disability-rights activist as well as a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Glamour, but she gained a national following in 2019 after clapping back at trolls who made ugly comments about her online.

“During the last round of trollgate,” she tweeted, “people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly. So I’d just like to commemorate the occasion with these three selfies …”

In one of the greatest “I’ll show you!” responses of all time, over the next year, Blake posted a new selfie every day.

“Some selfies were serious, like the ones where I talked about disabilities or how I was feeling on not-so-good days,” she wrote on refinery29.com. “Some were fun and silly, showing off my love for photo filters. But each was a celebration, and each carried a message.”

Her fans went wild, calling Blake a goddess and a powerful woman. One wrote, “Work it girl! YOU IZ FAB.”

“I feel like every time I post a selfie or share something about my life as a disabled woman, that is representation that is going to combat this ableism,” Blake told WBUR.

"when disabled people are included, it sends a message.” melissa blakeAmong her fans is Mindy Scheier, the founder and CEO of Runway of Dreams, which showcases fashion for people with disabilities. The show is part of the glitz and glamour of New York Fashion Week and includes appearances by designer Tommy Hilfiger, Paralympics snowboarding gold medalist Brenna Huckaby, and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen. Last fall, Scheier asked Blake to be one of the event’s 24 models.

“Melissa is a force to be reckoned with and unapologetic about what the world should look like,” Scheier says. “Being able to put Melissa in arguably the biggest fashion event of the year just hit home how important it is to expand who consumers are in the fashion industry, or who should be on runways, or what we’re really representing in the word model.”

Since the Runway of Dreams show was virtual, Blake’s sister filmed her riding her scooter on a quiet street dressed in a graphic T-shirt, capris, and an oversize maroon vest with a fluffy fur collar.

“It was a little scary,” Blake says of modeling. But she’s glad she took the challenge. Often, when we think of access for people with disabilities, we think of buildings and employment, she says. But it’s also important to have access to what’s fun and enjoyable.

“Fashion isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems,” says Blake. “When disabled people are included, it sends a message that we deserve a seat at the table in all aspects of life, frivolous or not.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest