The Year That Changed My Life.

This article was published in Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) 4 Nov 2019.

At 24, model and writer Lisa Cox got a rare infection that put her in a coma and left her with multiple disabilities. Here, she relates how she was forced to hit restart on her life, and how she is playing her part in the adaptive fashion revolution
Model and adaptive-fashion advocate, Lisa Cox.

Think of disability-friendly fashion and what usually comes to mind is clothes lacking any fit, form or style, like oversized tracksuits or hospital pyjamas. But on the runway at Mercedes-benz Fashion Festival Brisbane this year, each piece in Carol Taylor’s MEQ collection was hiding a little secret: they had all been designed for people with disabilities. Taylor, who has quadriplegia, heightened waistlines for those of us in wheelchairs, switched awkward buttons for concealed magnets and replaced fiddly zips with ones that could be done up easily by someone who finds such tasks difficult, as I do. Like all inclusive fashion, each piece could be worn by someone with or without a disability.

I was thrilled to be one of the models for this groundbreaking moment in Australian fashion. Our industry has been sadly lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to representing disability. Brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Samanta Bullock have seen the potential in creating clothes with the disabled consumer in mind, and models in wheelchairs, with prosthetics and all sorts of other visible disabilities have been gracing the runways of Milan, London, New York, Moscow, Paris and Auckland for years. But this time it was happening for us. I wore a two-piece ensemble featuring a full-length skirt and halter-style boned bodice with a low front. This revealing detail was similar to a gown I had worn on the runway several years before. Only back then, I was walking.

I modelled in my teens and early twenties between two university degrees (in business communications and media) and working fulltime in advertising agencies across the country. I had been on runways and photoshoots for years, experiencing life on both sides of the camera.

In 2005, at age 24, I was at Melbourne Airport when I had a brain haemorrhage, followed by a massive stroke. It was caused by an infection (Streptococcus-a), and to this day, nobody knows how I contracted it. I spent the next three weeks in a coma and two months on life support. Pneumonia, heart attacks and uncontrollable seizures took hold of my body as all of my organs shut down. I spent over a year in hospital the first time and underwent over a dozen operations and procedures. This included heart surgery and the amputation of one leg, all my remaining toes and nine fingertips. I’ve since returned to hospital for a total hip replacement and open heart surgery. The permanent damage to my brain has affected my speech and memory, and left me over 25 per cent blind, epileptic and frequently fatigued. Osteoarthritis has set up home in nearly every joint throughout my body as well.

Except for my long blond hair, there isn’t much about me now that fits the stereotype of a runway model. In many ways, that’s precisely why I do it. As one of Australia’s few models with a visible disability, I have a tapestry of imperfect scars, and I’m proud of every one of them. Each represents a battle with illness I’ve fought and won. So this year, I took to the runway in my wheelchair, with my open-heart surgery scar exposed.

Physically, I look different, but mentally, I have a similar mindset to the one I had before my stroke. But despite my attitude not having changed much, I’ve come to notice society’s attitude towards me has. Recently, I asked designers for photographer recommendations, and the replies were coming in thick and fast until I mentioned that I was physically disabled. The responses stopped immediately. I still attend cocktail parties, glamorous events and functions, but finding something to wear is always difficult. I used to walk into stores and be a magnet for sales assistants. Now, I wheel into stores — with disposable income and a credit card, like many people with disabilities — and find it incredibly hard to get service. From a business perspective, it makes no sense to ignore disabled consumers.

At a fashion event a few years ago, I interviewed designers on the red carpet and listened as they spoke proudly of how ‘diverse’ their collections were. As a longtime inclusion advocate, I couldn’t wait for the show to begin. But as each model took to the runway, I became more and more disappointed. Yes, there was a diversity that was wonderful to see. But that diversity extended only as far as the skin colour, ethnicity or size of the models. While this is important, there was no trace of disability — which is a reality for one in five people (4.3 million Australians live with some form of disability). It’s almost as if these models represented a safe level of diversity for Australian audiences, who perhaps weren’t ready to see a model with a visible disability.

So why should we include disabled people in fashion? To start with, it makes economic sense. Valuing the disability dollar not only makes your brand more socially responsible, but it can also improve your bottom line. Designers want their pieces to be significant, meaningful and memorable, so they’ll often use their collections to draw attention to larger social issues such as sustainable fashion. But by representing those with disabilities, designers have a very real chance to not only create beautiful garments, but also break down stereotypes and normalise what is a very normal part of our society. For that, they will certainly be remembered.

Love life,

Signature of Lisa Cox

Access the Harper’s Bazaar article here: