CHICAGO — 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 4 feet tall, couldn’t find jeans or dresses in her size. Paging through Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, she didn’t see a single person who looked like her.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“That would have been a game-changer for me,” said Blake, a freelance writer and disability activist who lives in DeKalb.

“When you’re a teenager — disabled or not — you deal with issues of self-confidence and self-esteem. If I had seen someone who looked like me, I would have felt really seen.”

Now, Blake, 39, is a fashion role model herself.

This week she appeared in the annual Runway of Dreams fashion show featuring clothes designed for people with disabilities. The show, while virtual this year, is part of the glitz and glamour of New York Fashion Week, and included appearances by designer Tommy Hilfiger, Paralympics gold medalist snowboarder Brenna Huckaby, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen and YouTubers Shane and Hannah Burcaw.

Blake was among 24 people worldwide who were chosen to model in Monday’s show, which can be seen on YouTube.

“What I love so much about Melissa is that she is just a force to be reckoned with and is unapologetic about what the world should look like,” said Runway of Dreams founder and CEO Mindy Scheier.

“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,” Scheier said.

Blake, who has Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, had 26 surgeries before age 17. She can walk short distances with difficulty, and uses an electric scooter.

She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, as well as her teen favorites, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. She’s also known for a viral post on Twitter last year, in which she responded to trolls who criticized her appearance.

Blake, who describes herself as a “down-home Carrie Bradshaw,” met the insults with cheerful defiance, posting multiple selfies.

One of her posts got more than 300,000 likes, with fans calling Blake a goddess, a bad (expletive) and a powerful woman. One issued a “new super-hero alert,” and another offered six (emoji) trophies with a fiery “Work it girl! YOU IZ FAB.”

Blake responded similarly earlier this month, when parents on TikTok posted videos in which they pranked their kids by displaying images of people with disabilities and saying “this is your new teacher.” Blake was among the people with disabilities mocked in the videos, according to the Boston NPR news station WBUR-FM.

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

The Runway of Dreams show was virtual this year, so 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, all by Zappos Adaptive.

“It was a little scary, but they were really good to work with,” Blake said of the Runway of Dreams team. “They walked me through every step.”

Blake said she has always been interested in fashion and it was a thrill to be in the show.

Often, when we think of access for people with disabilities, we think of buildings and employment, she said. 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,” Blake said. “But I think 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.”

© 2020 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.