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The story behind Visable agency

Shannon Murray

When Louise Dyson answered a call in 1993 the phone conversation inspired the fashion guru to launch a new modelling company for glamorous people with disabilities.

Sunshine Medical asked the Louise Dyson Agency Ltd if they could recommend some clients to show off their trendy new wheelchairs, but there was a snag!

"We didn't know any models with a disability and I immediately thought that was such an obvious thing for advertising - to be representative of the consumer," Louise told the BBC. "But until that point it had never crossed my mind."

It gave Louise the idea to start the Sunrise Model in a Million competition, a contest which would people with disabilities the opportunity to win a professional modelling contract – but how successful would it be?

Judging by the number of replies posted through the agency’s letterbox – more than 600 of them – very successful and the plans to establish a separate agency for disabled people was planted in Dyson’s head.

For the past 23 years VisABLE has supported actors, models and presenters with disabilities finding placements in the mainstream fashion and entertainment industry, but as Louise reveals – she had a fight on her hands during the first few years…

"Although everybody said all the right things I knew they thought I'd gone mad and no one gave us any business in advertising for a long time.

"We really had to make a business case as to why to include disabled people in advertising."

One person who benefitted from Louise’s hard work is Shannon Murray, the first winner of the Sunshine contest.

Speaking to the BBC Murray said: "I loved doing shoots but I wanted to put out a much stronger message, that fashion should be inclusive.

"I was very aware that the teenagers I was meeting in the spinal injuries unit were still young, fashionable, wanting to go to nightclubs and had dilemmas over boys but that wasn't what I saw in the media."

Shannon was paralysed from the neck down after a car accident three years ago, she’s grateful for the opportunity offered to her by Sunshine, but as she explained: "If I'd turned up wanting to walk down the runway it would have been a slightly different reaction."

Murray, who has already appeared in CLASS and Casualty believes when it comes to inclusively the entertainment world is one step ahead of the fashion industry.

"Fashion is about trying to sell an aspirational view but in acting there's much less focus on looks, it's what you can do to bring the character off the page, and writers are finally waking up to the fact that there is drama in disabled lives." She said.

Despite the fashion business still being ‘out of season’ Dyson says attitudes are changing, especially for actors with disabilities.

"It began to improve just before the Paralympics," she said. "That gave a boost to everybody regarding preconceptions and disability.

"The biggest obstacle in everything we're trying to do is that people still tend to think of a disabled role and who they can put into that role instead of seeing it the other way round.”

Clients on VisABLE books have starred in programmes including Silent Witness, New Tricks and Downtown Abbey.

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