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September 17, 2015
by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Breaking Social Stigma at New York Fashion Week

September 17, 2015 05:41 by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

New York Fashion Week is not an event that is known for its inclusive nature, as couture modeling is often associated with waifish models in outrageous clothing that has become a media circus full of high profile celebrities. Nonetheless, it continues to harness a great deal of media coverage and is becoming an effective means of bringing light to issues. This year the Fall version of New York Fashion Week has among its runway newcomers an young woman who has been for the past six months working to redefine beauty. Her name is Madeline Stuart, and she is an 18 year old with Down Syndrome.

Meteoric Rise

Madeline "Maddy" Stuart was born and raised in Australia. She was an active participant in sports and cheerleading throughout her teen years, but it wasn't until her late teens that she made the decision to begin a eating well and exercising in order to pursue her dream of modeling. Maddy lost fifty pounds through healthy habits and with the help of her mother Rosanne Stuart she began working towards becoming a professional model.

In the spring of this year her images on Instagram and Facebook quickly went viral, as did her message of inclusion for individuals with Down Syndrome. She has nearly a half million followers on Facebook and almost a hundred thousand on Instagram, all in the space of just a few months. In addition she's quickly signed several major contracts with companies like EverMaya handbags and Glossigirl cosmetics. The highlight of her career thus far as been her inclusion in New York Fashion week. While she is not the first person with Down Syndrome to walk the catwalk at NYFW, that honor went to actress Jamie Brewer who walked this past spring, she is the first model with Down Syndrome to walk in New York Fashion Week. Her story has been profiled in every major news outlet from the Today Show to Cosmopolitan. 

Maddy represents the highest profile individual in the recent run of women with disabilities to be included in the once closed fashion industry, including models with skin disorders, prosthetic limbs, spinal chord injuries, genetic disorders and cerebral palsy.  

Social Implications

One of the things that Maddy has said that she is out to prove is that people with disabilities can be sexy and beautiful, and that they can be included for the sake of their own positive attributes and not because of any accommodations that are offered to them. The social stigma surrounding individuals with disabilities is a tangible and deep seeded one (Fulk, 2014).

Down Syndrome is one of the most widespread disabilities in the world, and it carries with it a complex set of societal expectations and attachments that affect a gamut of social issues from education to pregnancy to body image.  There is a serious conversation happening about how best to share a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome with families, a large portion of which includes sharing with families the wide potential of individuals (Hippman, Inglis, & Austin, 2012). When parents are presented with a life changing diagnosis, research is showing that a "balanced" presentation which presents both the positive and negative outcomes for individuals of differing abilities is an integral part of the current theories of diagnostic delivery. This kind of presentation both prevents trauma in parents and helps to destigmatized disability while at the same time offering a level of preparation for the challenges ahead. 

The road to this week, to this moment in the spotlight for Madeline Stuart has been a long time in the making. In the last fifty years, institutionalization of individuals with severe disabilities has been dramatically decreasing while at the same time there has been a widespread movement towards the inclusion model in educational settings (Carlson, 2010). That inclusion has wider implications for the families who live with disability every day. When the social stigma surrounding disability begins to abate, it allows for a lessening of the trauma to all those involved as well as improved social standings and potentially improve access to resources (Summers, Gomez, Baker, Corona, Blacher, Chiu, & Kersh, 2013). The notion that a diagnosis of Down Syndrome means living a life unfulfilled is being challenged by individuals like Maddy, who are proving that a rich and exciting life that offers a public and substantive contribution is possible for people of varied abilities.

Maddy is certainly making a mark on the world of fashion, and there is no doubt that her presence at New York Fashion Week is a positive step for individuals of all abilities as the perception of what is beautiful expands from the narrow definition that has so long constricted societal beauty standards - on and off the catwalk. Her presence is important not only for the forwarding of her own career and ambitions, but the exposure that her high profile inclusion offers furthers the destigmatization of disability.


Carlson, L. (2010). The faces of intellectual disability: Philosophical reflections. US: Indiana University Press.

Fulk, K. L. (2014). Examining courtesy stigma in siblings of people with down syndrome. University of California Irvine. Proquest Dissertation Publishing. 

Hippman, C., Inglis, A., & Austin, J. (2012). What is a “Balanced” description? insight from parents of individuals with down syndrome. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 21(1), 35-44.

Shammas, J. (2015). Down syndrome model Madeline Stuart appears at New York Fashion Week for the first time. Daily Mirror. Retrieved from

Summers, J. A., Gomez, V. A., Baker, B. L., Corona, L., Blacher, J., Chiu, C.,& Kersh, J. (2013). Family perspectives on child intellectual disability: Views from the sunny side of the street. Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Autumn Robinson is a writer with an MA in Special Education, and PhD student who lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina with her three young boys, special needs daughter and loving husband. She is also a former special education teacher.

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