“The main thing is not to be afraid to be yourself and to not be afraid that it is difficult,” says Oksana Kononets, a model at Ukraine’s first modeling agency for the disabled.
Since July, Kononets and 27 other aspiring disabled models in the eastern city of Kharkiv have been attending lessons about how to walk the catwalk or handle a photo shoot, and about the history of fashion.
All this has been possible through Creavita, a project aimed at changing negative stereotypes about people with special needs as well as at giving them an opportunity to break into the body-conscious world of modeling.
Olena Shingareva, а 47-year-old senior official in Kharkiv’s city government, came up with the idea for IN Model Agency when she was invited to attend a photo casting for people with disabilities. She submitted her plans to a municipal competition for innovative investment projects and was awarded funds to run the three-month program in the rehearsal hall of the local opera.
The fact that Shingareva sits on the city government’s executive council did not appear to be a disqualifying factor for the competition.
Shingareva, who is disabled herself, hopes that her initiative will help create fresh dialogue about disabilities and improve the integration of disabled Ukrainians within Ukrainian society.
Around 2.6 million Ukrainians (about 6 percent of the population) are classified as having disabilities, according to official data.
The Ukrainian parliament only voted in 2018 to stop using “invalid” as the official term for the disabled.
Facilities to accommodate these Ukrainians’ needs remain limited. Many cities have limited infrastructure for those in wheelchairs. (A map on the non-profit site Dostupnoua.org shows country-wide options for accessibility.)
As of 2016, for example, only a quarter of the country’s 17,000 secondary schools had wheelchair-friendly access to the first floor, according to the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Far fewer – 91 – provided disabled access to the second floor.
Still, opportunities exist to move beyond those restrictions. Ukraine finished sixth in the 2018 Winter Paralympics, winning 22 medals.
For Shingareva's students, the chance to participate in this year's Kharkiv Fashion Week ranks as a similar chance to succeed.