Someone told me I'd never model because I'm disabled. I proved them wrong at NY Fashion Week

Melissa Blake participating in NYFW 2020

Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women's issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)When I was a teenager, someone said that I could never be a model because I'm disabled.

Those words stung. Not because they crushed my long-held dreams of becoming the next great fashion icon, but because they just reaffirmed society's ableist thinking: That there was no place for disability in fashion.
Melissa Blake
This year, though, more than 20 years later, I modeled in New York Fashion Week (NYFW), where I got to wear an outfit from Zappos Adaptive and make a short video. It feels like a win for me, sure, but it's a huge win for disability representation in fashion.
    That win has been a long time coming (after years of discouragement) but it's arrived at a moment when disability representation in everything from Halloween costumes to holiday films is improving. I hold on to these cultural victories all the more at a time when the political landscape for many disabled Americans feels especially precarious. I'd like to believe that, although the pandemic has robbed so many disabled people of health and access to needed services, the necessarily revised approach to what we wear and how we express ourselves in a Covid world may at least bring about long overdue (and hopefully lasting) changes in how we define fashion and beauty.
      I've always admired fashion, but I never thought I'd actually be a part of it one day. Like so many teenagers, I grew up in the 1990s reading magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour, where the pages were filled with the likes of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. As I'd flip over each glossy page, I was always hoping to see disabled women like me, but I never did.
        Where were the models in wheelchairs, I'd wonder? Where were the people who looked like me? The reality was that they just weren't there, and this absence has as much to do with our society's beauty standards as it does with fashion itself. These strict beauty standards dictate what is and isn't considered beautiful and, by default, acceptable.
        Traditionally, disabilities have not made the cut, but thanks to organizations like Runway of Dreams, those outdated standards are finally changing for the better. Founder Mindy Scheier started the non-profit in 2014; her son Oliver, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, wanted to dress like his friends, but couldn't manage the buttons or zippers on regular jeans. She quickly realized just how much disabled people struggled to find clothes that were both fashionable and functional.
          Six years later, Runway of Dreams promotes inclusion in the fashion industry with events like last month's kick-off to NYFW, which went virtual this year during Covid-19. I joined more than 25 other disabled people in modeling adaptive clothing from Zappos Adaptive, Tommy Hilfiger, Target, Kohl's and Stride Rite. We each modeled our outfits in video segments we shot from the comfort of home and our "catwalks" were interspersed with our stories of living with a disability and what it means to us to see the fashion industry making space for us instead of shutting us out like in the past.