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Women with disabilities complain time and again of being made to feel invisible by the media. Progress is happening in some fields – such as acting, comedy and journalism – but at a glacial pace. "Even campaigns or content that are purposely striving to include marginalised women routinely miss out those with disabilities," wrote the Guardian's Frances Ryan last year, flagging the glaring lack of disability representation in fashion and beauty campaigns. "When this exclusion happens often, it eventually finds a place inside of you: a shameful message that you’re not quite like other women."
Twenty-year-old Devon Taverner-Hailou from Epping, Essex, knows how this feels. Devon has proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), a rare, non-hereditary condition which means she was born with no left hip or thigh bone; she is also partly deaf and wears a hearing aid. She is one participant in a new four-part BBC Three series, 21 Again, in which five young women from different backgrounds send their mums undercover as 21-year-olds in the hope they can better understand what it’s like to be young today.
There is this idea that people with disabilities can't be sexy or beautiful, but obviously they are.
Devon Taverner-Hailou, 20
Her aim in taking part? To break the mould of how women with disabilities are represented by injecting what she considers to be some much-needed raunchiness, and hopefully launching a career in glamour modelling. "There is this idea that people with disabilities can’t be sexy or beautiful, but obviously they are," Devon tells Refinery29. "I think it’s because of the way they're portrayed, they can be seen as quite boring and dull which obviously isn’t true."
In watching the show we discover that, to her mum Joanna Taverner-Averkiou's dismay, Devon had until then been living a double life online – on Instagram (@angeldoll_x_o) and dating apps she posts raunchy selfies, X-rated dance moves and barely there outfits, while keeping her full-length prosthetic leg and hearing aid largely out of the picture. It's only recently, since filming ended, that she's developed the confidence to show this side of herself online, she says.
"When I was younger I just thought it [her disability] was quite normal, because if my leg ever hurt when I was at school, I used to just take it off and I would just start hopping around the playground. I felt that people weren’t as judgemental, so I felt really confident about my disability then."
But when Devon reached secondary school she began struggling with how others perceived it, and her confidence took a knock. "A lot of people bullied me because of my leg and took the mickey out of how I walk. That was very difficult because I was made to feel like I was more different." So she began obscuring her disabilities online with the aim of "fitting in".
In episode three, Devon meets another young woman who shares her condition for the first time, the makeup artist Yasmin Senior, in an emotional encounter that inspires her to take part in a photoshoot with her prosthetic leg on show – which ends up being shown on a billboard in Liverpool. This experience, coupled with getting a lace-patterned prosthetic leg, was central to rebuilding Devon's self-esteem. She says of the patterned limb that she's grown to love: "I remember walking out of the hospital and just having it out, and people stared a little bit and then they just stopped, and it just made me feel really confident to have it on show and to just own it."
I kind of always wanted to be a disabled model to inspire other people with disabilities.
Devon Taverner-Hailou, 20
"I kind of always wanted to be a disabled model to inspire other people with disabilities, and obviously I hope that [the photoshoot] will," gushes Devon of her first experience being shot professionally. "I actually cried after we did it because it was so emotional."
She now hopes to become a glamour model and in doing so, inspire more young women with disabilities to feel free to portray themselves however they like. "I haven’t really seen other proper disabled models on a billboard, and then obviously when it's yourself, it's the most incredible experience – it was definitely the best day of my life. And it just made me feel like I wanted to continue doing stuff like that, and become a disability advocate in the media."
As for Joanna, having made peace with her daughter's penchant for suggestive selfies, she's warmed to the idea of her becoming a poster girl for others like her – even describing glamour modelling as "Devon's calling". "Devon would love to do quite a sexy shoot. There is nothing like that, you never see that, but there certainly is a need." She now also understands why her daughter was using social media in this way. "Devon was using social media as a way to be like everyone else I guess, and to be on an even ground to everyone else. She doesn’t always necessarily want to talk about her disabilities, she just wants to look hot and that’s it.
"At first, I thought her Instagram was a bit like, 'Oh gosh! It’s a bit racy!' and I wasn’t really happy. But then I realised her getting the likes and attention made her feel good, and so I can see why she does it."
Joanna is equally passionate about broadening portrayals of women with disabilities in the media. "Even if you look at disabled magazines, everything is geared towards 50 to 70-year-olds. There’s nothing sexy, there is never an attractive-looking model, everything is very brown and dull. When people think 'disability', they think of an older person in a wheelchair. They don’t think that there are hidden disabilities or that someone could be deaf, or that they might not have a leg or an arm. Devon is thinking of starting her own magazine for disabled people like her, young people with a disability." Watch this space.