Deborah Davis knows. At age 18, while driving home from work at a health club, she fell asleep at the wheel, crashed and injured her spinal cord so severely that she was paralyzed from the chest down. Six months later, she was lucky to regain movement in her arms and hands, allowing her to independently maneuver her own wheelchair.
But Davis’ story isn’t about tragedy or sympathy. More than 30 years later, the 50-year-old mother of two has done everything but let her injury hold her back.
After a successful career in corporate communications and human resources, Davis has shifted her focus to a personal venture that pushes disabled people into the limelight, causing the rest of us to take notice.
Davis is caring for three dogs at her Weston home when we meet on a rainy day in April. She’s nursing one rescue dog back to health after he contracted a nasty cold.
The blue-eyed blonde pushes herself in a wheelchair wearing a brightly colored maxi dress. As the barking subsides, we settle at the kitchen table, where she pulls up and I take a seat.
“Why not make it so people aren’t so surprised to see these images?” she asks. “It creates less of a stigma in general … then it’s not so uncomfortable to interview or date someone with a disability.”
She’s talking about images from her business Photoability—a stock imagery website that gives magazines (like this one), newspapers, websites, TV stations and other media access to a growing library of images to illustrate stories about education, romance, travel and more. The models just happen to be disabled.
Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people live with disabilities—the world’s largest minority, according to the United Nations. But despite this large number, images of disabled people are rarely used in mainstream media, Davis says.
“You could have 20 to 30 images and not one would be a person with a disability,” Davis says of advertising campaigns. “If people want to have a picture of little girls on the beach—why not use one of our images rather than another one?”
The goal, she says, is for tourism boards, hotels, restaurants and other lifestyle brands to incorporate photos of disabled people into their marketing campaigns. We’re trying to normalize it, she says. But she knows what she’s up against.
“The perception is that it’s not a big enough market,” Davis says. “But [companies] need to know that people with disabilities are consumers.” For every disabled person traveling, Davis says it’s safe to multiply that by two—a girlfriend, a husband or a child will almost always travel with them.
“There are more things that we can do than we can’t,” she says.
Photoability attracts models from London to Quebec to pose for photo shoots. But frustratingly, Davis says, most companies purchasing the photos are medically related—they’re already serving people with disabilities.
The hope is that one day that will change—that Davis’ models will make it onto major advertising campaigns, not because they’re disabled, but because they’re beautiful.
“The big picture is to create a movement where it’s commonplace to see people with disabilities—to see imagery where people are seen as equal,” she says