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Wheelchair user in SKIMS ad speaks about the importance of representation

Haleigh Rosa posing for SKIMS adaptive collection. (Photo courtesy of SKIMS)

When Haleigh Rosa was 25, she was busy creating her dream life as a broadcast journalist in North Dakota. When she was in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury, everything changed.

“I didn’t know what my life was going to be and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to do anything independently, again,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Now 33, Rosa is a wheelchair user, an advocate for all people living with various disabilities and a model working for brands such as Off-White and Tommy Hilfiger. In May 2022, she starred in a campaign for SKIMS’s debut adaptive collection that changed the game for inclusivity in fashion.

On Tuesday, a product photo of Rosa wearing nude undergarments was featured in a viral video calling the shapewear company’s diverse offerings “ridiculous” and “stupid.”

“I was shocked,” Rosa says when she found out her image was being called out in such a negative way. “It’s a little more shocking when your body is the one attached to those words.”

Rosa is unbothered, though. Rather, she’s focused on being a positive representation, one that she would have loved to have seen in the wake of her 2015 accident.

“I did not see any campaigns that were showing people in wheelchairs, especially underwear and things like that. So, looking back, had I seen something like that, I probably would have been a little bit more comfortable easing into the situation, rather than having an extremely hard time figuring out like, what am I gonna wear? What’s gonna look good? Or can I wear this?” she explains. “There’s nothing like seeing an image and feeling comfortable and seen, knowing the brand cares and actually is going to work with someone like you.”

Taylor Lindsay-Noel, a former Canadian national gymnast who became paralyzed after breaking her neck at the age of 14, echoes that sentiment.

“I just felt really excluded,” she tells Yahoo Life of becoming a wheelchair user. “I couldn’t relate to my friends as much. They were the most supportive people ever, but it was hard to see them do things and wear things that were very difficult for me to wear or try.”

While people outside of the disability community might not understand the struggle, Noel explains how difficult it is to maintain independence while living with paralysis. “Our independence is often stolen from us, so in any facet of our life, if we can gain independence back, it is a massive win. And one of the things that might be taken is being able to independently dress yourself,” she says.Someone in a wheelchair might struggle to get a pair of underwear up over both of their legs and then scooch around to get it under their bum and then get it to fit properly.”

Noel points out that adaptive collections like the one by SKIMS take that limited mobility into account when creating more accessible materials and closures. It’s not something that able-bodied people would consider because of the existence of ableism, she explains, however, knowing that these options exist could change a person’s life.

“I was very lucky in my early 20s to meet a group of disabled girls who are exactly what I wanted to be like – very stylish and very fun and outgoing,” the 29-year-old says. “And that representation for me in real life was inspiring. But if I were to see that on TV, in media, in fashion at a young age, I would’ve been able to get to the point that I am now, earlier.”

While Rosa acknowledges that she’s “spent more of my life” as an able-bodied person so far, she admires the strength and support that she’s experienced within the disability community through the last eight years.

“I’m OK,” she says of dealing with the negativity she’s faced in the past couple of days alone. “But in the back of my head, I’m like, there might be a little girl or a little boy out there that hears this and that could really throw somebody off. But I’ve also been in touch with a lot of people in the disability community today and I have to say, there is really nothing like it. Everyone has each other’s back.”

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