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Proud To Be Token Wheelchair Girl

January 31 2011 | by

The other day, I did a photo shoot for a Target in-store ad — a display that will be on the end cap (the end of an aisle display) in Target pharmacies, come April or so. I got the call late on Friday night and it sounded to good to be true. Come to a private house in Beverly Hills, sit for hair and make up, shoot a few pictures and head home after a great lunch and an even better couple of hours listening in on (and participating in) great conversation with super nice people. It was worth it, I thought, to show up and be token wheelchair girl.

I did some modeling in my late teens and early twenties, mostly catalog, institutional and corporate stuff. I’d show up and be the pretty wheelchair girl, usually seated in a clunky “old person” wheelchair or slung demurely in a Hoyer lift — this being a sling that is utilized to transfer a person with low mobility between say, her bed and her wheelchair. I didn’t mind being token wheelchair girl – the pay was good, and to me it was preferable that they actually choose someone with a disability, versus paying an able-bodied model to ‘act’ the part. I had an agent who made half-hearted attempts to get me work, but in the end, a career it was not.

The model and author, Lisa Lilienthal

The model and author, Lisa Lilienthal

Flash forward 20 years (yikes!) and I get the call from Target, who had me on file after a go-see in August 2009, when they were looking for kids with disabilities to consider for future ad work. I took my son, Cooper, who has Down syndrome (and the cutest smile this side of the Mississippi) and when we showed up, the photographer was all, “Hey — two for one — mom, you get in the picture too! And who is that pretty girl with you – big sister, step on in the shot!” So somewhere in Target corporate is a file hanging around with photos of myself and my kids, and someone flagged me for this shoot this week. Great, I thought, I’ll go be token wheelchair girl!

Only I wasn’t. Token wheelchair girl, that is. As it turns out, my shot was essentially a head and shoulders shot, with nary a wheel in sight. As that realization dawned on me, I was even more impressed with Target’s progressive model search — they not only looked for my chair, but beyond it. Target, for that, I will be even more indebted to you than I already am, as you can tell by a glance at my AmEx statement each month. And I even forgive you for the helmet hair that your fabulous hairdresser bestowed upon me, saying that I looked “fierce.”

I also want to give a shout-out to U.K. department store Debenhams, the first major top-end retailer to hire a disabled model for a recent campaign.

Related articles: Sizing Up Disability in the Media


  • Dianne Witter

    I love this article – and the fact that Target was versatile enough to see that she’d be a great model for an ad that had nothing to do with disability!

  • Shira

    Lisa, bravo to you and to Target! It shows that while progress can be slow, it does happen. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

  • Kimmie Jones

    thats a fantastic story! Check out my blog sometime

  • Lynn Poole

    great blog Lisa …its coincidence I found this article after reconnecting with you!

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