British Vogue: Disabled cover stars hope May edition will be a 'movement not a moment'

Ellie Goldstein, a woman with Down syndrome, appears on the cover of British Vogue in a red Gucci dress. Credit: Adama Jalloh

British Vogue's latest cover stars are five people with disabilities from the world of film, sports, comedy and fashion in a move the magazine hopes will be more than a passing fad and will bring lasting change in the industry.

Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful worked with activist Sinéad Burke and her accessibility consultancy, Tilting the Lens, to create an issue that spotlights disability activists.

The May edition features actress Selma Blair, models Aaron Rose Philip and Ellie Goldstein, and American Sign Language interpreter and performer Justina Miles as its separate cover stars, alongside Ms Burke herself.

Also featured in the edition are comedian Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy, and racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, who also lives with the condition and races with a specially modified car.

The issue looks beyond fashion and the final glossy images, highlighting how the fashion industry can be more inclusive, and adapt to better support the disabled community.

As part of the campaign, the magazine is advocating for updates and changes to studio spaces and systems that all form part of the process of making an issue of British Vogue.

Mr Enninful has described working on the magazine’s May issue as “one of the proudest moments of my career”, and the team behind it hope it will be a meaningful and lasting step forward.

Actress Selma Blair appears on one of five covers. Credit: Adama Jalloh
Sinéad Burke says she wants the issue that puts Disabled talent in the spotlight to be the 'start, not the destination'. Credit: Adama Jalloh

British Vogue said the process included a review of facilities at photo studios in London, for example, lift and ramp access, including alt text in features and social media, and improved audio description in videos.

The magazine said it will "retain these changes for future issues and releases".

The May issue will also be available as digital and audio Braille versions in collaboration with the Royal National Institute of Blind People. 

Ms Burke was first featured in British Vogue's September 2019 “Forces for Change” issue, and, in an essay that accompanies the photo shoot, said she asked herself if the changes she experienced in the industry after the success of the issue were exclusive to her rather than shared by her community. 

Artist Christine Sun Kim. Credit: Adama Jalloh
Racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, half brother of Lewis, races with a specially modified car. Credit: Adama Jalloh

In response, she found herself back in Mr Enniford's office overlooking Hanover Square in London discussing what would become the May issue.

Ms Burke writes of the difficulties with the practicalities of a fashion shoot in an ableist world.

"Our shared ambition was to create a disability-focused cover story with and for the disabled community, one made with the understanding it would put in place benchmarks and processes that would be embedded across the company indefinitely.

"My expectations were high. But as we started reviewing photography studios within London, we learnt that few could commit to step-free access from entrance to set.

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"Even fewer could guarantee accessible changing facilities, communal areas or dining spaces.

"Exclusion of disabled people is inevitable when locations are inaccessible like that, so we moulded the studio we picked for our shoot to the needs of the talent – we created quiet rooms, alterable make-up chair options and moveable clothing rails so that styling could come to people."

She said those on set felt "emotional" when the shoot wrapped.

"What we created on set felt so important, but we knew it was a start, not a destination," she wrote.

Mr Enninful told the BBC: “My tenure here at Vogue has always been about inclusivity and diversity, and people forget how hard it is for the disabled community.”

His memoir published last year revealed he had a visual impairment and a blood condition.

“It was so important I could relate – I felt real pride that people can actually speak up about disabilities and not have to hide it and how it impacts them,” he added.

“I think this is one of the most incredible issues I’ve had the privilege of editing in my tenure.”

See the full feature in the May issue of British Vogue available via digital download and on newsstands from Tuesday, April 25.