Girl on wheels

Janet Osayande speaks to fashion influencer and disability advocate, Ellie Cartwright, about the importance of representation for the disabled community in mainstream media.

Cartwright introduces herself with a shy, but massive smile, making it clear to see why she is so successful on Instagram. Her likeable personality and positive outlook on life are almost infectious and at only 18-year-old, she really seems to have her head screwed on.

Putting herself out there has required a level of confidence and self-esteem that not everyone possesses. Cartwright advises people not to consider what others may think.

"No one will ever be your biggest fan more than you," she says. "With confidence, you must believe that you are who you are, regardless of what others say. All I can say is be yourself, because there is nothing better than being yourself."

Born and raised in Wolverhampton, Cartwright started her fashion influencing journey at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. With her followers, she shares not only the incredible fashion gems she wears, but also her life with Ullrich Congenital Muscular Dystrophy (UCMD).

Photographer: Tanesha Lewis

UCMD is a rare hereditary muscle disorder that typically manifests at birth or in the months after. Caused by a mutation in one of three genes that provide instructions for making one component of the collagen VI protein, providing stability and growth to muscle cells. Collagen VI issues have a negative impact on the stability of the muscles surrounding them, resulting in progressive muscle weakness. There are 60 different rare and extremely rare muscle-wasting conditions, with the majority affecting one in every 1,000 people in the UK.

Cartwright is an advocate for increased disability representation in the entertainment, fashion, and media industries. When she first started her account, her main goal was to raise awareness, but fashion eventually became a part of the mix as well.

"I put fashion into it for fun, and to show that we too love fashion, and we can be fashion models. There are all different types of bodies and different people, and we should not be put in the same category," she says.

Fashion means many different things, but for Cartwright, it means "being yourself. Being brave in your clothes, just being you. Fashion is all types of shapes and sizes".

"And shoes! I love shoes but I’ve got small feet so if anything, I’m annoyed that I can’t fit in women’s shoes. I also always wanted to go ice skating, doing jumps and that, but I can’t. I have tried it in my chair before, but it is not the same."

Focusing on social media and modelling allows Cartwright to feel confident whilst also being gentle with herself. She initially wanted to follow the academic route, go to college and university, but she says: "As I was getting ready for all that, I started thinking about me and what will be best for me, and at the back of my head I always wanted to do social media, acting and modelling.

"I never actually went to college. I did for one day. I had planned to pursue a career in the performing arts, but it did not quite work out. I decided not to do it and instead concentrate on my freelance modelling and Instagram."

Realising she would be unable to handle a nine-to-five job, she has found social media to be a perfect career choice and something that she enjoys too.

Cartwright has been in a wheelchair since she was five but has a positive outlook on life with UCMD. On her Instagram account, she emphasises that being disabled isn’t a tragedy like some might believe, but that with the right help and support, you can live life to the fullest.

"Growing up was actually quite easy, and I know it’s weird to say that. When I was younger, the only thing that I couldn’t do was walk, I could do everything else," she says. "My condition is progressive, so it got harder as I got older, and I had all these extra bits wrong with me that we discovered. It got tough.

"It felt like I was driving on a bridge, all nice and calm, and then the bridge breaks, and it’s going down."

Photographer: Tanesha Lewis

While the influencer appears to be confident and outgoing, she still has insecurities and bad days.

"I haven’t got any learning difficulties, but I do have problems with my motor skills," she says. "Like if I put on a dress or something, and you can see my shoulders, I wish my arms were straighter or my elbows would come down, and I do that a lot."

In terms of the industry’s lack of diversity and representation, she believes there is much more work to be done.

Disabilities are frequently portrayed incorrectly, particularly on television. Cartwright says: "The 'big people' need to talk to real life people who go through it just to get a bit more of an idea of how to do it right. Because they can get it wrong, and sometimes it can offend people.

"They should talk to people more, and we should definitely be represented on TV, in modelling, in magazines, and so on."

Apart from Instagram, Cartwright aspires to be a writer and has an idea for a book. "I would like to write a children’s book," she says. "It will be about a superhero, and she will be in a wheelchair."

Even though Cartwright has a strong support system growing up, particularly from her immediate family, she has had to deal with people who questioned her journey and goals along the way.

"When I said I wanted to move to London, people said, 'Really, are you going to do that?'. They don’t think I’ll end up moving there, but I am the type of person who, if I am going to do something, I am going to get it no matter what," she says.

Cartwright is a prime example of the positivity and motivation that can be found on Instagram, and her account demonstrates the sense of normality and realness that the feeds have been lacking for years.

This is from the Kindred. Identity issue, out now. Purchase the copy through the link here.