By Samanta Bullock
As told to Jennifer Clopton
At the age of 14, my life changed forever in what felt like a blink of an eye.
I first learned of my father’s gun when he fired a warning shot one day to scare off a robber. I was curious, and about two weeks later, I found where he hid it and started playing with it. It accidently went off. It all happened so quickly. I remember the sound of the shot being so loud – it felt like a huge swarm of bees in my head. Then I looked down and saw a hole in my belly and realized right away I couldn’t feel my legs.
People came running. My mother. The neighbors. My nanny. They rushed me to the hospital.
I was completely sure I was dying.
When I survived, I was so happy to be alive that I wasn’t even that sad about being in a wheelchair. I clearly remember thinking, “I don’t care if I don’t walk. I just don’t want to die.” It’s very weird – this feeling that you only have 5 minutes or 10 minutes left to live. It’s very powerful. I felt like I had so much more I wanted to do that I tried to not even blink because I was scared to close my eyes and die. I thought I couldn’t die with my eyes open.
The bullet hit my spine, liver, and pancreas and severed my spinal cord. The wound left me a paraplegic, but I never had a moment of despair or self-pity thinking the wheelchair took something from me. My life did change, though.
Before my injury I was very active, playing both handball and tennis, and I was a model. I did my first fashion show when I was 8 and then became a professional doing fashion shows in my city. I loved modeling – especially walking the runway.
At that time of my accident there were no wheelchair models, so I had to give up modeling. I gave up tennis too. I found my way back to my sport first. When I was 26 I started to play wheelchair tennis and became the #1 player in Brazil. That led to international travel and soon my sponsors asked me to take pictures with various products for wheelchair users.
I became the face of a Portuguese company that sold clothes for wheelchair users and I was with them for five years. But in the fall of 2017 I started to think – while it’s wonderful to have this niche, I could and should be doing more. Fashion is for everyone. A shirt doesn’t just have to be for wheelchair users.
I decided it was time to start to work on fashion and inclusion and what’s happened since has been amazing. I now model for several brands and companies on Instagram, where I have built up a following as a social media influencer.
I love this work. But for me, the dream was always to return to the catwalk. In the past I was repeatedly rejected and told that wheelchair users couldn’t do the runway. But that changed last fall when I made my debut at London Fashion Week for Peter Twiss at Fashions Finest – finally fulfilling my dream at the age of 39 and returning to the place and the work I had so longed for. What a special moment it was. I tried to remember every second, every breath I took going up and down that catwalk. It was amazing.
I’ve since done seven runway fashion shows around the world, and I’ve been excited to see other wheelchair models appearing on high profile runways like New York fashion week. But there is still a surprise factor when it happens and I’m looking forward to the day it becomes more routine.
Models with disabilities should be everywhere that other models are – from runways to fashion magazines and big ad campaigns. We can’t and shouldn’t leave someone out of this game. When you look in the forest, the trees are not all the same. What makes the forest beautiful is that all the trees are different. Who would want a forest of only skinny trees or only young trees? That’s not the forest and that’s not reality.
Fashion is important because it’s visible. We all need clothes and choosing what we wear is part of expressing ourselves, our mood – our life. It’s important that people with disabilities see someone they can relate to in the world of fashion and I think it’s important for everyone else to see that we are here and accept us. There is beauty in every body.
An evolution is underway and it’s high time. Power brands are starting to embrace people with disabilities because they see a market that has long been ignored. There are now more than one billion disabled people in the world , and we have money to spend.
My 14-year-old self could never have envisioned all of this. Growing up there was no wheelchair model for me to look up and now I hear all the time from parents of children with disabilities who are grateful that has changed. They tell me what it means to them and their children to see me in a photo or on a runway. That is why I make sure my wheelchair is visible in my work. There is no reason to hide it. I’m proud to showcase it.
Those of us with disabilities need to be part of fashion so people can see we really aren’t that different. We only seem different when we aren’t there.