Three years ago, an 18 year old woman from Brisbane, Australia made history while strutting her stuff on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. Not only was she showcasing beautiful designs, but in that very moment she was making history as the first woman with Down syndrome to walk in the highly coveted event and the world was certainly watching.
Now 22 years old, Madeline Stuart has modelled for dozens of fashion events across the globe, featured in many publications such as Forbes, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Elle, endorsed a number of products, launched her own clothing line and opened a dance studio. Madeline’s journey to where she is today is quite remarkable and living proof disability does not stand in the way of you reaching your dreams.
Like many people with Down syndrome, Madeline struggled with her weight growing up and with a lowered immune system, fell sick often with the flu. After losing 25 kilos, Madeline’s mum Rosanne put up the ‘before and after’ photo on social media, which went viral overnight. Her story was picked up by a number of news outlets and before Madeline knew it, everyone wanted to hear her story. Madeline’s desire to model was born after attending a fashion parade in 2015 with her mum and before she knew it, she was walking the global runway for equality.
Bursting with confidence and a love for life, Madeline says she always wanted to be up on the stage.
“Whether it was dancing, gymnastics, cheerleading or any social activity, if there is a mic you will find me,” she says.
“As soon as I saw the catwalk I knew it was for me. I wanted to be having fun and entertaining the audience. When you are on the catwalk all eyes are on you.”
Madeline says she never felt different from other children while growing up nor saw herself as having a disability, as her family always supported her to be herself and achieve her dreams.
“I was always just one of the crowd. Mum treated me like everyone else and told me I was smart, funny and beautiful every day.”
“She encouraged me to follow my dreams and never held me back.”
She says she does get frustrated sometimes with her limited speech but sees a speech therapist to help improve her communication skills.
After completing high school, Madeline received a school leavers package from Disability Support Queensland and is now a participant of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
“It [the NDIS] helps pay for my carers when I go out, attend gym, dance etc. and helps with my therapy sessions and attending Down Syndrome Australia Queensland,” she says.
“It has been a huge relief for my mum as she works a lot so now she has some time for herself, which is amazing as she is not so exhausted all the time.”
“Plus when I am working I have someone to take me, help me backstage and also help with my social media which I find confusing sometimes.”
“It has been life changing as before if something happened to my mum I would have to give up work, now there is a backup plan so my career can continue. I am so much more independent.”
Living in the limelight, Madeline has experienced and witnessed the challenges people with disability often face including inclusion within society and employment.
“The hardest thing is people not thinking I am capable. I am very capable and I work very hard.”
“I am no different than anyone else, I just sometimes do things a little more slowly or need instructions shown to me rather than lots of communications.”
She also says sometimes people don’t know how to act around her and employers don’t know how to approach remuneration for her services.
“The business community sometimes don’t see me as commercially viable and there is no benchmark in place for paying someone with a disability so they don’t know what to pay me.”
“Unfortunately, for a long time being accepted or included was payment enough and even now because so many people with disabilities feel invisible or left out, they will work for free which makes it hard to change the trend of us not being respected financially.”
“Most of my confidence came from dancing, so it seemed natural to try to help other people by starting a dance school and hopefully dance will be just as amazing for them as it is for me,” Madeline says.
Explaining why she decided to start her own clothing line she simply says: “I love clothes and everyone kept asking me whose designs I was wearing.”
Throughout her work, Madeline is advocating for change, inclusion and equality of people with disability.
“It is very important for people to see that someone with a disability is capable of many things … everyone just needs to be given an opportunity.”
Madeline describes her mum Rosanne as her main support, who encouraged her from the very moment she realised she wanted to be a model three years ago.
Rosanne is now her manager and takes care of the business side while Madeline focuses on keeping fit, attending personal training classes and dancing at her InsideOutside Dance Studio.
“Being fit is a huge passion of mine as I feel so amazing now I have lost weight,” Madeline explains.
Describing her daughter as kind, passionate and beautiful inside and out, Rosanne says Madeline is her inspiration.
“[I’m so proud of] the person she has made me, the lessons she has taught me [and] the humility she has given me.”
As a parent of a child with disability, Rosanne says it’s important to not be too protective.
“For so long I held Madeline back as I thought I was putting her in danger by letting her chase her dreams but then I realised she was an adult and when I was 18 my parents could not tell me what to do.”
“Everyone deserves the right to follow their dreams and live a full life.”
She says although it may be scary and there may be heartache, you must take the good with the bad and soldier on.
Rosanne also explains the importance of teaching adaptability as Madeline initially didn’t cope well with change.
“I realised change is just part of living so I started teaching her to be adaptable and over a period of time she learnt the skill and now life is so much easier,” she explains.
“She still has her moments but she gets over them very quickly and we move on. It was the best thing I ever did and the most important life skill I believe I could ever teach her.”
Founder of the Ford Motor Company Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right” and Madeline is the perfect example that the sky's the limit for people of all abilities.
“Work hard and make sure you have a great support network of people to help you,” Madeline says.
“Tell people what you want and don’t be afraid to try.”
You can follow Madeline’s modelling journey at instagram.com/madelinesmodelling_
*Disclaimer: Madeline Stuart’s answers were written with the assistance of her mum, Rosanne Stuart