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Courtesy of Ardra Shephard

Ardra Shephard is a writer and podcaster with a passion for fashion. A serious passion: She’s the creator and host of the Canadian reality TV show, “Fashion Dis,” that aims to put people with disabilities at the forefront of the fashion world.

Ardra had always used fashion as a means to express herself and continued to do so when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) more than 2 decades ago. But then she experienced “foot drop” — a common symptom of MS — and could no longer wear high-heel shoes. As her condition progressed, she started using a cane and, later, a rollator. 

Eventually, it didn’t matter what she wore — as Ardra puts it, “my disability was the first thing that spoke for me, and it had nothing good to say.” Tired of not seeing herself represented in media, Ardra hired a professional fashion photographer, a stylist, and a makeup artist, and incorporated her mobility aids into the photo shoot. She shared the photos of her “glow-up” online with the hashtag, #BabesWithMobilityAids. Ardra received a hugely positive response from the MS community, and that’s when the idea for “Fashion Dis”started to come to life. 

In honor of MS Awareness Month, we talked to Ardra to ask about her advocacy, her thoughts on accessibility, and of course, fashion.

When you realized there weren’t any role models or fashionable people out there with mobility aids, what pushed you to want to be that example for others?

The good news is that there are way more role models now! I think a lot of people who don’t see themselves represented in the culture end up becoming the example they themselves need.

Advocacy is about making space for others, but for me, it’s selfish, too, because I want to live in a better version of the world — one where disability and mobility aids aren’t stigmatized. 

What do you hope viewers will take away from your show, ‘Fashion Dis’?

Fashion Dis” is a chance for the nondisabled world to get to know some people they otherwise may not encounter.

So often in media, we see people with disabilities on their worst days, and so, it’s easy for “what a sad life” to be what a lot of people believe about disability.

Don’t get me wrong, MS is hard! Disability is hard. But life is hard.

I’m excited that “Fashion Dis” shows the world that people with disabilities also have “best days.” More than that, “Fashion Dis” positions the disabled community at the center of fashion and beauty, a world we’ve historically been erased from.

An important part of the show involves highlighting adaptive and universal clothing and beauty brands.

Meanwhile, every participant gets a photo shoot with a fashion photographer. We want to create magazine-quality images that can contribute to the tiny but growing canon of fashion photography that includes disability.   

“I sometimes let myself get physically depleted in exchange for feeling creatively filled up. There’s no high like the high that comes from doing something you love, and there’s a psychological wellness in that.”

— Ardra Shephard

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How do you protect your time and energy as an advocate? And as someone living with MS?

I’m not sure that I do.

When I first started my blog, Tripping On Air, I thought that putting my feelings in writing would help me talk about MS less! While the opposite is true, publicly unpacking my MS is therapeutic.

As an entrepreneur and a creator, a degree of hustle is required, and sometimes, I overdo it at the sacrifice of things like housework and even physiotherapy.

I think this is true for everyone, like, who are these unicorns that have achieved a balanced life? There’s a lot on my plate right now, but with MS, you’re always thinking, “How long can I do this?” or “I’d better do this while I can.”

The question I always ask myself is, “Am I enjoying this? Is this worth it?”

I sometimes let myself get physically depleted in exchange for feeling creatively filled up. There’s no high like the high that comes from doing something you love, and there’s a psychological wellness in that.

What changes around accessibility do you hope to see in the future?

When my legs were getting weaker, and I first started to need mobility aids, one of my first frustrations with accessibility was the absence of main floor [first floor] bathrooms in bars and restaurants.

MS is already so unfair, I didn’t want it to impact my social life! There’s so much to improve when it comes to accessibility, but I’d love to see changes [in] the airline industry, which is failing the disabled population on multiple levels.

That said, I believe real change can only happen when we start to think differently about disability, and that’s where storytelling comes in.

For better or for worse, media is our most powerful teacher, and I’m excited that we’re starting to include more authentic narratives in television and film.

Photo by Alkan Emin

Ardra Shephard is the creator and host of AMI-tv’s “Fashion Dis.” Ardra is the writer and podcaster behind the award-winning Tripping On Air, where she dishes about what it’s really like to live with MS. Follow Ardra on Instagram and Facebook