Angel Dixon was recently named 2019 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.
Angel Dixon was recently named 2019 Queensland Young Australian of the Year. Jerad Williams

Activist takes steps to challenge perceptions of disability

Angel Dixon is an activist and advocate for disability inclusion and human rights. But, one day, she hopes to be out of the job.

The 28-year-old model, entrepreneur and voice of several not-for-profits is also 2019 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

Dixon, like one in five Australians, identifies as a person with disability. In 2009, a spinal cord stroke left the then 19-year-old with an incomplete spinal cord injury.

She's blogged about "how it happened” but, nearly 10 years on, says it is no longer important.

"The challenges people with disabilities face don't have to do with their diagnosis, it has to do with the barriers they face every day,” Dixon says.

"I generally don't like to include that narrative of what happened to my body. How I acquired my disability is irrelevant.”

And that's her mission: to challenge your perception of disability.

"When you live with physical impairment or any kind of impairment, you do encounter prejudice,” she says.

"For me, there was just no other option. As soon as I started experiencing it, I had to change it. I had to help society move forward in some way.

"My gait, the way that I walk, is not typical. If I'm not walking with my cane or I'm not using my wheelchair, people think I am drunk and I will have comments thrown my way.

"Certainly, when I'm in my wheelchair, comments are most often directed only to the people I am with and never directed to me because people assume because I am obviously disabled that I am not able to advocate or speak for myself.”

There's a bewildered laugh in her voice as she recounts the almost daily presumptions thrown her way.

Recently she was compelled to make a "public service announcement” on her Instagram: "if you see two people running while holding hands, it's just me and bae [husband, Scott Dixon]. We can't keep our hands off each other ... because I'll fall down.”

She might be on the receiving end of them, but Dixon's fierce, go-getter attitude has seen her break down many barriers too.

Last year she became the first agency-signed model with a physical impairment to feature in a national television campaign.

"At that point in time, it just blew my mind that it hadn't happened yet,” she says.

That was for Target. She's since modelled with her cane for a bevy of brands, the latest Byron Bay label Spell.

Dixon's first time on the runway was in October 2016, after she and husband Scott, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles for a stint. Dixon found herself in a hub and heart of the disability rights movement.

"I was able to join some spinal cord networks and get to know people in my community over there,” she says.

"It was the first time I identified that there was a lack of representation in fashion and media. I reached out to the brand who was casting for LA Fashion Week and I was cast. It was my first real modelling experience.”

Angel Dixon has graced catwalks at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and Melbourne Fashion Week.
Angel Dixon has graced catwalks at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and Melbourne Fashion Week. Denis Leonov

That brand was Bezgraniz Couture, a leader in functional modern clothes and accessories for people with non-traditional body types. With a fire in her belly, Dixon returned to Australia a two-time international Mercedes Benz Fashion Week model.

In September, she graced the catwalks of Melbourne Fashion Week - the first time anyone with visible impairment had been represented in the runway event's history.

She admits the reasoning for her line of work is a "selfish” one but also came about by accident.

Dixon works as an advocacy manager for not-for-profit organisation Starting With Julius, which collaborates with brands to promote inclusive advertising.

"There are no real role models for people in this space,” she says.

"When you can't see yourself reflected in the mainstream media and the things that are deemed 'important' or 'attractive' around you, you can't identify with them. You don't think you belong.

"I realised it was difficult to find people to throw in advertisements so I often have to throw myself in some campaigns.

"It is really powerful for me to know I was being that role model for the other people in our community who I know crave and miss that in their lives.”

Dixon is also CEO of the Attitude Foundation, founded by former Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes to champion the fight against disability misrepresentation in the media.

"What I've learned over the past 10 years is that one individual is not going to move this forward but a movement will,” Dixon says.

"Nothing tangible will change for people with a disability until everyone changes their attitude. In 2018, humans have the most media and advertising thrown at them ever.

"Unfortunately, we're born into this 'non-disabled world' where we need to create more awareness of the fact that accessibility is a human right, inclusion is a human right.”

Dixon's currently working on a line of walking canes that will be marketed as a fashion accessory - making buying a mobility tool a more positive experience and helping change attitudes towards disability.

"I got sick of using canes that I don't like. I also only have one typically functioning hand, so to change the mechanism or the height of the cane is labour-intensive for me.

"Given I'm a young female who likes to wear high heels, I do change the height of my cane quite often.

"At the moment I am focussing on streamlining a mechanism that will be easier to use for people who don't have typically functioning hands or simply ease of use for everyone.”

Now in the final round of prototyping, she hopes to release them mid-to-late 2019.

The unexpected might have paved a different path in life for Queensland's Young Australian of the Year, but Dixon says she won't let society's perception of disability define what she can or can't do in her life.

"I was always the most outspoken child in the classroom, I always stood up for what I thought was right and good in the world. I was certainly going to end up an activist in some way... I just happened to have found this as my cause.”

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