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Clients Prove Disabled Can Make a Fashion Statement : Catalogues: Everest & Jennings' flashy Avenues line markets to the wheelchair-bound who want functional, but stylish dress.


The blue-eyed blonde gazes longingly into her boyfriend's eyes as he caresses her face during a romantic dinner.

The next day, clutching her canary yellow cap in one hand and swinging her sunglasses from the other, the woman heads for the beach before playing cards with a friend.

These scenarios are stock shots for fashion magazines, but they caused an uproar last year among prospective buyers of a line of clothing called "Avenues," produced by Camarillo-based Everest & Jennings.

The reason? Members of the disabled community believed the company--a major manufacturer of wheelchairs--was using able-bodied models in its glossy catalogues.

"Their first accusation was that our models weren't disabled because they look too good," said Gay Dawson, general manager of the company's year-old clothing division. "They complained we were portraying something glitzy and attractive when life isn't that way."

However, she said, the company hires only professional models who are disabled.

"We wanted to acknowledge our consumer is legitimate," Dawson said. "We wanted to appeal to them the same way fashion magazines appeal to the able-bodied--by hiring professional models."

For its efforts, Everest & Jennings recently received an "outstanding employer" award for using wheelchair models in its advertising.

The recognition was given at the 12th annual awards program of the Media Access Office, a Los Angeles group that works as a liaison between the disabled community and the entertainment and media industries.

But Everest & Jennings has drawn notice for more than its hiring practices. Its clothing is specially designed for the wheelchair dresser, and is fashionable as well--a rarity in a market that usually has downplayed style.

Pants, skirts, shorts and dresses are cut to fit a seated figure, allowing extra seat room for comfort but not bunching in the front.

Many of the skirts and pants have full-length zippers along the sides or at the crotch to allow easier access when going to the bathroom.

Jackets and shirts are pleated at the back of the shoulder to allow the person wheeling a chair more mobility.

And above all, clothes are designed to stay clear of the wheels.

The company has been helped immeasurably this year by suggestions from the models it hired to display products in its first catalogue, Dawson said.

Media Access originally helped Everest & Jennings get in touch with the models. Because the group's name appeared in the first catalogue, it also bore the brunt of the disabled community's initial indignation over the polished advertising.

"They said, 'These people are too good-looking,' " said Media Access spokesman Joe Jackson. "And the letters came from the disabled community."

The response was so extreme that in its spring-summer catalogue, Avenues included a letter affirming that the models were disabled.

Most companies that produce wheelchairs, clothing and other accessories for the disabled don't even consider using disabled models in their advertisements, Jackson said.

"We find it offensive that they would take someone who walks, stick them in a chair and think that only people who walk are attractive," he said.

Meanwhile, many disabled models are dismayed by the preference of advertisers and casting agents for the able-bodied.

"They think you should settle for being happy you're alive, working on computers, staying at home and being very religious," said Ellen Stohl, a 25-year-old Avenues model.

Stohl has hardly done that.

In 1987, she became the first disabled woman to do a photo layout in Playboy. She lectures nationwide about sexuality for the disabled, models for different companies, and has captured a role in a play to be produced this spring.

Even when she does get jobs, Stohl said, people who see her portfolio--full of pictures of her riding horses, sitting in trees and looking over cliffs--believe she looks too "normal" to be disabled.

"They say, 'No, you can't be in a wheelchair because you're young, attractive and vibrant,' " she said. "Are we supposed to look like the Elephant Man before we can be disabled?"

As part of her effort to change the images of the disabled, Stohl will join three or four other models to endorse Avenues clothing next year. They will consult with the company on fashion, and will represent Avenues at appearances across the country.

Stohl said she thought Avenues had not quite caught up to current fashion. However, she said the company is beginning to fill a much-needed void.

Stohl ran into problem finding clothes after a car accident nine years ago broke her neck in five places.

She rejected the boxy, dull clothes targeted for older wheelchair users.

Instead, Stohl said she squeezed into too-tight pants that she had worn before the accident.

When she went on dates, she worried that a trip to the bathroom would take two hours by the time she removed her garments and then re-dressed.

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