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I&E Certificate Student Brings Disability Representation to the Runway

Emma Steadman '22
Emma Steadman ’22 addresses the audience at the 2022 Runway of Dreams fashion show

Emma Steadman ’22, a mechanical engineering student, first became interested in disability advocacy work during a Writing 101 class on disability representation. After interning with a prosthetic startup, Steadman—who is interested in fashion—saw that clothing was a big topic in the disability community.

She connected via LinkedIn with the founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation, which empowers people with disabilities through fashion and beauty inclusion. The best way to get involved, she was told, was to start a club at Duke.

So that’s what Steadman did, establishing a club in Fall of 2019—just before the Covid pandemic hit. She and fellow club members convened virtually, did design sprints, and held a virtual fashion show in February 2021. But the club’s recent fashion show, held in Penn Pavilion, was its first in-person event.

“Finally getting to do our in-person show after two and a half years was really exciting,” Steadman said. “And we had an incredible turnout,” with hundreds of Duke community members showing up to cheer on the twelve models representing Duke, NC State, and the Durham community.

“People with disabilities aren’t really shown in mainstream media, especially not fashion, so the goal of the show is to represent people with disabilities,” Steadman said. “Also, adaptive clothing is so needed, and there are not many brands right now that have adaptive clothing options, so the other goal of the show is to raise awareness of the need for adaptive clothing and to inspire other brands to get involved.”

Video courtesy of Duke’s Runway of Dreams Club

Clothing was provided by Zappos Adaptive, the sponsor of Runway of Dreams; Zappos cultivates various smaller adaptive brands, providing a single source for customers with disabilities to shop. Additional clothing was provided by small adaptive brands and the Duke design team.

A group from Reality Ministries, a disability advocacy group in Durham, showed up to cheer on some of their friends in the show. “For me that was the best part,” Steadman said, “because after the show, some of them said they wanted to be in the show next year, and that’s the whole point—that people who’ve never seen themselves in a fashion show before are now seeing themselves on stage.”

In her capstone course for the I&E Certificate, Steadman and her classmates have learned to create narratives surrounding their work. “That’s been something I’ve thought about a lot—how to pitch the show to the community in terms of why they should care, and how to share our models’ stories to help get people interested.”

Steadman added that her Certificate experience has helped her better understand exploring market needs and opportunities. “Doing this work helps people, but it’s also profitable. Entrepreneurship can be about innovating for good, but as an entrepreneur you’ve still got to make money. So this was an interesting application of that balance.”

If you are interested in attending a future Runway of Dreams meeting, contact incoming president Abigail Ullendorff ’24 (abigail.ullendorff@duke.edu).

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