AHRI’s International Women’s Day breakfast challenges social norms with the world’s first professional model with Down syndrome at the helm.
At just 22-years-old Madeline Stuart has racked up an impressive amount of ‘world firsts’. She was the first person with an intellectual disability in history to be granted a working visa in America; the first model with Down syndrome do an editorial shoot in Vogue magazine; named number one Fashion Game Changer in Forbes magazine; the first model with an intellectual disability to walk a Middle Eastern runway in Dubai Fashion Week; and the first to be the face of an American cosmetic company.
On top of all of this, she’s launched a fashion label and handbag line, and started her own dance studio with her mum/manager Rosanne Stuart. She’s walked the runway in many prestigious global fashion shows (she’s a six time returner in New York Fashion Week), high-fiving those in the front row as she passes by.
If you read all of these accomplishments aloud, you’d be out of breath by now. Impressively, most others her age are just finishing university and finding their feet. But Madeline found hers quicker than most and has been using them to strut (and dance) down the runway ever since.
Speaking at AHRI’s International Women’s Day breakfasts in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra, Madeline and Rosanne joined Emmy-award winning journalist Sara James in conversation about Madeline’s quick shot to stardom and why diversity matters, not just in the workplace but in every facet of our lives.
Like mother, like daughter
While Rosanne jokes that she’s just there to hold Madeline’s handbag, it’s obvious she’s poured her heart and soul into ensuring Madeline’s voice is heard and her career aspirations fulfilled.
She won’t let anyone place low expectations on Madeline, or others with a disability, and she demonstrated this by showing the crowd this powerful video. You can imagine she’s recounted the conception of Madeline’s career many, many times before, yet she still beams with genuine pride as she shares her daughter’s success with the crowd of HR professionals.
When Madeline was born, Rosanne admits she had limited knowledge of disability. Her doctor told her Madeline would only mature to have the mental capacity of a seven-year-old and that she was never going to be able to do anything, and Rosanne’s own father said they shouldn’t take baby Madeline home.
It took a few days for Roseanne herself to come to terms with her new daughter’s condition, but then she said, “Let’s do this!” and fearlessly raised Madeline as a single mother.
While she’s never regretted a second with her daughter, it’s not come without its challenges. “[It can be] very isolating and difficult. My family didn’t know how to talk to me [about Madeline] or how to be involved.”
She expressed a fear of Madeline not being accepted, especially if her time in the limelight was to fade. “Everyone knows that when you go viral, you’re likely to disappear shortly after. I didn’t want her to disappear, so I kept sharing things on Facebook and speaking about it,” she says.
Fight back with kindness
One story in particular set the tone for just how incredibly difficult things can get for Madeline and her mother. In December last year Madeline was in hospital for a month, and intensive care for eleven days, due to advanced heart failure.
During this time, Rosanne received an awful letter from someone saying something along the lines of: “I hope your daughter dies”.
“We didn’t think she as going to make it at one stage,” Rosanne says. But true to form, Madeline bounced back from open heart surgery and just a few months later, here she is weaving her way through a crowd of hundreds of HR professionals with a smile on her face, offering up a joyful high-five to everyone she passes.
What happened with that online troll? To her credit, Rosanne responded with strength, grace and integrity. She says when people say awful things like this, it’s clear they’re the ones that need help. She believes most of the discrimination doesn’t come from a malicious place. “Ninety-five per cent of the time people aren’t trying to be mean, they’re just naive”.
In fact, some of Madeline’s biggest supporters started out as online trolls. Rosanne would screen the negative comments and look into the people who had posted them. Then she’d reply to their comment and say something nice about them. Surprisingly, most turned around.
“We all live, we all die. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how smart you are. At the end of the day, we’re all equal. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they don’t matter, it just means they have something else to offer,” Rosanne says.
Challenging deeply ingrained stereotypes
Madeline has paved the way for disabled models, and she’s also made significant impacts off the runway. Rosanne recalls a recent trip to Uganda in East Africa, where she says “they don’t understand what a disability is. They think it’s a curse”. She tells the story of one Ugandan girl who had a disability; some of the villagers had tried to kill her, three times.
A pastor invited Rosanne and Madeline to visit their village and educate the locals about disabilities. Rosanne reached out to a Ugandan charity to put the young, disabled girl into a boarding school where she’d be safe and then introduced Madeline to the local community.
“People would come up to me and say “I have a child like that” and when I asked where they were, they would say “They’re at home. They’re not coming outside.” I encouraged them to bring them outside.
“Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they don’t matter, it just means they have something else to offer.”
“We were there for ten days and during that time fifty families came out of hiding. Children that had never seen the sun before.”
At the end of their trip, they had a festival with over 3,000 people with disabilities in attendance and local politicians. “Now, they understand there’s a word for Down syndrome”.
If Madeline can shift the perspective of an entire village, imagine what kind of differences we can make in our workplaces.
At the breakfast AHRI’s CEO Lyn Goodear said Rosanne, “Gives incredible substance to the word ‘champion’.” And this quality is one HR leaders can take back to their offices to better support their diverse workforce.
“What is it that we can be doing individually to drive change?” asks Goodear. “There’s no shortage of statistics telling us we’re some way from the destination that we’re collectively seeking.
“I think this breakfast is a great way for us to think about how we, as individuals and collectively, can make sure our voices are louder in pursuing [conversations around diversity and gender equity].”
In the workplace, an important factor that underpins the success of such conversations is having good HR on deck. A lot of business don’t have the privilege of a strong HR team, says Goodear, and AHRI’s certification program is positioned to change that.
“There’s a perception that anyone can be in HR, so AHRI is using our certification program to shift that perception. We want to help business leaders to see those who have the right skills… to make sustainable change in their organisations,” says Goodear.
Rosanne encouraged the HR professionals in the room to not only make space for diverse talent but to remember to use their privilege to their advantage.
“To the people without disabilities: go out there and help someone else. Being someone’s champion is a great way to feel good about yourself.” And it’s a necessary way to incite change. Madeline may be the trailblazer, but Rosanne is the one clearing the path ahead.
There’s still more to come from Madeline. Rosanne says there are a few glass ceilings they’re yet to smash through. Next on their agenda is to get signed by a modelling agency and attract some more top-tier brands, like Chanel.
There’s no stopping this dynamic duo. The Stuarts are inspirations to women and disabled people, both together and in their own right.