Catwalk inspiration: Over 100 attend a fashion show featuring visually impaired models

More than 100 people attended a fashion show featuring all visually impaired models on Saturday, an event hosted by a Hempstead model who is blind and hopes to smash the stigma around disability.

Annalee Smith, 41, hosted her first fashion show at Valley Stream with 16 visually impaired models. She also organized the event.

“The fact that I can help [by] having this platform, and I can help others and inspire others, is good for me. … I feel like at times I have to pinch myself,” she told Newsday.

Smith, who started modeling five years ago and won The Face of Kurvacious modeling competition last year, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa aged 12. The rare genetic condition impaired his peripheral vision.

She explained that growing up, there were few visually impaired role models in the public sphere. And while New York’s first fashion show featuring blind models took the stage in 2016, visually impaired models still haven’t featured prominently in fashion.

So Smith started planning her own show over a year ago. She originally planned only a handful of models, but after announcing the event, she expanded the number of attendees after reaching more visually impaired women than she had planned.

“I’m inspired even by myself,” she said.

The sold-out event at VFW Post 1790 benefited the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a national non-profit organization working to raise awareness and stimulate research into retinal diseases. Smith plans to hold a second show in October during Blindness Awareness Month.

The women, on a makeshift runway, modeled outfits from several designers, such as casual clothing boutique Legendary LLC, Kurvacious Boutique and plus-size clothing company Ashley Stewart.

The event was Rafia Lawal’s first show. Lawal, 37, from Brooklyn, was diagnosed with cataracts as a young girl while living in Ghana. Her family moved to the United States when she was 10 to have better access to medical care to slow the progression of glaucoma.

Lawal auditioned for a spot on “America’s Next Top Model” during the show’s early seasons but was not selected. She attributes this to her previous lack of confidence and insecurity due to her disability.

“Instead of looking at the camera, I was kind of closing my eyes,” she said. “I was trying to keep them from seeing that I actually had a disability.”

Now filled with confidence, she said she saw the event as a chance to break the belief that women who are blind or visually impaired don’t care about fashion.

The show was also the first modeling event for several of the women, including Colette Stroude, 33, of Brooklyn.

Stroude, born blind due to an inherited eye condition, has modeled alongside her 15-year-old daughter, Heaven Stroude, who is also blind.

“It’s so personal to me and my family,” Stroude said.

She said she was drawn to modeling on the show because blindness and visual impairment are often overlooked when people think of disabilities.

“I was really looking forward to being part of this platform. … Being around other people who have the same problem as you, it has a bigger impact,” Stroude said.

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