lifestyle

"People stare at me in public. I choose to think it's because I'm so stylish."

Joanne Hutchins

The fashion industry is not known for embracing body shapes and people who don’t look a certain way, but that’s not how Don’t Dis my Ability ambassador Joanne Hutchins, 36, enjoys it. For her clothes play an important role in how people perceive her and how she feels in the world.

by JOANNE HUTCHINS

When you have a disability people stare at you in public. It comes with the territory. I have Juvenile Dermatomyosis, which is an auto-immune disease that destroys the muscles. It has left me with thin arms and legs and I use a wheel chair due to my lack of strength.

I’m aware that I look different from everyone else but it wasn’t until my twenties that I viewed the attention I attract totally differently. What if people were also looking because you looked great or they were checking out your outfit?

A few years ago when I was out one night with a friend, he asked if it bothered me when people stare at me. I hadn’t noticed anyone was, I guess after so long I tune out to it most of the time. Later that night when I was on the train alone I noticed a guy looking at me.

After my friend’s comment I felt self-conscious so I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the weight of this passenger’s stare. I then heard him say, ‘so beautiful’. I opened my eyes and we were the only two people there. He said to me, ‘you look so beautiful.’  It made me realise that when people look at me it may not always be because of my physical differences or that I am in a wheelchair, but rather at my fashion or just me.

At the time I was going through a music phase which was reflected in the clothes I gravitated towards. My friends and I would go watch bands at pubs around Newtown, and I would wear tight corsets, boots and mini skirts. I would describe my style at that time as ‘rock chick’. Before and during this time I also used to dabble in the goth and hippie look.

At the Vogue Shopping Night Out at Westfield Pitt Street Mall.

What I love about fashion is that you can be different people to suit different moods. I find it a great way to express myself creatively and looking back I think the way I have dressed has also expressed what I was going through at that stage in my life.

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Those rock chick days was all about testing my independence and basically going through a belated adolescence because at that point I’d gained more physical independence with my disability.

Through this independence I began to venture further afield and also on my own. I would go shopping in different areas and socialise more. It led to a dramatic style change in my late twenties as I started to go to less music gigs and began to embrace high tea and fashion events.

Over the past 10 years I have developed a very feminine, flirty, girly girl look. My favourite designer is Alannah Hill and she is my biggest influence as far as style goes today. Other designers I love include Leona Edmiston, Karen Millen and Fleur Wood.

With Alannah Hill at a fashion event at the Strand Arcade.

I enjoy the process of putting an outfit together; deciding what colours and textures to wear. To me it is like painting a canvas or designing a piece of art; it provides me with creative expression. I love colour and wear very little black. I find colour lifts my mood and boosts my energy. It also allows people to see more about my personality than just my chair.

My dream job would be styling fashion shoots. I love to lose myself in fashion magazines and after I did my communications degree I had the great opportunity to do work experience at two magazines which was great fun.

At the moment I work at Physical Disability Australia, which I enjoy but fashion will always be my true love, whether it is in a professional capacity or simply for my own enjoyment.

I see fashion as an adventure and look at where it has taken me so far and it makes me look forward to where it will take me in the future. Fashion is a moving, evolving animal and I plan on playing with it for a long time to come.

Joanne Hutchins is a writer, traveller and foodie from Wyee Point on the Central Coast. Joanne, 36, is currently penning her autobiography as well as working full-time as a communications officer with Physical Disability Australia. She also volunteers with a women’s disability group in Granville. Joanne is a wheelchair user due to juvenile dermatomyosis.

Don’t DIS my ABILITY celebrates the diversity and ability of people with a disability each year for International Day of People with a Disability on December 3.

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