#DifferenceMakers: Madeline Stuart and Rixey Manor’s Bridal Photo Shoot

Some photos from a bridal photo shoot have made the rounds, and they’ve got everyone talking. The photos, taken by Sarah Houston, feature Madeline Stuart, a model with Down syndrome, showcasing several wedding dresses in and around Virginia’s Rixey Manor, a popular wedding spot.

Rixey Manor’s owner, Isadora Martin-Dye, commissioned the shoot and told Huffington Post UK, “A lot of newly engaged women cannot see themselves as a bride because all of the images magazines use are of these tall, thin models. I think that being a bride is a life experience that every woman should be able to see herself doing, and defintely not stressing about the fact that they won’t look ‘perfect’ on their wedding day.” Houston wrote on her blog that she also wanted to showcase a bride’s individual beauty. “I honestly just wanted to show that no bride is cookie cutter, each one is unique and beautiful and Madeline proved that,” she wrote.

Madeline Stuart – Rixey Manor from Nugen Media on Vimeo.

Thankfully, the comments on Houston’s Instagram page and blog have been positive.  But, I’ve read this story on several different websites, and in almost every comments section, the comments almost always devolve into a dichotomy; either people feel the pictures and Stuart are quite beautiful and inspiring, or how they think that people with Down syndrome shouldn’t get married. The thing I took away from it is similar to what the Martin-Dye wanted people to take away from the photos—we should get ourselves accustomed to the idea of different types of brides, including brides with mental disabilities. We shouldn’t believe that people with mental disabilities 1) don’t want to get married or 2) can’t get married.

I did some reading before writing this post, because—in full disclosure—I myself have only ever been in contact with one person with Down Syndrome in my entire life. Even though I went to an elementary school that embraced both children with and without learning and physical disabilities, and even though that environment gave me much more exposure to people with different abilities (more exposure than most schools were doing even in the ’90s), I still never had much exposure to Down Syndrome. So writing this article was a learning experience for me as well.

Let’s take a look at some myths and debunk them.

• MYTH: People with Down Syndrome or other disabilities don’t want to get married.

Why it’s false: Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they are instantly rendered helpless. But, in fact, there are many couples with disabilities out there. In a feature outlining Bill Ott (who has Downs’ Syndrome) and Shelley Belgard (who has hydrocephalus), a couple with disabilities, The Washington Post writes how while there are many couples like Ott and Shelley out there, the actual numbers haven’t been calculated. “Experts say it’s difficult to track the number of couples with intellectual impairments because they often enter into committed relationships without getting married,” Style writer Ellen McCarthy wrote for The Washington Post. “In many instances, a legal marriage could interfere with Social Security or health-care benefits.”

Legally in America, people with mental disabilities have the same legal right as anyone else to get married, as well as own homes, drive, and anything else. Slate asked University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy’s Dr. Richard Redding about this, and he said that mentally disabled people don’t need to pass any competency tests. But, state-by-state, things break down a bit different. Slate states more than 30 states either restrict or prohibit marriages between people with mental disabilities. “Such marriage laws are rarely enforced. But when they are, a competency hearing can be triggered by a guardian or family member who suspects manipulation or coercion behind the marriage.” Even though the laws aren’t enforced, the existence of those laws contributes to society’s ignorance about the rights and needs of mentally disabled people.

•Myth: People with Down Syndrome or other disabilities don’t want to get married.

Why it’s false: Many people believe the mentally disabled don’t want to get married because they see those individuals as being forever a child. But that’s not true, either. People with Down Syndrome have productive lives and want the same types of rich social interactions and relationships just like anyone without the disability.

Philip Davidson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told The Washington Post that the stereotype should be disbanded. “There is a bias in our society that is unfounded—that just because you have Asperger’s syndrome or Down syndrome that you automatically cannot sustain a relationship,” he said. “But that’s just not true. These people are really not all that different than you and me. Their investment in the lives of other people are as significant as yours and mine.”

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 691 babies in America is born with the condition, making it the most common. “Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome and about 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year,” states the site. So with those kinds of stats, it’s actually surprising we haven’t seen any more advertisement featuring people with Down syndrome. What this wedding spread is hoping to do is further incorporate people of all types into the country’s social fabric, and what we should do as consumers (and as members of society) is welcome more media like this since it only helps everyone in the long run. As the president of Global Disability Inclusion, Meg O’Connell, told the Telegraph, “People want to see people like themselves in fashion and advertising and marketing campaigns. People with disabilities by clothes and cars and houses. They want to be represented, like everyone else; disability has been the forgotten diversity segment.”

What do you think of the photos? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Great blogs to check out:

Wife who tied the knot with disabled husband to become Britain’s first married couple with Down’s Syndrome dies aged 45 (Daily Mail)

Mental health, human rights & legislation (WHO)

Mentally Disabled Couple’s Legal Battle Ends with New Home (ABC News)