Last week, two of fashion’s favorite models with disabilities recently came together for a special photo shoot.

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

Madeline Stuart, the world’s most famous model with Down syndrome, and Rebekah Marine, known as the “bionic model” because she was born without a right forearm and and wears a prothesis, got together on Oct. 6 in Laguna Beach, California.

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

Both models recently made headlines for their participation in FTL Moda’s New York Fashion week show. They’re trailblazing a path for the representation of more diverse women in fashion.

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

“When the girls walked at New York Fashion Week together, they both just connected really well as they share the same passion for inclusion,” Rosanne Stuart, Madeline’s mother, told The Mighty in an email. “They get along like they have been friends for years. They share a special bond.”

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

“The photo shoot with Maddy was so much fun,” Marine told The Mighty in an email. “She is such a joy to be around and so full of energy. It was such an honor to work with her — she’s my inspiration.”

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

“As both have a form of disability, they know what it feels like to be a little different and I think that once you experience that, you become more inclusive and a little more understanding,” Stuart said. “They just get each other and feel really comfortable.”

Photo credit: Erica Nichols

“I want people to see me and think, ‘If she can do it, so can I,” Marine told The Mighty in an email. “I feared the camera for a greater portion of my life, and once I let go of the insecurities I had, that’s when I discovered happiness. We should never be afraid of pursuing our dreams. I hope that by working with Maddy, it will start a conversation about embracing models who may not fit the model stereotype. Fashion is for everyone.”

Check out more photos from the shoot below:

Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols
Photo credit: Erica Nichols

“Madeline is such an inspiration and continues to make history by following her own career dreams as an international model,” said Sara Hart Weir, President of National Down Syndrome Society. “Stuart is taking the world by storm and helping us raising awareness about the value, acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome through all aspects of society, and through her efforts, she is helping us advocate for all people with Down syndrome and their families.”

When not walking the catwalk, Madeline Stuart has been busy breaking down barriers and promoting inclusion all over the world. She serves as the ambassador of two charities — I can I will, an Australian charity promoting inclusion of children with special needs in schools, and the Inside outside Dance ensemble, which empowers people with special needs through dance. Go here or here to help support one of Madeline Stuart’s charities. 

Related: Behind the Scenes With the World’s Most Famous Model With Down Syndrome


This is a photo of my youngest son and me while waiting in the van for Daddy to come out of the grocery store. My buddy didn’t want to go in, so he sat with Mommy. He did get anxious while we waited, so I distracted him by taking his picture. “Cheeeeese!” he said, while sporting his best grin.


Of course, I didn’t like how I looked in any of the photos we took. My hair has been falling out at breakneck speed lately. I also noticed his hair was getting a little long. I’m glad his medication hasn’t been doing to his hair what my medication has done to mine. He was overdue for his haircut, but I thought I’d let him go a little longer before we’d give him one. Autism and haircuts don’t mix well at our house.

That’s how life is for us. Things like this photo that seem simple and uneventful usually have a story behind it. What you don’t see in this picture is how swollen and painful my knees were that day and how bad my shoulder hurt. My rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was causing me a lot of grief. The only other time I had left the house that week was to pick up my oldest son from school. By this time, I was anxious to find any reason to leave the house.

Leaving the house wasn’t what it used to be. While we were waiting in the van, I wondered if I should apply for a handicap placard. You see, my cutie in this photo had a rough summer. He was weaker than usual because his seizures had been increasing. He didn’t want to go in because he had a few seizures that day, and he was weak and a bit tired. I wondered if I should get a placard for the times he may want to go in and a long walk to the store would be too hard for him.

What about me? Some days I can barely make it down my hall to the bathroom. I had a vision of someone yelling at me for parking in a handicap spot as I unloaded my kids since we may not give a visual confirmation of our need for a placard. I thought it was best to wait.

My son wasn’t interested in much that evening, including his iPad. When we’re waiting for a long stretch I usually play a movie for the kids. We got our van specifically for the DVD players. Unfortunately, they stopped working. Not great news for me. I pulled out the next best thing to the DVD players: my phone. Seeing himself on my phone is always grand for him. We took our picture together. We are two peas in a pod, he and I….

I took a long look at the summer sun. It will be sad to see it go. I wished we both felt good enough to enjoy it. We missed a lot, but we do have this picture together.

There’s usually a story behind our photos, as there are stories behind many things in our life that no one knows about. I’m smiling, but I’m always thinking about our health, money, the future and, sometimes, regret. I try not to be negative, but it’s hard not to be on occasion. But my son can always find a way to remind me how to be happy despite the flurry of thoughts that can often bring my spirits down. It’s as simple for him as taking a photo with his very best smile. Although it won’t be that easy for me, I am certainly going to give it a try.

Someday we may look back at this photograph among others, and I want him to know there was a genuine smile on my face, and he was one of the reasons why. I am blessed for every last moment, even uneventful ones like this time when he and I can take a moment, forget our troubles and smile. “Cheeeese!!!”

Follow this journey on Crossroad Trippers.

Yesterday was parent/teacher conference day.

Our son, TJ, is 15 and has autism. We are used to our parent/teacher conference days by now. We’ve already met his teachers at open house, and at a team meeting organized by his special educator before that. 

This is all routine for us and has been for a while. And we’re in such close contact with TJ’s educational team that at these meetings, there are no surprises.

What was new for us last night, however, was the adult services/transitional informational meeting we were invited to, and attended, after our conferences with TJ’s teachers.

TJ is a sophomore in high school, so we were grateful for the opportunity to learn about what possible services and programs could be in TJ’s future.

There were a handful of parents there; in fact, there were more presenters than families. At first, I thought this was great — there must be so many opportunities for kids like TJ upon high school graduation!

Then, one by one, the presenters spoke about the organizations they represent. Every program sounded wonderful — employment and educational opportunities with organizations that think of the whole student (academically, socially and including life skills, too)! How great!

As I sat there and listened, however, I began to feel that slow creep of fear. There is a lot to know about these programs. And this part of his life always felt far away. I don’t know if we’re ready. And a lot of the employment they’re speaking of are jobs in supermarkets, or restaurants, or front desk jobs at gyms… TJ loves animals and really knows so much about them. Where would he fit in? Would he fit in at all? Do we live in a terrible area for him, with no place to fit his interests, and do we have to think about moving?

All of these thoughts came flooding to me at once. And then, like a swift kick to the head, came another thought:

I don’t think TJ will have the typical “apply to college and wait for acceptance letters and celebrate with your family when you make your choice” experience. 

This hurt. A lot. And I don’t even know why.

I learned a long time ago that TJ doesn’t have most of the experiences typical kids have. I’ve mourned these losses and accepted them, and I’ve learned to treasure every success he has had.

I thought I could handle anything. I thought I was prepared for whatever came next.

Turns out I’m not as prepared as I thought.

And then I thought of my friends, waiting in line at the gym (where parent/teacher conferences take place) to talk to their kids’ teachers. 

And I suddenly felt left out, different and alone.

I know, logically, that I’m not alone. Sean, my amazing husband, was sitting right beside me. And if he was feeling any of these same feelings, he wasn’t giving it away at all. 

I also know my experiences at those conferences in the gym are similar to that of my friends’ experiences… right? Aren’t they? Or are there discussions parents of typical kids have that we weren’t having?

And I felt like an outsider in that crowded classroom. All by myself in that busy, bustling building.

Do we get to make college plans like other parents? I know that if we do, it certainly won’t look the same. We will have to work with an outside agency, whose help we need to plan separate living arrangements, and socialization, and learning how to share a kitchen, and learning how to take a bus around town.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

All this time, I suppose I thought that TJ would go to college, discover his passion and magically translate that into a job. It was always my dream for him. But what if my dream and his dream don’t match? They most likely won’t. He probably won’t want to leave home, much less leave the state, and I dreamed he could go to college anywhere he wanted. 

He probably will always want to stay close to home.

I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff, looking over and not knowing what comes next.

And I suppose in some way, I am. The future is unknown. The things we have to consider for TJ’s future are much more detailed than that of your typical kid. The planning has a lot of hands involved. There are a lot of new things for me to learn as this next big step approaches.

I’ve felt this way before — just before TJ started kindergarten.

So today, even though it hurts, and I feel like an outsider compared to other parents of sophomores, I know that soon, all those tasks I have to perform for my boy will feel routine. As I learn more and more about our path, and the process we will have to go through, I will feel more secure and less alone.

So forward I go, one foot in front of the other, comforted in the fact that although we are on the edge of some new experiences, we will soon hit our stride, and do just what needs to be done to have TJ just where he needs to be.

Just where he needs to be.

Follow this journey on Laughing…Like It’s My Job.

People say there is no greater loss than the loss of a child. You’re not supposed to outlive your children; no mom or dad should have to make their child’s funeral arrangements. Yet, two years ago, I was facing a parent’s worst nightmare. We knew my triplet pregnancy was high-risk, but my husband and I never imagined we could lose them. In a matter of two months time, we watched two of our triplets pass away in our arms. First, our precious daughter, Abigail, followed by our son, Parker, 55 days later.

In the days and weeks that followed, life was a blur. We were grieving over the loss of our two children, while trying to stay strong for our surviving triplet, Peyton. What do you say to someone who just went through the worst moments in their life? It’s a question I get asked often. There are no words that can bring back our children. And sometimes comments meant to comfort us do more harm than good. But there are several things that helped my family cope after our losses, especially in those early days. Here are five ways to comfort a grieving parent:

1. A simple hug speaks volumes.

Don’t feel like you have say anything to try and take away the pain. Oftentimes, a hug goes a long way. And don’t be alarmed if I won’t let go for what feels like an eternity. Sometimes being that literal shoulder to cry on is what us grieving parents need most.


2. Let them know you are there for them.

Shortly after our first child died, I shut myself off from the world. I was still in shock and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Yet, my voicemail filled up with messages from my friends and family just letting me know they were there for me. Emails and Facebook messages piled up, and texts were coming through my phone daily. No one expected me to pick up the phone; they knew I would reach out when I was ready. Don’t be afraid to reach out more than once. Knowing I had a support system when I was ready helped me more than I ever imagined. And for those wondering what to send a grieving parent, incorporate the child’s name. Some of my favorite jewelry were personalized gifts. Two years later, I still wear the names of my triplets around my neck with pride.

3. Offer to help in some way.

When my pregnancy went south and my health began to unravel, we didn’t have family to turn to. Everyone lived thousands of miles away from Illinois, yet people near and far offered to help us in so many ways. Those in town dropped by meals so we didn’t have to cook. Out-of-town friends sent gifts cards for take-out meals. One friend even hired a cleaning lady to help us while our daughter was still in the NICU. But help doesn’t have to cost a dime. Simply offering to do laundry or run an errand can be an enormous weight off their shoulders.


4. Don’t be afraid to talk about their child.

I remember talking to friends for the first time after my children passed and many didn’t know what to say. They asked about my health and how my surviving triplet was doing, but they didn’t know how to bring up Parker and Abby. I don’t blame them — there is no easy transition when the topic is child loss. Once friends realized I enjoyed talking about all three of my children, it got easier. They began to ask about my short time with Abby and what Parker’s personality was like…and I loved every moment of those conversations. For grieving parents, hearing our angel’s name reminds us that they exist. Even though I had less than two months with my son, I could spend days talking about him. Don’t be afraid to talk to us about our children. Even if it leads to watery eyes, I guarantee I’ll have a huge smile through those tears.

5. Remember the important dates.

As time passes, life goes on. But for grieving parents, it can feel like life is at a standstill. We never “get over” the loss of a child. Instead, we learn to live with it every single day and learn how to move forward with our new normal. Some days are more difficult than others: holidays, anniversaries and major dates when we learned devastating news. Words can’t express how much it means to me when I get messages on those dates from friends who remembered, especially as the years go by. A simple card on my son’s angelversary fills my heart with love. Those little things might not seem like much, but to grieving parents, it can help get them through the toughest days.

This post originally appeared on Perfectly Peyton.

Jessica Wills may have Down syndrome, but she’s still “just Jessica.”

The 15-year-old from Stratford, Connecticut, is the inspiration behind her father’s ongoing comic, called “Just Jessica.”


Fred Wills, a registered nurse, would draw little cartoons for all of his five children, but for Jessica, his youngest, he tries to do it every day. He draws Jessica’s daily lessons and adventures for material, using an app to help create the images below.

“Jessica’s big thing was that she wanted to be just Jessica… We used to talk a lot about her special needs and she would say, ‘I am just like everybody else,'” Wills told The Mighty. “Everybody just wants to be treated like everyone else. That’s the message behind ‘Just Jessica.'”


Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 12.09.32 PM

Each night he creates a new one, and in the morning he posts them to the “Just Jessica” Facebook page before printing one and taping it to the microwave for Jessica to find before breakfast.



The subject matter ranges from school work and sports to conversations Jessica has had with her mother and father. The comic always features the family’s sassy cats, Megatron and Fox.

“The themes are all about being independent and growing up dealing with special needs,” Wills told The Mighty. “We focus on Down syndrome because that’s what we know best, but the challenges apply to all special needs.”


Jessica with her father, Fred Wills

“I like it when my father thinks of me,” Jessica told The Mighty, before asking if there was a way for the band One Direction to see her cartoon.

“That’d be fun for them to see it. I like Harry Styles a lot,” she explained. “I like his crazy hair.”


“In so many ways Jessica thinks, feels and acts like a regular, old fashioned, teenager,” Wills told The Mighty in an email. “The arguments, fears, loves and pains, the acting up and acting out, the body changes, the anxiety, the humor, the full gambit of emotions and trials we all go through are hers. Through it all, she dances gracefully along the thin line of ‘special needs’ and what many refer to as ‘normal’… More than anything we hope that ‘Just Jessica’ will make you laugh and feel good like when you get a hug.”

Visit the “Just Jessica” Facebook page to see more of the daily cartoons.

As a single parent of an autistic child, I am constantly hearing, “I don’t know how you do it.” Honestly, it’s just what I know. In the beginning, I’d see other families at the state autism center, occupational therapy and the special needs preschool and be in awe of both parents. I envied them since one parent had the other to lean on. I wanted to tell them how lucky they were to have each other. It’s not always easy to be thrown additional challenges on top of raising a child with disabilities when you’re a single parent. A year ago on diagnosis day, all I wanted was another person to be there and tell me everything was going to be OK.

Caitlin Johnson.2-001

Here I am a year later, and I still question whether or not I’m doing everything I possibly can for my child. I can’t take him to every single appointment that’s recommended since I’m a single parent. I need to work and put food on the table. I structured my work hours to specifically allow time for his therapies. It’s difficult but worth it in the end. There have been times I have taken my son out to restaurants, shopping or to the movies with hesitation, wondering if he’ll have another meltdown. There have been bloody noses, scratches and broken items as a result. I’ve heard other people whisper, “Do you see that kid freaking out over there?” or “Wow, how spoiled is he?” I have never once wondered if I could handle all of this. It’s just something that I’ve come to know.

As a single parents, I sometimes ask myself if I’m doing everything I can to fill the gap. Am I being the best possible parent I can be? I feel that question has been answered by my amazing 4-year-old son, Sage, himself. He could not stop talking about the movie, “Hotel Transylvania 2.” So finally (with a lot of verbal prompting), we set out for a visit to the local theater. Sage was overwhelmingly excited when we got there. He ran through the hall and had trouble choosing concessions. We found our aisle seats and proceeded to get ready for the movie to start. After the movie began, I found myself running around the aisle, making sure I didn’t lose my son. He was playing hide-and-seek behind our seats, and I could overhear the people behind us getting frustrated as he crawled underneath their seats. Finally, once the movie started to pick up the plot, Sage found his seat and watched the movie.

The smile on his face was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a long time. He crawled over his seat and found his way into my lap where he finished the movie. Walking out of the movie theater as I held his hand, he leaned into me and said, “Mama, you my best friend.” My eyes filled with tears as I told him that he was mine, too. I smiled at him with tears in my eyes as he looked at me. I don’t think he realized how good it was to hear those five little words. Five simple little words that remind me why we do it all despite the challenges. The five little words that reaffirm a single parent’s work doesn’t go unnoticed. The five little words that touched my heart.

Real People. Real Stories.

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