Disability in Weddings: Gemma’s Story

In our previous issue, we were talking about disability in weddings, well in life really, but more how we as an industry need to be doing more! We introduced you to Gemma Flannagan who is a model and bride-to-be. We thought it was important that you heard Gemma’s story and why we are working together to make this industry sit up and acknowledge that it needs to be doing more for disabled brides and grooms. Disability is not just a physical impairment, it can be a mental one too. I am losing my hearing but no-one would know unless I tell them. We as a nation are judgemental, be it intentional or not. We see and we make snapshot decisions. I am not walking around with a label on, neither do I wish to be treated any differently. It simply is you see disability, we see ability.

Here is Gemma’s story:

Just over four years ago I met the man of my dreams, at a time when I was coming out of a living nightmare. People say that the best things happen when you least expect it and that life has a path and a destiny set out for you, and this is now something I truly believe.

In 2011 my life totally changed…I went from being a fun loving, carefree 27yr old travelling the world in my dream job as cabin crew, to being trapped in a body I had no control over. I was diagnosed with a peripheral nervous system condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). Which at its worst left me totally paralysed unable to do anything for myself. I spent the best part of a year battling the condition and then overcoming it and needing to relearn basic skills such as talking, holding things and even swallowing again. Although I made a great recovery, I am now left with the lasting effects caused by my illness. I am unable to stand or walk unaided and now rely on a pimped up wheelchair and the occasional blinged up Glamstick to get around.

Gemma Flanagan Pose Pink Dress
Gemma Flanagan / Photo credit: Rebecca Raistrick Photography

After coming through everything, I met the most amazing man who ever since has literally been my world. On the 29th December 2015, Neil literally made my dreams come true when he got down on one knee and asked me marry him and to share the rest of my life with him. The unbelievable emotion, joy and total euphoria of that moment is something I will never forget!

So now is where the amazing task of planning a wedding begins, which is something every girl dreams of and looks forward to, but for me, I had never envisaged myself as a disabled bride. We were soon to learn how disability would present an additional hurdle to planning our dream day. If I’m honest, I don’t think I have ever seen an image of a bride with disabilities portrayed in any way at all in the media, press or in any other form…it’s almost as if we don’t exist.

In another part of my life, I am assistant director for a charitable organisation called Models of Diversity (MOD). At MOD we campaign for diversity within the fashion and media industry and for society to be more accurately represented. As another little destiny twist in my life, I discovered MOD at a time when I was struggling to accept my new body and its limitations. I met the amazing CEO and founder Angel Sinclair who made me realise that even though I had disabilities I was still, the same fun living glamorous girl I was before, I was just in different packaging. I learnt to embrace the new me and have since become a disabled model, showing that we should be represented in fashion. And this extends totally within the bridal industry.

I’m not gong to lie, as amazingly exciting and fabulous I felt about planning our wedding, I did feel slightly anxious and intimidated. After all how often do you see disabled brides? Our initial issues came when we had begun to research potential venues, which in itself was a mammoth task. What may be stated on someone’s website as ‘accessible’ can turn out, in reality, to be anything but. So many venues were ruled out straight away through access issues and then myself and Neil visited more than our fair share. For me, I am quite easy going in general about having to just overcome access issues. I’ve been literally carried in my wheelchair upstairs into places by bouncers before now and had to access venues via the side entrance (usually by the bins). But on my wedding day, this is something I simply didn’t want to have to settle for. After all, why should someone with a disability be made to feel different, especially on the biggest day of their lives?

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So we had an interesting few weeks visiting venues and meeting with issues. We turned up at one venue, after explaining ahead of time that I was in a wheelchair etc, to be met with staff who didn’t know how to use the chair lift (which to be honest, a Stannah chairlift had never been in my dream wedding scenario), which in itself was very off putting. Another venue we visited had also said they were accessible, but upon visiting we did see a lively venue, but with a slight issue that none of the toilets were big enough for me to go in in my chair and shut the door. Once again, this is something that I’m sure most brides don’t have an issue with when they are planning.

Anxiety okay end a massive part when my thoughts turned to my dress. After all, as I’ve never seen a bride in a wheelchair portrayed in any bridal magazines, shows or events, I struggled to see my dream vision. Finding dress shops that were accessible was another great hurdle as for what ever reason people like to make bridal shops upstairs, often above other shops. Something I had never really thought of until I began my search. I decided the only way to overcome my anxiety of seeing myself in a wedding dress, in my wheelchair and on crutches was to be a brave girl and get on with it. I found some amazing dress shops, in which I also found some amazingly helpful and considerate ladies who put my worries at ease and helped me begin the process. Once I began trying dresses on, my fears began to subside and I began to enjoy the process.

As a disabled bride-to-be and a model with disabilities, I truly would love to see disability embraced and reoriented within the bridal industry. We are the same as everyone else and want our drama days to be exactly as we wish, without compromise or the need to have to settle for anything. There is so much that could be done within the bridal industry to make it much more inclusive and it is something I really would love to see happen. I continue to meet hurdles along the way that I’m sure most brides don’t have to think about. I am loving planning our amazing day after finding the most fabulous venue that is literally the stuff of dreams. And it goes to show that if one venue can get it so right, then so many others can do too!

Whether people are rolling, walking, hobbling or limping down the aisle, it is still a path that should be embraced. This is only a short insight into my experiences so far, and if I have had feelings such as these then there must be so many others out there that do also. As a bride-to-be, I would love to see more thought put into weddings being for everyone. As a disabled model for MOD, I would love to see models with disabilities used within bridal magazines, campaigns and shows.

‘Love doesn’t discriminate, it takes over heart and soul. Love won’t judge or and makes two halves into one whole.’

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  • Anne bird

    such a fantastic story of a brilliant lady who is taking life by the scruff of the neck and getting on with it Gemma is so inspirational and she is so right that the wedding industry is so far behind the real world ! Its just brilliant that she has put a human perspective on this .