Though he lives quite a distance from the glitz and glamour of the world’s famous catwalks, 22-year-old Ra’Shad Solomon isn’t about to let mere geography inhibit his pursuit of a modeling career. Charming, industrious, and camera-friendly, he has what it takes to make it in fashion. He also has spina bifida and cerebral palsy—physical disabilities that are almost never featured in style magazines.
“At first, even my mom thought,‘How are you going to be a model in a wheelchair?’” Solomon said. “I really had to break it down for her. I want to be the kind of model people can look up to. I want people to see me in a magazine or on a television show and say, ‘That’s Ra’Shad. He’s in a wheelchair and he looks good!’ ”
As the aspiring star pursues his close-up, he eagerly scours the Internet for the latest fashion news, and continues to learn as much as he can about an industry that has yet to discover his potential.
All Solomon needs, he said, is an advocate with professional connections and an open mind.
“Honestly, I get pretty depressed sometimes,” he admitted. “But once I’m in front of a camera, everything’s good. When I got my school pictures taken, the photographer was like, ‘Did you practice these?’ But I just like taking pictures.”
Solomon’s interest in modeling was sparked during his junior year in high school, when he enrolled in a fashion design course and learned he had a gift for analyzing measurements and fabric cuts, even as cerebral palsy made the use of his hands difficult.
“I loved what I was learning in that class,” Solomon said. “My teacher always complimented me on how I looked when I came into the room. I actually ended up winning the ‘Best Dressed’ award that year. After that, I thought, maybe I can do something with this. Maybe I can be a part of the fashion world.”
Though many people view his disabilities as obstacles to his dream, Solomon gives those same traits partial credit for his interest in becoming a model. Dressing fashionably became a way to make himself more approachable.
“My mom always told me, ‘People are going to be looking at you anyway. I figure it just makes sense that I give them something good to look at. It’s not about wearing name brands. It’s about finding a style that complements me.”
Solomon says a successful modeling career might help him set an example for his 15-year-old brother, Javone, who lives with cerebral palsy and a learning disability. The aspiring star hopes his aspirations will infuse his younger brother with a sense that anything is possible.
“Javone is, like, 82 pounds,” Solomon said with a chuckle, “but he always tells me he wants to be a wrestler. At first, I was like, ‘Javone, you’re so little, they’re gonna slam you to death.’ But you know what? I want to be a model, and he wants to be a wrestler. I’m not gonna tell him he can’t. I want to open a door for him. I don’t ever want things to be as hard for him as they are for me.”
Though the pain of spina bifida is sometimes so intense that Solomon spends entire days in bed, he finds living with disabilities only strengthens his resolve to secure a successful future.
“When I’m desperate to do something, I do it,” Solomon said. “And then when it’s done, I go home and I recuperate. But I’ll do what I’ve got to do, and cry about it later.”
Solomon draws much of his focus and optimism from his relationship with his mother, Cynthia Collins, a woman who has remained supportive of her son’s endeavors while recognizing their numerous challenges.
“I would love to see him make this happen,” Collins said. “I want everything for my son, and it breaks my heart when he’s in so much pain every day. I tell him sometimes, ‘Ra’Shad, why don’t you write a book or something? You have so many amazing stories to tell.’ But this is what he wants. Modeling is all he wants, and I support my son.”
After a dozen surgeries on his legs, hips and back, Solomon admits it’s sometimes difficult to maintain the belief that his life will ever expand beyond the Florida home he shares with his mother and brothers, Javone and Ra’Shawn. Between the ages of 12 and 17, Solomon often despaired. He even attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs.
Though he acknowledges his pain never fully subsides, today Solomon hopes his story, and whatever successes lie ahead, will serve as a powerful example for other young people with disabilities.
“I really want to start a foundation for young people with cerebral palsy, letting them know they should never give up,” Solomon said. “I hope somebody out there gives me the opportunity to be the role model I know I was born to be.”