Parenting a child with Down syndrome can begin as an intimidating task. Where many people see a child with Down syndrome as a tragedy that’s befallen a person, there are many champions out there showing the world how to see disabilities as exceptional abilities.
Madeline Stuart is 22 years old and a professional model. She also has Down syndrome. When Madeline was born, her mother, Rosanne Stuart, wasn’t initially aware that she had a newborn baby with Down syndrome. Physicians told Rosanne that her daughter wouldn’t function cognitively beyond the ability of a 7-year-old. The average life expectancy for someone with Down syndrome is around 60 years, but that expectancy often reaches into the 80s. However, Madeline’s health complications began early and she had to undergo intensive surgery to repair a hole in her heart at eight weeks old.
Despite medical complications common among babies with Down syndrome, Madeline beat the odds and grew up thriving.
“There is nothing that can compare to the terror of your child enduring such pain and hardship. It’s wonderful now to see her love of life and her outgoing personality,” said Rosanne Stuart.
Her outgoing personality is what started her journey to becoming a supermodel. When Madeline was 17 years old, she and her mother attended a fashion show where Madeline decided that she wanted to be a model. Her mother supported the idea but initially thought it was something she’d lose interest in. Oh, how wrong she was.
After beginning a fitness routine, Madeline shed 40 pounds. In the spring of 2015, her mother organized a professional photo shoot for her. Being proud of her gorgeous daughter, she shared some of the photographs on Facebook. Overnight, the post went wildly viral and accrued over 7 million views. After that, Madeline received offers to walk professional runways in New York, London, Dubai, China, Sweden, and beyond.
Suddenly, parenting a child with Down syndrome became acting as an agent for an international modeling sensation. Madeline is largely treated with respect, but her mother admits there are some who don’t take her seriously. Part of this is being an outlier in what has been a historically non-inclusive industry.
“Historically, the modeling industry has upheld a rigid set of ideas in beauty: thin, white, able-bodied and tall. Madeline’s imagery is a form of activism, and that, in and of itself, is attractive,” said Sara Ziff, who founded Model Alliance, an advocacy and policy group for people working in the fashion industry.
This is important for everyone out there parenting a child with Down syndrome because those families need to see people with Down syndrome thriving in spaces like the modeling industry.
Over 100 high-fashion runway walks later, Madeline’s career is one she aims to continue. Both for herself and for celebrating Down syndrome in the fashion industry.
“Through exposure and people supporting us, things will slowly keep changing. People are realizing this is not a gimmick. I work as hard as any model. My mum has been my best friend and biggest supporter, and I won’t give up on my dream,” Madeline shared.
She has started her own clothing line that celebrates the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome. Called 21 Reasons Why she carries an expansive (and very colorful) collection of leggings, shirts, and shorts which debuted and launched in 2017 at New York Fashion Week.
“She’s become a bit of a diva. I truly love that about her,” Rosanne said.
International fame does that sometimes. In all this, Madeline’s mother is grateful for her willingness and drive to advocate for herself and for the rest of a marginalized community. A true agent of change, all while slaying on the runway.