Wheelchair-using model proves that beauty has no limits.
Oksana Kononets isn’t your typical fashion model. The 29-year-old quadriplegic from Ukraine uses a wheelchair, the result of a fall from the fifth floor of an apartment building in 2012 when she was a 19-year-old university student. However, Kononets refuses to let her disability define who she is or derail her career aspirations in the fashion industry. “My disability is not an obstacle to fulfilling my dreams,” she writes on her website.
Kononets says during many months of rehabilitation, two things kept her going—the love and support of family and friends, and her lifelong dream of becoming a model. Fear often held her back. “I mistakenly thought that no one would be interested in someone in a wheelchair.”
She returned to university and graduated—twice—with degrees in teaching and social work and began writing a fashion blog. She also watched the reality TV show “Push Girls”, which chronicled the lives of four women using wheelchairs. Kononets says she was inspired by one of the women on the show, Angela Rockwood, who was a quadriplegic model like herself. “I thought if she could do it, so could I.”
After compiling a portfolio and creating her own website, Kononets contacted several modeling agencies in Ukraine and elsewhere. “Usually, the answer to me was silence,” she recalls. “The fashion market wasn’t ready for models with disabilities.”
An agency in Milan signed her to a contract, but after learning that Kononets did not drive a wheelchair herself, they changed their mind. She is currently raising money for an electric wheelchair to give her more independence.
The tipping point was when she appeared on a reality TV show in Ukraine in 2015 that required her to sit for many hours in her wheelchair. “I realized my physical condition wasn’t as weak as I thought, and that I could withstand many hours of filming.”
A series of successes followed. In 2016, she won the Beauty No Limits contest in Ukraine as well as the Miss Elegance title. She was named Miss Individuality at the first Miss Wheelchair World in 2017, where she was noticed by the director of a modeling agency that organized inclusive fashion shows in Paris and Sri Lanka, in which she participated. In 2018, she became the first wheelchair-using model to appear on the runway during Ukraine’s Fashion Week. She has also appeared in numerous photo shoots, television ads, and a music video.
After winning Beauty No Limits and becoming one of its organizers, Kononets realized she wanted to use her success to encourage young women with disabilities to become models. She founded Unbroken Beauty, a social photo project that portrayed Ukrainian girls with disabilities, as well as Neskoreni, a charitable organization that aims to integrate people with disabilities into the fashion industry.
“I wanted to show that beauty and success is for everyone,” she says. “Fashion, beauty, and haute couture is not limited to able-bodied people, and the wheelchair is only a means of transportation.”
When the war in Ukraine erupted in February and numerous modeling assignments were cancelled, Kononets made the difficult decision to flee her home country to appear in the Runway of Dreams fashion show in Los Angeles, which featured 70 models with disabilities. While her father and sister remained behind in Kyiv, Kononets and her mother spent five days traveling, including a grueling 11-hour train ride to Poland where they stayed for two days before boarding a 16-hour flight from Warsaw. “It was the harshest period of my life,” Kononets recalls.
While she hopes to return to Ukraine one day, in the meantime, she is building her modeling career in the United States. She recently appeared in Diversity Professional’s Women of Excellence Awards fashion show.
Despite her difficult journey, Kononets remains optimistic about the future. She says anything is possible if you have the courage to dream big. “Inside, you are strong and have power to do what you want. If you are afraid, you need to face your fears and fight for what you want. Only then will you have success.”