Fashion Week, the premier event in the American fashion industry, is a must-attend event for thousands of designers, buyers, retailers and members of
by Denise H. McClinton

Fashion Week, the premier event in the American fashion industry, is a must-attend event for thousands of designers, buyers, retailers and members of the national and international press. Every year in February, these fashionistas converge on New York City to seek out the latest in fashion trends and styles. But this year they got an extra surprise.

During 2007 Fashion Week, a group of women who spend their lives in wheelchairs modeled designer outfits and custom-designed wheelchairs at Rolling with Style, a fundraising fashion event to benefit research into spinal cord injury and women's health issues.

The full-scale runway show and celebrity-filled spectacular, held at Manhattan's Cipriani Feb. 6, was the brainchild of Discovery Through Design, an organization celebrating the success of women with spinal cord injuries who serve as role, or in this case, “roll” models.

Hosted by Lesley Stahl of CBS' “60 Minutes,” the event drew more than 500 attendees and raised nearly $1 million for the Christopher Reeve Foundation, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and The Spinal Cord Injury Project at Rutgers University.

DTD was founded by a group of women in wheelchairs including Marilyn Hamilton, co-founder of Quickie Designs and vice president of consumer relations for Sunrise Medical, along with Wendy Crawford, Ashley Lauren Fisher and Julia Stockton Dorsett.

“The four of us came together because we all had a role in this project,” explains Hamilton. “We are a group of two women in manual wheelchairs and two women in power wheelchairs believing that women with spinal cord injuries are doing more than surviving; we are really thriving in today's society, going after our dreams and doing everything that we like.”

Crawford, a former model, is the developer of, an informational Web site for women with disabilities. Fisher is an actress and owner of Pazzo Pazzo restaurant in Morristown, N.J. And Dorsett brings a focus on fitness to the group as a professional wheelchair tennis player who represented the United States at the 2004 Paralympics and World Team Cup.

Believing that women in wheelchairs have been overlooked for too long, DTD conducted a nationwide search for roll models to honor at the Rolling with Style event. Their goal was to find women in wheelchairs who are making a valuable contribution to the world while living life to the fullest.

“We asked each entrant to send a bio and to list what their contributions have been as well as what their spinal cord injury meant to them,” says Hamilton. “We received so many responses and were surprised at the number of women, including quadriplegics with high-level injuries, who wanted to be [involved in] this project.”

A panel of judges selected four winners:

  • Jenny Smith, 33, of Louisville, Ky., sustained a complete C6-7 spinal cord injury when she was 6 while practicing gymnastics. Since then, she has earned two degrees in psychology and now spends countless hours working with The Mobility Project, where she has helped distribute more than 1,000 wheelchairs to disabled people in Mexico, Costa Rica and Afghanistan.

  • Melissa Holley, 24, of Nashville, Tenn., was paralyzed in a car accident while at college. She was the first patient to undergo an experimental spinal cord treatment in Tel Aviv and now is working to bring the procedure to the United States. Holley, who earned a master's degree in organizational management from Vanderbilt University, received an honorable mention in Glamour magazine's “Top Ten College Women of 2004” and is a sought-after speaker.

  • Michele Boardman, 19, of Harleysville, Pa., has muscular dystrophy and has been unable to walk since age 12. She earned a four-year academic scholarship to Arcadia University, where she is preparing for a career in pediatric genetic counseling.

  • Rosemarie Rossetti, 52, of Columbus, Ohio, was paralyzed in a freak accident when a tree fell on her as she was bicycling. The founder of her own consulting company, Rossetti travels the country speaking about the struggle to overcome her injury, writes a syndicated newspaper column and is author of the book Take Back Your Life.

DTD's founders partnered with well-known fashion designers — including Nicole Miller, Baby Phat's Kimora Lee Simmons, St. John, Thom Browne, Zang Toi, Lloyd Klein, Stephan Cori and Marc Bouwer — to honor the four winners, who modeled fashion ensembles and custom-designed Quickie wheelchairs.

“These women represent what we aspire for all women in wheelchairs, that they thrive, not just survive,” says Hamilton, who adds that DTD is as much about awareness as anything else.

“It is not just about a handout. We want to create the opportunity for those who are not as bold by breaking down barriers now to pave the way for others to get on with their lives,” she says. “The only way we are going to get there is through awareness, recognition, changing attitudes and providing skill sets to those with disabilities so they can participate in society.”