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Model with One Arm Wants to Increase Diversity in Modeling: 'I Never Considered Myself as Disabled'

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Fred Jonny

Born without her left forearm, model Kelly Knox never felt like she was missing out.

“I never considered myself as disabled,” Knox, 31, tells PEOPLE. “Growing up, we never used the word; my arm is part of me, just like every other part is.”

So the London-based Knox was a bit surprised when she heard about a reality show in the U.K. aimed at people who are “beautiful, disabled and feel you could be the next Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss” back in 2008.

“I felt intrigued because I never considered myself as disabled,” Knox says. “I wanted to prove disabled people can be beautiful, fashionable, strong, powerful and capable.”

Knox decided to enter, and took home the crown in the show’s only season.

“I was a completely different person back then – I had no experience of disability or modelling,” she says. “It opened up a whole new world and ignited a passion I never knew existed.”

But modelling and being in the spotlight was the perfect fit for the confident Knox. It was the rest of the industry that needed to catch up.

Fred Jonny
“I felt an instant connection with the camera and wanted to challenge it. Fashion is a tough industry – you need to be strong,” Knox says.

“To suddenly be labelled as disabled was more difficult to get my head around.”

And she ran into critics early on.

“I felt the world was not ready for a model like me,” Knox says. “I remember a model saying, ‘New York Fashion Week would rather burn down then see a disabled model on the runway.’ ”

But Knox quickly grew a following. She’s only ever been on two castings in her career – ever since, casting directors have contacted her directly because they wanted to include Knox in their campaigns.

And now, she thinks the tides are turning in the modelling world.

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“More brands, agents and fashion houses are welcoming disability into their world,” Knox says. “Diversity is trendy, diversity is cool, and diversity sells.”

But to help the fashion industry catch up a little quicker, Knox, along with her agent, Lisa Balcombe, launched the Diversity Not Disability campaign at the end of January.

“When people think about diversity in fashion, they think about colour, size, and transgender – never disability,” Knox says. “It needs to be part of the diversity agenda – for the evolution of fashion.”

And Knox is already making headway – she’ll walk in London Fashion Week – and yes, New York Fashion Week – this fall.

“I am on a mission to make the world a more inclusive, inspirational, positive and equal place to be – one photo-shoot at a time.”