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The moon over Baikal glittered in different way, like you are looking at sable fur

'
Ian Frazier, 2013

Welcome inside a unique Siberian modelling school with a mission to smash taboos

By Kate Baklitskaya
30 March 2013

On 31 March, the remarkable Modelling School for People with Special Needs in Tomsk will hold its third casting session.

'When I was healthy I didn't pay much attention to the lives of people with special needs', she accepts. 'I didn't see them actually, didn't hear about them'. Picture: Irina Dorokhova

The three month course in this first-ever Russian school of its type is free of charge, says Irina Dorokhova, 36, the creator of the project and director of the school.

Tomsk is probably little different from other places: statistics shows that the region has 64,300 people with special needs in Tomsk region. Some 3,200 are children and almost the same number are wheelchair users - which means that every 15th person in Tomsk region has special needs.

Irina Dorokhova, a chief accountant, admits candidly that she never really thought about the problems of people with disabilities and their consequent needs until she got into a car crash at the age of 31.  She lost a friend then, and fought for her own life for several months. 

'I was in a car crash on 7 July 2007. It took me a year and a half of medical treatment and hospitalisation to get back to normal life', she says.

Irina never got the chance to return to the life she had before her accident.

She found herself with the status of 'a person with special needs of the 1st group' - which means her condition is categorised as severe. She uses a wheelchair; not that it stopped her from getting back to active life and working hard to improve the lives of people she feels are 'invisible' to wider society. 

'When I was healthy I didn't pay much attention to the lives of people with special needs', she accepts. 'I didn't see them actually, didn't hear about them'. 

Tomsk Irina Dorokhova

When we were at Novosibirsk Fashion Week, we were the only people with disabilities there and it was very sad and offensive to hear the 'real' models saying something like 'What is this circus?' 'What do disabled people do here?' Picture: Irina Dorokhova

'Our society doesn't raise this problem, doesn't discuss it. And only when you become one of them you realise how little is done for them', she says.

After her accident, and life-changing experience, Irina devoted her drive and ambition to opening up opportunities for this group in society. 

Her work is inspirational. 

'The idea to get a school for models with special needs came to me after participating in a fashion designers' contest called 'Special Fashion', organised with the support of our regional public movement 'Divo',' she explains. 

'All participants liked the idea of creating a 'special' fashion for people with special needs. The contest was not only about style and beauty - it helped people to meet and talk to each other, to feel special and unique - which they certainly are.

'When we started searching for models for the fashion show we saw that there was a lack of professionals in this sphere in Russia. I'm not talking about Moscow, there are more fashion shows for people with disabilities there, but in Siberia in particular there were none.'

This is how Irina decided to start her own school for fashion models and it opened in spring 2012. Relatives and friends have always supported Irina, and she says that thanks to them, she could start projects to which she is now devoted. 

'I can say for sure that it's the first school of its kind in Siberia,' said Irina; and in fact there seems nothing equivalent in the entire country.

Tomsk school for models with special needs

'We talk to people from other countries and, for example, there are no schools like this in Italy or Brazil'. Picture: Irina Dorokhova

'There are workshops for people with special needs in other cities, but they are very rare. And to have a school with teachers that works continuously, it's the first case like this. 

'We talk to people from other countries and, for example, there are no schools like this in Italy or Brazil.'

After two seasons of the school, Irina is happy about the results.

'We have 40 people who attended our school. All the studying is done for free here so anyone who wants can join,' she says. 'The first season proved itself to be a success and the results we got helped us to get grants to sponsor the second session. Now the Department of Family and Children supports us, for which we are very grateful'.

According to Irina, the age of the students in the school is not limited: among her recruits is an eight year old child and also a 54 year old woman. Classes are held on Sundays for three hours, with a break.

The projected number of people in the group is ten, allowing everyone to get enough attention from the teacher. The students get to study acting, psychology and the catwalk. Profesional stylists and photographers work with them, offering their expertise.  

'We are strict only about the physical state of our students. We don't want them to feel worse from doing, and anyway physical exercise is involved. They also have to act so we don't accept people with, say, tumours. We take people in wheelchairs, people with cerebral palsy, and very big or very small people.'

Since the school was opened, its students have participated in several model shows in different cities. In November 2012 they presented a collection of evening gowns at a Fashion Week in Novosibirsk and later participated in the Fashion Week in Moscow. 

'In our country we still have a very special - if not to say negative - attitude to people with special needs', Irina says. 'They are left outside society, left alone, and feel not needed by anyone'. 

Irina Dorokhova Tomsk Siberia

'In our country we still have a very special - if not to say negative - attitude to people with special needs', Irina says. 'They are left outside society, left alone, and feel not needed by anyone'. Picture: Irina Dorokhova

'Even when you try to integrate it is very hard. People react negatively to your presence.

When we were at Novosibirsk Fashion Week, we were the only people with disabilities there and it was very sad and offensive to hear the 'real' models saying something like 'What is this circus?' 'What do disabled people do here?' 

'But later when the fashion show was over - and our students proved that they are no worse than any other model - it was great hearing the words of encouragement from the others'.

Irina Dorokhova's school deliberately develops not only a sense of style but also personality and leadership skills, teaches the art of communication, and the ability to present yourself. And it might be the only place for many of her students where they can learn such important qualities which can change their lives.

'I'm very proud of our students. Many of the people who graduated from our school changed their lives. For example Olga, now 21, one of our students in a wheelchair, became a professional model. Besides the fashion shows she goes to, she is running computer classes English classes to help others with special needs,' Irina says.

'Another amazing case of gaining self-confidence is Oleg, 40. He came from a village where 20 years ago he was in a car accident. He is also in a wheelchair but is into sports. We met with him just after he had moved to Tomsk and we invited him to attend  our school. 

'He got so interested in what we do that started working in an NGO first and now is an instructor in a swimming pool. These people got confidence and the props to move on with their life and help other people with special needs.'

Tomsk modelling school for people with special needs


Tomsk modelling school for people with special needs


Tomsk modelling school for people with special needs

'I'm very proud of our students. Olga, now 21, one of our students in a wheelchair, became a professional model'. Pictures: Irina Dorokhova

Irina doesn't plan to stop. The next project that she has already embarked on is organising dance classes for people with limited mobility. "'We have already found a place for the classes and the rest is in the process of sorting out. 

'We are now looking for dancers, volunteers, and, of course, the sponsors.'

The real proof of Irina's success is in the way she has helped change the lives of individuals but also society's perceptions, breaking a few taboos on the way. This was recently acknowledged in an award for the 'Siberian Spirit' in the 'Siberian of the Year' contest. 

'This is very unexpected for me,' says Irina. 'But I'm very glad, and most of all I'm pleased that it is the first time a person with special needs was chosen. 

'That means that people's mentality is changing. They look at you as at any other human being. Society overall might not be ready to accept people with special needs yet but this is changing and I'm very glad about it. That means that the work we do is not in vain'.

For Irina, the Siberian character is, above all, perseverance, commitment and sense of purpose to follow your path - the qualities that shine from her as an example to many of us.

Comments (8)

thank you for sharing you story Irina... god bless you and your models, you are fantastic people.
Rob, US
06/04/2013 01:35
4
0
cheers from Germany Irina - keep on going!
Tom, Berlin
04/04/2013 13:38
7
0
taking my hat off to you Irina. Keep smiling! And keep writing about your school
Esfir, NYC NY
03/04/2013 00:41
6
0
good story, inspiring woman - thank you
Rosie, Singapore
02/04/2013 09:15
8
0
Brilliant work Irina - don't give up!
Maria, Spain
01/04/2013 23:37
11
0
don't listen to idiots Irina, your modelling school is incredible. Please do keep us updated, and feel our support from all over the world
Megan and her family, Finland
01/04/2013 01:59
13
0
Inspiring, thank you Irina
Helena, Dublin
31/03/2013 22:31
15
0
'When we were at Novosibirsk Fashion Week, we were the only people with disabilities there and it was very sad and offensive to hear the 'real' models saying something like 'What is this circus?' 'What do disabled people do here?' '



I am sorry but this is a stone age. Shame on the so called 'models' who said that. Coat hangers they are indeed, no more.
Pawel, Poland, Lodz
31/03/2013 21:43
14
0
1

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