The boy in the brown leather bomber jacket couldn’t look much cooler, what with his insouciantly upturned collar, surfer-dude blond hair, and an expression that radiates self-confidence and joie de vivre in equal measure. Typical model, right? Absolutely. Except that Ryan Langston, the model in question, is six years old. Oh—and he has Down syndrome.
Ryan, who lives in Garwood, made his modeling debut in the summer of 2011, rocking the bomber jacket in Nordstrom’s semiannual anniversary catalog. But his breakout photo—which garnered him media attention from the likes of NBC Nightly News, the Washington Post and London’s Daily Mail—was in a Target circular published on New Year’s Day, 2012. In the photo, he’s one of five kids (but the only one with Down syndrome) gleefully showing off a selection of affordably priced T-shirts. Sure, these are all good-looking kids—they’re models, after all—but you could easily mistake each of them for a boy (or girl) next door, and that’s the point.
Not long ago, children with disabilities might have found modeling opportunities only in specialty catalogs like Enabling Devices and Achievement Products. Today, they’re making inroads into the mainstream media, as a growing number of corporations attempt to ensure that their advertising (or, in the case of publishers and television producers, their content) more accurately reflects their customer base.
“Target has included people with disabilities in our advertising for many years,” says Antoine LaFromboise, a company spokesperson, “and will continue to feature people who represent the diversity of communities across the country.” Other national retailers, including Toys “R” Us and Sears, have used disabled models in their catalogs and circulars; publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt feature kids with disabilities in their textbooks; and the cast of Fox TV’s phenomenally successful series Glee includes a recurring character with Down syndrome, Becky Jackson, played by an actress with Down syndrome, Lauren Potter.
Celine Fortin, associate executive director of the Arc of New Jersey, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, believes the trend reflects a growing reality. “People with disabilities are living, working and increasingly visible in our communities,” she says, “which may explain why we’re seeing more of them in the media.”
If the trend sends a message, it’s that disabled kids play with toys, like to wear funky clothes, go to school and sing and dance just like the rest of us. No big deal. Indeed, what ignited national attention about Ryan’s appearance in the Target circular—released without fanfare or publicity—was the fact that it wasn’t a big deal. Truly, the first thing you’re likely to notice about Ryan in the photo isn’t his disability, but his charisma.
“He’s a good-looking kid who happens to have Down syndrome,” says his mother, Amanda Langston, who views Ryan as something of an ambassador for the disability.
Also known as trisomy 21 (since its underlying cause is an extra copy of chromosome 21), Down syndrome is a set of symptoms—ranging from mild to severe—that can include limited cognitive, social and physical abilities. Ryan’s impairment—including significant cognitive delay and problems with fine motor coordination—is considered mild to moderate on the Down syndrome spectrum.
“People can be reluctant about approaching a child with Down syndrome,” says Amanda. “I think Ryan makes it incredibly approachable. He’s a happy guy. If you were in a doctor’s waiting room with Ryan, he’d be over and talking to you within five minutes. That’s who he is—a very outgoing, gregarious little boy.”
That congenial personality is part of what makes him a successful model. “I don’t care how good-looking a child is; the ability to smile and be happy carries the day,” says Irv Field, co-owner of Elen’s Kids, the Cranford modeling agency that represents Ryan and several other child models with Down syndrome. Field notes that the capacity to take direction is another essential. And while Ryan can ham it up with the best of them, he’s also cooperative and collaborative by nature.
When a friend first suggested that the Langstons consider modeling for their two good-looking sons, the couple assumed that the natural candidate would be Ryan’s fraternal twin, Ian. Like Ryan, Ian has striking good looks; he’s dark haired where his brother is blond, but he has the same outgoing personality. But unlike Ryan, Ian doesn’t have Down syndrome. What Ian does have is a surfeit of energy and a tendency to push the limits. That makes him a typical 6-year-old boy, but it doesn’t necessarily make him the ideal child model. “After going on several auditions,” says Jim Langston, “we found out that there are lots of cute kids, but the right candidate for a modeling agency has to be cooperative. Ryan is much mellower than his brother. Ryan will work with you.”
The fact that Ryan is the family’s top model is just fine with his parents. When you’ve got twins and only one of them has a disability, there’s always the worry that the non-disabled child will outshine his or her sibling. “Ryan can’t keep up with Ian athletically or academically,” says his father. “Ian rides a two-wheeler and is almost popping wheelies; Ryan just started mastering the tricycle. And the gap keeps getting wider. But modeling—modeling is the area he shines in.”
His mother agrees: “It’s boosted his self-confidence,” she says. “He has a good time doing it, and he enjoys the social interaction.” Still, she sometimes finds herself defending her decision to allow him to model. She lives in fear, she says, of the label “stage mother,” which helps to explain why her initial approach to Ryan’s modeling career was somewhat passive. If an audition conflicted with a school day or a family vacation, she was likely to skip it. She almost turned down the Target audition because she had plans to take the boys to visit her parents in South Jersey that day.
Then Amanda had an epiphany. “I thought, why aren’t we doing more of this?” Ryan was a child, after all, who’d been born with two holes in his heart, who’d undergone open-heart surgery at three months, who’d struggled with all sorts of things that typical kids master with ease—drinking from a bottle, using a spoon—and who still struggles with fine motor coordination (he can spell his name but hasn’t yet learned to write it). “If people want to request Ryan [for modeling jobs] and he loves doing it,” his mother decided, “then why not?”
And it’s clear that he does love it. Ask him if he likes to model, and he’ll offer you a dazzling smile and a straightforward answer: “Yeah.” Ask him if he’s a star, and he’s even more emphatic: “Oh, yeah.” In fact, says his mother, the hardest part of any modeling job has been convincing Ryan to leave the set.
Ryan’s time in the spotlight doesn’t seem to have aroused resentment in his less-celebrated twin. In fact, there’s a remarkable emotional symbiosis between the two that his mother calls a blessing, a powerful connection that clearly works to the benefit of both boys. When Ryan heads up to their shared bedroom to retrieve a toy, Ian notes approvingly, “He’s a fast runner up the stairs.” (“You taught him well,” his mother responds wryly.) And when she asks Ryan if Ian is a good brother, he answers with equal admiration: “Yeah,” he says. “He’s very smart.”
“If it’s in the cards that we have a child with Down syndrome,” says Amanda, “we couldn’t have gotten it better.” In Ian, she explains, Ryan has a 24/7 teacher, protector and role model. And Ryan offers Ian the opportunity to be both leader and nurturer, roles that he relishes.
Though the Langstons understand that their sons are on two different trajectories—Ryan attends a special-needs school—they nevertheless have the same hopes and expectations for both. “We’d like them to contribute something of value,” says Jim, “and we want both of their lives to have dignity. I don’t want Ryan to be the ‘pat on the head’ kid—I want people to respect him.”
If modeling offers Ryan both respect and a chance to contribute, then his parents are willing to see where and how far it takes him. And if it offers him the chance to be an ambassador for Down syndrome, all the better. “We always knew there was something unique about Ryan—and, okay, that’s what every parent thinks about his kids—but there really is something here,” says his father.
Jim gazes down at Ryan, who is purposefully clearing away bowls from the kitchen table and stacking them on the counter by the sink. “And the fact that everybody else is starting to see what’s unique in him,” he adds, “that’s very, very cool.”
Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment