In September 2016, he became NYFW’s first-ever model with Down Syndrome
At 20 years old, Rachel Wolverton had only met one other person with Down Syndrome. Now, as she walked to her doctor’s office in Greenville, she quickly adjusted a blue blanket to cover up the distinctive features of her two-week-old son.
In the waiting room, a woman in line turned around to face her. She pulled back a corner of the blanket and peeked in. “Is that a Down baby?” the woman said flatly. “My friend has one of those.”
Rachel held back tears, flushed with anger and helplessness. But what her pediatrician, Dr. Mike Adkisson, said when he later saw the flushed young mother would change her perspective—and her baby’s life—forever.
“Rachel,” Dr. Adkisson said. “You have to remember—this is not a Down Syndrome baby. This is a baby who has Down Syndrome.”
Rachel had been mourning the loss of the child she thought she should have had. Now, she realized that she did have that same perfect child she’d always imagined. Just a different kind of perfect. He was Jude Hass.
Rachel has been fighting for others to see him that way ever since. She never would have dreamed, however, that it would all lead to a catwalk in New York.
Jude has been modeling since he was two. Speech therapists wanted to use him in their brochures, and Jude’s love of “looking handsome” snowballed into a passion.
“I remember when he was seven, I was pregnant and had a toddler,” Rachel says. “Jude came in with a button-down shirt and said, ‘Mom, I want to wear this. I want to look handsome.’ I was changing a diaper and exhausted, so I said ‘Jude, you’re seven. If you want to wear handsome clothes, you’ll have to learn to button that yourself.’
“Twenty minutes later, he came out with the shirt on like it was no big deal.”
Fast forward nearly ten years and the pair have continued to pursue his modelling career—loving the ride, even if nothing comes out of an audition.
“We don’t acknowledge the fact that he has Down Syndrome,” Rachel says. “It’s been amazing because people have just treated him like he’s a regular teenage kid. That’s what he is. That’s what we want.”
Jude’s break came at the 2015 USBLN Conference in Austin. Taking part in a fashion show, he impressed the audience so much, that Global Disability Inclusion sponsored him to take part in Fall New York Fashion Week, 2016.
Jude made history on September 10, 2016 when he debuted as NYFW’s first-ever model with Down Syndrome.
He wore children’s designer Blu & Blue New York. He held a sign that said “#IAmNYFW.” He gave his sponsor finger guns and a wink on his turn around the corner. The crowd went crazy.
“The whole point of his debut at NYFW was to show that people with disabilities should have the same opportunities as everyone else, that they are equal, not ‘special,’” Rachel says. “Jude believes that. He knows that society’s perception about his disability limits him more than the diagnosis itself … He knows inside what he is capable of.”
Back home in Plano, Jude is showing the world exactly what he’s capable of.
In April, he auditioned at a competitive turnout and came away with a part in an inclusion film made by the American Bible Society.
He recently did a photoshoot with the Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas and McKinney-based fitness company Special Strong. Jude is one of the 2017 Ambassadors for the Down Syndrome Guild, and will be featured in their calendar and website later this year.
Now Jude is looking for a more typical kind of work experience.
“When you’re sixteen and have never worked before, you can go get a job and they’ll hire you because it seems like a normal trajectory of growing up,” Rachel says. “But when you have a disability, there are barriers there. So we have to think ahead, consider that people will have certain perceptions and be ready to prove them wrong or put them at ease by showing he’s capable.”
When Jude was three years old, a woman told Rachel that the most she could ever hope for him was that he be a greeter at Walmart.
“If he wanted to be a greeter at Walmart and that was his heart’s desire, then fine. I’d support that,” Rachel affirms. “But does he have to be a greeter at Walmart because of his disability? I balk at that. I told that lady ‘He’ll be whoever the hell he wants to be.’ I was 22 and a hot mess.”
Rachel laughs. “I was really just a kid, too. I didn’t quite have my advocacy skills down yet.”
“It’s just another part of him, but not a part that should limit him in any way.”