Penn State

Penn State grad, model wants to use platform for disability community ‘lacking a voice’

Penn State grad wants to bring ‘visibility’ to people with disabilities

Penn State grad Julian W. Lucas says he wants to bring more visibility to people living with disabilities
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Penn State grad Julian W. Lucas says he wants to bring more visibility to people living with disabilities

Julian W. Lucas is many things — a model, an actor, a comedian, an uncle.

But what the 2013 Penn State graduate wants to you to know is that he’s more than his disability.

“For me, growing up I wanted nothing to do with being looked at as someone with ... one arm,” he said in a phone interview from his home city of Philadelphia. “It was honestly the most frustrating thing. I just wanted to blend in, I wanted to be like everyone else.”

Lucas was born with a congenital limb abnormality, meaning he has been missing the lower part of his right arm since birth.

From a young age, he gained attention for excelling in sports, particularly baseball. But he found it condescending when people would congratulate him on his performance when he had played poorly or not at all, simply because he was playing with one arm.

“I really resisted the idea of doing anything from an ‘inspiring’ perspective,” he said. “Because, again, I can’t even go to the grocery store without having a million people look at me.”

When he got to Penn State as a freshman, his whole world “explode(d) right open,” he said.

Though he tried not to make much of his arm as a kid, in the college dating scene, it became hard to ignore.

“It was becoming more and more apparent that I was letting my arm and my body image in general ... just get to me and kind of dictate more of my life than I wanted it to,” he said.

So he got serious about working out — lifting weights daily with his roommates, who were Penn State boxers and power lifters.

Julian W. Lucas lifts weights for a Champion clothing brand photo shoot. Lucas is a model and actor who advocates for more visibility among people with disabilities. Photo provided by Julian Lucas

Also at Penn State, Lucas found his passion for psychology. He worked in a research lab under Dr. Janet Swim, who researches the intersection of psychology and environmental sustainability. And he learned more about how his disability might have affected him psychologically in ways he didn’t even realize.

“I really wanted to pursue some modeling and acting but I just really didn’t have the confidence especially because of having one arm,” he said.

After graduation, he decided to stay in State College, because he loved the charm and passion of the town. In fact, he credits State College with being the most beautiful place he’s ever lived. He found work as a drug and alcohol counselor at a men’s inpatient rehabilitation facility in Belleville.

That work gave him a real understanding of how to find common ground with almost anyone. During his time as a counselor, he said, he worked with a variety of people — convicted murderers, people sold into sexual slavery, “average Joes,” severe burn victims, racists and many others.

After moving home to spend time with family, a torn meniscus during a game of basketball sent Lucas’ life spiraling. He needed emergency surgery and missed a planned trip abroad. Instead of buying another ticket, he took the money he had saved to travel, “packed up my car and just drove out cross-country.”

He and his friend settled on San Diego, where he started to pursue modeling and acting. He started posting amateur modeling pictures of himself, which led to an explosion of social media followers and an agent. He booked jobs with Nordstrom, Champion and Tommy Hilfiger, where the focus of the campaign was disability-inclusive fashion.

Julian W. Lucas, a model and actor who advocates for disability representation, in his latest shoot for Tommy Hilfiger. Photo provided by Julian W. Lucas

His career took him to Los Angeles, where he worked with T-mobile, appeared in a photo shoot for HBO’s “Westworld” and was in a music video with the band Thirty Seconds to Mars, helmed by star Jared Leto.

But acting with a disability brought its own set of problems.

“I was still very much self conscious about my arm, and what I’d be able to achieve professionally,” he said. “I was so frustrated always being typecast as some amputee horror story.”

Frustrated with the lack of diverse roles for people with disabilities, Lucas turned to comedy, which he found more accepting and diverse. He started performing sketch comedy and improv with Second City and the Upright Citizens’ Brigade.

With a larger platform on social media and through his modeling and acting work, Lucas said he wants to focus on making positive change in peoples’ lives, especially those with disabilities.

“This community is lacking a voice and I really, really want to play a legit role and be a legit voice because I truly believe that my perspective and my way of approaching some of these kind of topics and issues ... I really respect my own thoughts and beliefs about it,” he said.

In television and other media, he said, people from minority communities are starting to have real representation, but people with disabilities are largely missing from that.

Lucas reflected on the first time he saw another person with one arm. “I looked at them and I thought they looked so weird,” he said. “Because I’m going through my whole life ... every other person I’m seeing doesn’t have one arm.”

For now, Lucas is taking a hiatus from living on the West Coast to spend time with family, watching his niece and nephew at his brother’s house in Philadelphia. He doesn’t want to miss their “prime cuteness” years, where they want to spend time with him and play all the time.

But one day, he joked, “I’m gonna be like, ‘Hey, you!’ and (my niece) is gonna be like, ‘OK, get away from me.’ ”

Working as a model, he said, might not seem like it’s going to help people, but just his presence on Instagram has shown him he’s touched people’s lives.

People have thanked him for his work, told him he’s saved their lives, or they’ve asked for help with fitness tips and body image issues, he said. On the other side, people have also sent death threats, tried to propose to him or said offensive things.

But that hasn’t deterred him from the spotlight.

“I want to be able to help play a role in changing our perceptions of beauty and how people live their life from all different walks of life,” he said. “Of how a person with one arm can simply just ‘be’ rather then have to be some war vet, car crash survivor, or even an inspirational figure ... I want to be able to help facilitate change so people can live so much more freely and confidently.”

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.