He taught himself to ride a bike before he let anyone watch. It was the same with basketball and track. He perfected group activities on his own before doing them publicly. He didn’t wear shorts for years.
The less chance he’d give anyone to stop and stare, the better.
Shareif Hall was 4 years old in 1996 when, on the day before Thanksgiving, his right foot was torn off by a SEPTA subway escalator in North Philadelphia that was in need of repair.
If you remember his awful story, it’s probably because Hall’s name and face dominated local headlines for years as litigation revealed that SEPTA had been aware of its faulty escalator and warned of the danger it presented to the public.
But after Hall’s family finally settled their lawsuit against SEPTA in 2000, his story receded from public view.
There is a lot about the years after his life-changing accident that remains a blur for the 27-year-old, who now goes by Reef. But what remains vivid are the lengths he went to hide his leg, and his struggle.
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“I didn’t want to be looked at as abnormal. The moment it was time to show my leg, I just wasn’t doing it,” he said. “Physically wasn’t really the issue. It was more mentally accepting the fact that when I do it, I may look different, and I don’t want to deal with that embarrassment. I couldn’t deal with it. I wasn’t there yet.”
His mother, Deneen Hall, recalled those times.
“I was holding his hand when he got hurt. It was the worst thing we’d ever experienced. It was hard for him. I told him to keep his head up and God will take care of it.”
The family received a substantial settlement from SEPTA. But behind that victory was still a little boy trying to make sense of his new reality.
It took time, but as Hall grew older and found the tools and people to help him through his trauma, he became more comfortable with his leg. It was no longer something to hide and overcome. It was a canvas for his blooming creativity and entrepreneurship.
Suddenly the little boy who once did everything he could not to attract attention to his leg was pursuing a modeling career featuring his prosthetic, front and center.
The way he saw it, his leg could be as fashionable as any accessory. It started with getting his prosthetic airbrushed. One of the first custom designs he commissioned was of a phoenix rising from the ashes, much as he had. He now has a tattoo of that image on his arm.
As he got more interested in fashion and cars, he started to consider how the “wrap" technology used to decorate vehicles might not only expand his designs, but allow him to turn them into a marketing strategy he calls Prosthetic Art.
Sean Tomlin, owner of the New Jersey-based Designer Wraps, recalled the first time Hall came in.
There was some trial and error as they worked on a pattern template that would line up with the dimensions of the prosthetic, but lead designer Casey Guessford figured it out.
“At first, it was a pretty simple idea" — change the color of the prosthetic, add a logo when Reef wanted it, Tomlin said, chuckling. “Then it seemed as though we had a design going for him all the time."
“I think it’s absolutely incredible what he’s created,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”
In addition to his personal designs, Hall is also making his prosthetic a potential “billboard” space, available for hire. To test the concept, he has created and worn designs promoting his favorite brands and celebrities. One recent design celebrated a friend’s wedding.
Hall has another fan in Mindy Scheier, founder of the Runway of Dreams Foundation. Scheier, a longtime fashion designer who has a child with muscular dystrophy, started the nonprofit organization to promote inclusion, acceptance, and opportunity in the fashion industry for people with disabilities.
After seeing a social media post about Hall, she reached out and asked him to participate in her adaptive fashion show during New York Fashion Week in 2018. The next year he walked in Philly Fashion Week. He was a natural on the runway.
“I think that his story is one that needs to be shared," said Scheier. "In a minute, his world changed. And yet he’s utilizing his disability to make a positive difference in the world, to show that what makes you different is not a negative. It’s what makes you unique.”
That’s exactly the message Hall is hoping to send as he pursues modeling, looking to other models who’ve already used their differences to make a difference.
His role model is Winnie Harlow. In 2014, Harlow, born with a chronic skin condition, placed sixth on that year’s America’s Next Top Model. She made history in 2018 as the first model with vitiligo to walk in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
Hall’s got his eye on making history, too. He’s already caught the attention of some brands and celebrities, including Chris Brown and Ellen DeGeneres, whose team responded to a post of his “The Ellen Show” leg wrap with an invite. “Shereif, you’re amazing. DM me and we’ll send you some Ellen gear."
“For a long time, I didn’t think there was anything cool about my leg," said Hall. "I got to a place where, ‘OK, I’m accepting it. I can’t change it, so it is what it is.'
"Now, I want people who are maybe in my shoes, and even those who aren’t, to look at it and see everything it represents. I think if, growing up, there were people in high-profile spaces that had represented me, I maybe would have come to this point a lot sooner.”