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Is fashion doing enough to be disability-inclusive?

Though a variety of brands are exploring more adaptive clothing, disability continues to see a lack of representation in the fashion industry.

Regardless of the positive and progressive changes the fashion industry has been making lately in terms of diversity, sustainability, and inclusion, there are still people who continue to feel under-represented.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are more than 1 billion people living with some kind of disability around the world, accounting for 15% of the entire global population and representing the largest minority group.

The demand for adaptive fashion is very real, but adaptive wear is still a niche market that struggles to reach consumers.

Disabled models are rarely seen in online editorials, magazines, or on the runway and consumers with physical disabilities are frequently neglected among luxury and high street brands.

The prevalence of this was revealed in 2019 when leading disability charity Leonard Cheshire conducted a survey highlighting the lack of choice for disabled shoppers in mainstream fashion.

Bringing to light that body shaming and ageism are not the only stigmas within fashion we should currently be combatting, the report uncovered that 75% of disabled people do not feel as though their needs are being met by the industry, and a staggering 96% also believe that they aren’t being sufficiently represented.

‘The fashion industry doesn’t consider the shape of a person who has to sit in a chair, who might have a larger stomach or shorter body,’ said participant Kim Nash at the time.

‘When was the last time a designer took a range of people with different needs and thought “let’s make a fashionable, affordable wardrobe for everyday occasions for people like me?”’

For many disabled people, off-the-rail garments are inaccessible and cause discomfort.

Due to restricted mobility, clothing choices can impact whether or not they can operate functionally. So, why has necessary progress to rectify this been so slow?

While fashion may be inherently speedy when taking on the latest trends, it hasn’t been quite so quick to jump at the opportunity to represent people of different abilities.

Arguably, the perpetuation of deep-rooted stereotypes is to blame, specifically ableism (discrimination in favour of the able-bodied) which both the industry and the media are at fault of disseminating. Unfortunately, however, that’s not all.

Much of the clothing designed for those with disabilities is inclined to functionality, leaving the style component overlooked.

This means that, although the solution can in fact be as simple as using different types of easy-access fixtures such as magnetic buttons, one-handed zips, adjustable Velcro hemlines, and bungee-cord closures for example, designers view the process of reconfiguring silhouettes entirely as too challenging and expensive.

Thinking about fashion in this way requires them to become engineers, utilising problem-solving, innovation and empathy, the likes of which is regularly deemed too difficult a task.

‘There was a lot of interest in figuring out design developments in the ‘60s, but there was no relationship between that research to fashion and style because the business wasn’t seen as viable,’ says Kerri McBee-Black, a professor who studies clothing and disabilities.

‘‘It was seen as a costly endeavour, and there was an association that a majority of people with disabilities are low-income and don’t care about fashion.’

But this isn’t to say that no strides whatsoever have been taken and it’s definitely starting to look like attitudes have reached a significant turning point.

To begin with, social media has provided a platform for people with disabilities to become more visible, to share their experiences with others, and spread the world that they should absolutely be considered desirable consumers.

Particularly given that the global market value for adaptive fashion is an expected $280 billion by 2026.

Acknowledging this – alongside an acute awareness that inclusivity remains a hot-button issue for fashion to address – pioneering retail and designer brands alike are eager to increase their efforts to show that they’re keeping up with the times. That they realise it’s not optional or a choice, but an obligation to support the disabled community.

‘There are leaders in the industry that have acknowledged and responded to the need for accessibility and inclusivity,’ says designer Jay Calderin.

‘Design that considers different bodies and different abilities from the very beginning of the design process shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the rule.’

At the forefront of this is Tommy Hilfiger which, in 2016, launched an adaptive fashion line for children in collaboration with disability-focused non-profit Runway of Dreams, illustrating the power of creating stylish clothing for consumers who’ve been historically overlooked.

Moving a lot of the conversations forward, it went on to feature models with a range of chronic conditions and impairments in its SS18 campaign, ‘empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion,’ (as stated on the collection’s website).   

This sparked a powerful response on Instagram, with users commenting on how refreshing it was to finally see their community represented in fashion and proved that inclusion and the normalisation of disability in the fashion world can actually happen.

More recently, Prada became the first luxury fashion house to join The Valuable 500, a global initiative dedicated to putting disability on the business leadership agenda, and has committed to hiring individuals affected by Down’s Syndrome in its shops in Italy.

And last month Nike announced the release of its first-ever hands-free shoe which, using game changing tech, allows wearers to step into the pair without a single adjustment or closure point.

Three years in the making, it proves how promising technological advancements will revolutionise fashion for disabled consumers in the future.

As fashion faces a moment of reckoning, adaptivewear sets a precedent for diversity. From design to model to consumer, it’s a world where inclusion can no longer be an afterthought.

‘Given COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, I think it’s going to have brands and companies, specifically fashion, rethink about how they’re designing,’ finishes Calderin. ‘Or ask the question “are our designs leaving people out? And who is it excluding?”’

Disabled communities need their voices to be heard so it’s certainly encouraging to witness popular brands striving to help make that happen publicly.

Fashion is indeed moving forward – every day – and the next step should be to ensure that more stores and fashion shows are made accessible as well as changing the perception that people with disabilities are a charity when they are simply a valued client.


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