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The rise of disability representation in fashion

Why does disability still see an inherent lack of representation in the fashion industry and what are brands doing to be more inclusive?

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

Disabled models are rarely seen in magazines or on the runway and more often than not, customers with physical disabilities are neglected among luxury and high street brands – even when their campaigns actively champion diversity and inclusivity.

Towards the end of London Fashion Week 2019, leading disability charity Leonard Cheshire conducted a survey highlighting the lack of choice for disabled customers in mainstream fashion.

Uncovering that 75% of disabled people do not feel as though their needs are being met by the industry, and a whopping 96% also believe that they are not being sufficiently represented, it’s clear that body shaming and ageism are not the only stigmas within fashion that we should currently be combatting.

‘The fashion industry does not consider the shape of a person who has to sit in a chair, who might have a larger stomach or shorter body,’ says Kim Nash, who took part in the survey. ‘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’?’

Approximately one in every four adults in the US (about 26% of the country’s entire population) and one in every five in the UK (about 13.3 million adults) lives with a disability. Unsurprisingly therefore, the demand for clothes to adapt for special needs – both high street and high fashion – is very real.

So, why has progress only happened at a snail’s pace? The fashion world might be quick when it comes to trends, but it’s been slow to represent people of different abilities and a lack of diverse representation – alongside the perpetuation of deep-rooted stereotypes and stigmas – is to blame. Isolating many of those living with disabilities today, ableism (which is discrimination in favour of the able-bodied) is still incredibly prominent in the industry and the media.

‘One day I decided to input keywords like ‘disability’ and ‘chronic illness’ into search engines on popular websites I knew, and they all came up blank. That was probably the first time I realised how deep ableism ran in the media,’ says Claudia Walder, the editor and founder of Able, a new magazine banishing disability taboos.

While the solution can in fact be as simple as using different types of easy-access fixtures like magnetic buttons for example, the needs of the disabled population have long been ignored by fashion because designers often view it as too challenging and expensive to reconfigure silhouettes entirely.

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

It seems, however, that this attitude may finally be starting to change. Social media has provided a platform for people with disabilities to become more visible, to share their experiences with others, and as inclusivity continues to be a hot-button issue for fashion, brands are becoming more and more eager to show that they’re keeping up with the times.

In 2017, Tommy Hilfiger launched Adaptive, a clothing line with pieces featuring one-handed zips, adjustable Velcro hemlines, and bungee-cord closures to ‘empower differently abled adult to express themselves through fashion,’ (as stated on the collection’s website).

And last year, American lingerie brand Aerie – which also doesn’t retouch any of its ad campaigns by the way – chose women with a range of chronic conditions and impairments to wear their designs. 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.

Disabled communities need their voices to be heard so it’s great that popular brands are 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.