Model and activist Angel Dixon says there are two invisible barriers preventing her and other people with disabilities from entering clothing stores – and both are essential to the shopping experience.
The main point:
- Persons with disabilities face many obstacles in accessing fashion
- But a spate of online brands and platforms is driving change
- Proponents say increasing physical and virtual access is part of the solution
“If your shop is not physically accessible or your staff feels uncomfortable around people with disabilities, we will not come,” he said.
This barrier may be invisible to non-disabled people, but for Ms Dixon and others, it is a wall.
Ms Dixon told me if you are a brand or shop that values inclusion and can welcome everyone with a disability to your shop, it will enrich your business, because inclusive representation can have a massive flow effect.
As an Autistic person, I personally avoid going near shopping centers because the experience can be very stressful and overwhelming.
Loud music, bright lights, crowds of people, and too many clothes packed onto the rails all add to the sensation of an attack that leaves me in a cold sweat of panic.
Unfortunately, it is not only the shopping logistics for persons with disabilities that are difficult to handle.
There is also a mentality that persons with disabilities cannot style and the assumption that persons with disabilities are not interested in their fashion or appearance.
For many of us with disabilities, we need and want the same things as able-bodied people.
“Clothing has the power to make us feel confident, change our moods and express our personalities,” said Jenny McAllister, a disability fashion blogger who runs the site StyleAbility.
“Clothing can be transformative. The way we dress and the clothes we wear make us unique and individual.”
And while fashion and clothing can empower us, for many people with disabilities, the everyday frustrations of just getting dressed and the design of the clothes themselves are also part of the problem.
For people living with physical disabilities, this can mean difficulty wearing the kinds of everyday items that most people take for granted: blouses with buttons, sneakers with straps, and trousers with zippers.
“I can find most items, but buttons are my enemy and hooks and eyes are small, forget it,” said Dixon.
Adaptive clothing brands are only part of the answer
Jason Clymo, a male model with a disability and wheelchair user, says that suit pants are one of the hardest things to find.
She said because it is usually not stretchy enough, it was difficult to find one that fits her waist comfortably.
In Australia alone, an estimated 4 million people live with disabilities.
Worldwide, people with disabilities have more than $ US8 trillion in disposable income each year, according to research by Fifth Quadrant Analytics.
While new adaptive clothing brands are being created for this market, they are still separate and apart from the mainstream fashions and their variety of choices and prices are still an issue for many.
Inclusion is required at every stage
Ms Dixon says one topic she always raises with the brands she works with is accessible design and the possibility of adapting the design process to consider access and usability.
“For example, I use the zipper on the back of my dress a lot, nobody can use it, but we still put it there because it looks nicer,” he said.
Ms McAllister said change would require including people with disabilities throughout the process, from the design stage to store layout and visual merchandising.
“There is still a lack of understanding of the needs and requirements of persons with disabilities,” he said.
“It seems that a lot of companies feel that they may do something wrong and offend the disabled community so they put it in the ‘too hard’ basket.
“Rather than just ‘ticking the boxes’ to appear to be doing the right thing, brands and retailers need to make inclusion and diversity a part of their core business values.”
Note: Jenny McAllister is the sister of journalist Nick McAllister, the author of this article.