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How can Fashion Better Address the Needs of Disabled People?

Over one billion people (15% of the worlds population) experience some form of disability. In the United Kingdom, almost 20% of adults within the working age category are disabled, yet the disabled community are pretty much excluded from the mainstream fashion conversation.

Disabilities come in a varying forms and can often demand specific clothing needs, such as the ability to adjust the size and fit, or have alternative closures. For example, for a wheelchair user, ordinary trousers might ride up when in a seated position, which renders them impractical for wheelchair users.

Despite high-end brands such as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger x Zendaya leading the charge for disabled fashion, it can be argued that the conversation surrounding fashion and the disabled audience is just beginning.

However, in recent years the demand for inclusivity has sparked a demand to design for disability. The rise in adaptive fashion reflects the new found awareness of inclusive design. In 2019, there was increase of 80% in searches for adaptive clothing according to global fashion search platform Lyst. This includes everything from elasticated waistband to magnetic fittings, which allow independent dressings and so promotes independence.

As shoppers increasingly favour brands that make them feel confident in their clothes, apparel companies have an incentive to make adaptive designs with the potential to empower people with disabilities. It appears both high street and high-end fashion brands are finally catching on.

ASOS first created a wheelchair-friendly jumpsuit back in 2018, and in April, was praised for showcasing a model with a hearing aid in an earring ad campaign. Tommy Hilfiger’s disability-friendly collection includes adaptive features like Velcro closures, magnetic buttons and adjustable hems, while Nike’s Go FlyEase shoe, released this past April, marks the first hands-free trainer ever made.

The FlyEase issue

But the introduction of adaptive clothing into the fashion mainstream has not been without a number of problems. Nike’s new Go FlyEase shoe launched as a limited release available to select Nike members, prompting resellers to quickly jump on the product and resell the shoe at a much higher price. “They had good intentions but the delivery was poorly executed,” Helya Mohammadian, founder of adaptive underwear brand Slick Chicks, argues.

Not only has Nike been criticised for not making the Go FlyEase - a shoe marketed as an “accessible solution” - accessible to the disabled community, they’ve also been scrutinised for their approach to representation. As rather than use their marketing campaign as an opportunity to showcase people with disabilities - namely Matthew Walzer, the young athlete with cerebral palsy from whom the shoe was inspired - Go FlyEase advertisements depicted able bodies engaged in active lifestyles.


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