Is The Fashion Industry Reluctant to Include Disability?



650 million people, which is 15% of all people worldwide are living with a disability, making them the largest minority group in the world. Often, off the rack clothes are inaccessible and uncomfortable for disabled people. Therefore, designing affordable and suitable clothing for disabled people is a necessity.


Disabled people often find it difficult when shopping for many reasons since disabilities come in a multitude of forms and can demand a range of specific clothing needs. For example, regular cut trousers often ride up in the seated position and the back pockets make them impractical and uncomfortable for wheelchair uses. Garments with buttons, zippers or laces can be difficult for people with dexterity issues.

Disability advocate, Maura Horton also highlighted the lack of non-medical clothing options that enable the wearer to maintain both dignity and independence. She went on to create an online clothing line with magnetic closure system Frustrated with the lack of non-medical clothing options for her husband who had Parkinson’s disease, Horton created a magnetic clothing closure system that would enable him to maintain his dignity and independence.


Even disabled celebrities such as Selma Blair have argued that disable people are often limited to utilitarian clothes such as tracksuits rather than having both comfortable and fashionable clothes. She claims that disabled people often feel invisible as their needs are not addressed in the fashion industry. Why should people with disabilities have to choose between functional and fashionable clothing?


The rise of adaptive fashion


This demand has resulted in the recent rise of adaptive fashion which is 'clothing specifically designed for those with disabilities and chronic conditions' According to disability stylist Stephanie Thomas adaptive fashion should be 'accessible when dressing, medically safe, and all-importantly look fashionable' . Adaptations depend on individual needs and can range from comfortable lycra waist panels for those seated in a wheelchair or discrete magnetic fastenings to enable more independence when dressing. Although adaptive fashion is currently a niche market, it is estimated to be worth more than £290 billion by 2026.



Disabilities are not a marketing tool


In the last few years, brands have made an effort to make fashion more accessible to people with disabilities. For example, Nike have released a pair of 'hands free' trainers, that wearers don't have to bend down to fasten which is great for people who struggle with mobility. These trainers were designed by Mathew Walzer who wrote to Nike explaining his struggle with tying his shoelaces as a cerebral palsy sufferer. However, although designed and marketed to be more accessible, the disabled community are upset about its limited supply. This means that the already expensive pair of shoes retailing at £87 are being bought and resold for up to £1,500. Therefore, the community have suggested that this is performative activism. Although, Nike assures customers that this is not their intention and the trainers will be more widely available this year. Nike was also criticised in the marketing of the trainers since it seems a missed opportunity to advertise them using able bodied models rather than those with disabilities such as Walzer the disabled athlete who encouraged its production. How often do you see disabled models in adverts? It seems that the fashion industry is just as reluctant to include disabled people in advertisements as in the development of their products.


However, it is not uncommon that disabled people do not feel heard by the fashion industry. A recent survey found that 75% of disabled people expressed that they did not feel the fashion industry was meeting their needs. 96% also maintain that they do not feel sufficiently represented in the fashion industry. The reality is that disabled people are rarely involved in the conceptualisation of clothes designed for them which suggests that the efforts of major brands to be inclusive seem to be for optics.



Could the industry do more?


Adaptive fashion is welcome progress for the disabled community and should push fashion to be more inclusive and accessible to all. However, the decision to offer adaptive fashion is not just because it is the right thing to do but because of the spending power of £249 billion that disabled shoppers hold. But with this spending power, within a financially lucrative market, disabled customers can demand that their needs and wants be heard by the fashion industry when designing and marketing clothes made with them in mind. Disability and fashion are not mutually exclusive, the fashion industry should not treat them as such. It must address the gap between functional and fashionable clothing and become more inclusive of people with disabilities.