Six Ways the Fashion Industry is Opening Accessibility for Disabled and Neurodivergent People



Despite fashion being a significant part of daily life, and more than one billion people worldwide living with a disability, the fashion industry has been incredibly slow to open up accessibility for disabled and neurodivergent people, both in offering representation, and providing clothing products for them.


Whilst this issue continues to be prevalent in the industry, there have been some efforts to counteract this discrimination, and that help us move towards a society that is built for everyone.


1. Zebedee Management


In an industry that offers limited representation for able bodied people too, regarding race, height, and weight, modelling agencies tend to represent a very particular ‘type’ of person – tall and slender, with lighter skin and being what society deems attractive.


However, Zebedee Management are an agency specifically making space for disabled and neurodivergent people to become models too, leading to more opportunities and representation for different bodies. The agency claims that they “look after over 500 models and actors across Europe and the USA with a variety of needs” and are successful in “placing talent in paid work opportunities”, helping society move towards a place where advertisements using disabled people become common place.


2. Ellie Goldstein's Gucci Beauty campaign


In 2018, Ellie Goldstein became the first model with downs syndrome to model in a beauty campaign for a major fashion house. Represented by the aforementioned agency Zebedee Management, the British model starred in a Gucci Beauty campaign in partnership with Vogue Italia, a position of high visibility and influence, broadening the representations and definitions of beauty within Europe.


When talking to Vogue, Goldstein highlighted the importance of the campaign, saying “There needs to be more positivity out there and people should give us a chance and not be so ignorant.” This is therefore very important not just for people with downs syndrome to see, but everyone else too, in order to help remove stereotypes and stigmas attached to neurodivergent people.


3. Tommy Adaptive


Designer Tommy Hilfiger released Tommy Adaptive in 2016, a line of accessible and adaptive clothing for disabled people, such as wheelchair users and people with an amputation. The range includes tops with expanded back openings, wide-leg openings on trousers, and magnetic buttons on shirts.


On the Tommy Hilfiger store website, the designer says “I learned through having children with special needs how much Tommy Adaptive was needed. […] The added benefit is discreet, truly functional modifications that make getting dressed easier and allow both children and adults with disabilities to have independence and feel great about themselves.”


One downside, however, is that although not extortionate, the clothing is slightly more expensive than your average high street find, making it inaccessible to disabled people with lower funds.


4. Nike FlyEase


Inspired by a letter from a teenager with cerebral palsy who wanted the independence of putting on his shoes without assistance, Nike released the FlyEase in 2015, a high-top trainer that used a wraparound zipper to open and close the shoe.


Earlier this year, they released the newest model, the Go FlyEase, which uses the most recent technology in order to create a shoe that is almost handsfree, aiding the independence of disabled people, and athletes in particular. The shoe doesn’t lie flat – instead, it has a band that squeezes it so that the sole bends in the middle, providing a much bigger opening to slide your foot in. Once your foot is in the shoe, with a press down of your heel the band contracts to close the shoe into its proper shape around the foot, essentially fastening it into place.


Putting your shoes on is something able bodied people – myself included – often take for granted, emphasising the importance of making this the case for everybody.


5. Target's adaptive clothing line


Despite the CDC reporting in 2020 that 26% (one in four) of adults in the United States live with some type of disability, one of their biggest retailers, Target, only launched an adaptive clothing line in 2017, and this was only in children’s clothes. They have continued to expand the range over the years, for example launching adaptive Halloween costumes in 2019, and the price range is much more affordable than other options such as Tommy Adaptive.


As Target is such a high-profile retailer with stores all over the US, this boost in accessibility and options for disabled people is very important and influential, even if it did take way too long to be established.


6. Disabled body positivity on Instagram


Although the body positivity movement was initially criticised for leaving disabled bodies behind, there has been a rise in representation for disabled people within the community that promote self-love and acceptance, as well as visibility.


Madison Lawson is a journalist with muscular dystrophy and an Instagram account followed by 13.2 thousand at the time of writing. Her feed is filled with stylish fashion inspiration, as well as both hilarious and heartfelt captions detailing her journey to self-acceptance and raising awareness to the discrimination she faces as a disabled person. You can follow her at @wheelchairbarbie.


Keah Brown is a journalist, author, actor, and self-proclaimed bi icon, who has cerebral palsy. With 19 thousand follows at the time of writing, her Instagram profile, found at @keah_maria, celebrates the beauty of disabled people, notably creating #DisabledAndCute, a hashtag for disabled people to collectively encourage self-love and to promote fellow content creators who are disabled too.