When able-bodied people go shopping it’s an enjoyable day out. A way to spend time, even a hobby for some. It’s a treat and an experience that most people look forward to. For people with disabilities that’s not true.
The act of going into a bricks and mortar shop is daunting for many disabled people, regardless of their abilities.
Disabled people are speaking about this. The industry is barely listening.
Fashion needs to do better. The high street needs to do better.
“We may just be lucky enough to gain physical access, but that doesn’t mean we feel welcome and able to fully engage.” Sophie Morgan, a TV presenter, and activist.
The fashion industry has never been a friend to those with disabilities.
We can see it with the lack of disability friendly clothing on high street racks. Disabled people have never stopped campaigning to just wear the clothes they want, but the fight for fashion inclusivity begins on the steps of the high street, with the steps of the high street.
The painfully obvious issue with accessibility for those with mobility issues is that most disabled people do not have the privilege of being able to enter a shop. A study in 2017 found that 23% did not have access for wheelchair users. In a total of 1,295 stores, 296 did not have ramps, or had steps to enter.
If on the rare occasion a shop does have a ramp, or a lift, that doesn’t mean someone in a wheelchair or with a walking aid can get around. Tight, narrow aisles between clothing racks are regarded as a forgotten access need. If a shop has a ramp, then it must be disabled friendly, right?
“Trying to navigate around a shop is no easy feat with clothing rails placed so close together” Shelby Lynch, a fashion blogger.
The problems persist even further with changing rooms. From the size not accommodating for carers, to the lack of handrails, to disabled changing rooms even being used as storerooms, trying on clothes stays a battle for disabled people.
The issue lies with the staff too. The lack of awareness means most carers are not allowed into the same cubicle. Twitter user MichaelDChing explains that many times his wife isn’t allowed in a changing room with him.
For disabled people, they’re used to the high street ignoring them. As MichaelDChing mentioned, he needs his wife because there are no handrails. Instead of raising the issue of there being no rails, instead he raised the issue of the “fix” not being allowed. People with disabilities are forced into fixing things for themselves, but this can’t always be done, and they shouldn’t have to.
Accessibility is a right everyone deserves.
“It’s always at the back of my mind that I may need to abandon my visit to a store at any point if I get overwhelmed” Helen Ellis, a neurodivergent shopper speaking to Vogue.
With the topic of accessibility and disability, we usually think about those with mobility issues. Those who use walking aids, or wheelchairs. Those with “invisible disabilities” face a myriad of access battles too.
For those who are neurodivergent, clothes shopping can be especially challenging. The onslaught of noises, scents and bright lights make shopping a distressing experience, that can trigger a sensory overload.
This is becoming more common with the introduction of “sensory experiences” within retail spaces, whereby retailers are creating a multi-sensory stimulation to increase sales. Retailers are instead putting sales above the welfare of neurodivergent customers, and workers.
So, about the alternative
With the pandemic, online shopping has surged, but online shopping has always been used by disabled people, but online shopping isn’t completely accessible either. It’s just the lesser of the two evils.
Shopping online gives independence to most disabled people; allows them to shop without a carer, and without having to try and navigate a jungle of clothing racks. It allows neurodivergent people to shop in peace, without the worry of an overload.
It’s also cheaper. Disabled people are much more likely to be in poverty, then their able-bodied counterparts.
Online shopping is beneficial. Sometimes.
People with vision impairments suffer with online shopping. It could be online retailers not giving detailed written information about colour differences for a product, or it could be websites not being screen-reader friendly, the issues mount up.
It can lie with delivery too. Delivery issues are one of the main reasons that some disabled people do not use online shopping. From having to go to inaccessible parcel depots, to delivery drivers not waiting for people to answer the door; people with disabilities struggle for access with every method of shopping.
Disabled people love fashion too
That doesn’t mean that disabled people don’t care about fashion, or they don’t want to go shopping for clothes. Many do.
Disabled people love clothes. They love fashion. They love shopping, it is the experience of shopping that pushes those with disabilities away. It is the constant fight for access that usually ends up in nothing being done.
It’d be wrong to say retailers aren’t trying. Brands are making more accessible clothing; they're hiring disabled people. Supermarkets are beginning to introduce “quiet hours” for their neurodivergent customers, so why aren’t our high street store doing this too.
It seems like retailers want to look as if they are “disabled-friendly” by including disabled models and mannequins, which is undeniably a move in the right direction, but when it comes to meaningful changes, they are still ignorant.
The fashion industry is ignoring disabled people. They’re ignoring accessibility needs.
They’re choosing profit over people, and it needs to stop.