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True Diversity: Normalising Disability

Fashion’s importance in expression and mainstream culture has always put it at the forefront of cultural evolution. For the last decade, diversity has been a driving force in the industry. This core value has seen positive change when considering issues of gender fluidity, sexuality, body type, and ethnicity. Yet for all its achievements it still has a long way to go in solving the long-standing issues of diversity and some demographics still feel under-represented.

Under-represented but not uncommon

Disability is often considered something “out-of-the-norm,” or “uncommon” and the lack of representation in media certainly speaks to that. However, research suggests this is an incorrect assumption to make. Roughly 13.9 million people are registered disabled in the UK alone – nearly 1-in-5. Even those who are “able-bodied” might experience some form of disability in their lifetime. It’s something that should be important to all of us.

With models such as Ellie Goldstein at the front of beauty campaigns to modelling agencies such as Zebedee focusing on disabled talent, as well as the rise of adaptive fashion, it’s clear that positive change is happening within the industry. Still, its effects are yet to be felt in mainstream culture.

With efforts from the industry and visibility on the rise, why is disabled fashion still largely niche? And what can we do to bring about further change?

The act of normalising disability

If to be able is the state of normality, then to be disabled may be perceived as abnormal. As fat might be to thin. Black to white. Outdated thinking for sure. Those who are disabled may look for ways to blend in or hide their body, due to shame or for the comfort of others. Hiding our bodies, whether it be a man wishing to wear a skirt, or a woman who wants to wear a bikini with or without a prosthesis, has always been detrimental to our ability to change societal standards and evoke change. It’s both terrifying and liberating to enjoy fashion your way.

If disability is viewed as divergent from the norm those who are disabled could continue to feel othered rather than supported. If treated in a similar way to sizes or fittings (that is, a personal requirement), as well as imagery and stores being more readily inclusive of disabled bodies on the high-street then the disabled body would be more accepted as a body and not a condition. I believe a visual presence both in marketing and within store floor space is one of many paths to normalising our myriad body types.

Accessing fashion

As well as stigma surrounding the expression of one’s body there’s also barriers to the act of shopping itself. While online shopping thrives (and there are a selection of online retailers who specialise in adaptive clothing), there remains difficulty when looking for suitable physical shopping locations.

From ramps, to changing rooms; toilets, to clothing ranges. Issues we may not consider that create difficulty for disabled people who simply wish to shop. While online shopping is an option it should not be absolute. Shifting disability-inclusive shopping into only being present in an online space serves to hide it from the public conscious.

It doesn’t need to end at ramps, clothing lines and large fitting rooms – Starbucks’ sign language store demonstrates practical ways in which we could enable inclusivity, especially if such methods could be normalised. Considering both visible and non-visible disabilities may be difficult, but these are further examples of how we can create welcoming spaces.

Adapting new styles

We’ve all encountered situations where injury has left us struggling with a zip, button, or lace (I struggle even on my best days). These clothing solutions are made with a specific body in mind.

Adaptive clothing reinvents these options with magnetic clasps, adjustable hems, one-handed zippers, and clothing made from sensory-friendly materials. Adaptive lines have seen rising support from major fashion brands despite their glacial inclusion into high street stores. Tommy Hilfiger, Target, and Nike are just three that have taken to creating some adaptive styles.

Intelligent and practical designs needn’t contend with fashion. The normalisation of these features may help serve more than those with disability. No two bodies are the same and being able to alter our clothing more readily to our needs is surely an attractive proposition.

Where do we start?

Normalising disability starts with including it. This relies as much on the industry creating opportunities and welcoming spaces as it does public awareness and understanding. Everyone is a part of fashion and deserve to celebrate their body without stigma. Raising awareness and accepting our many shapes and experiences can create a space where everyone feels accepted. We’re making steps to enable this but it’s not on any one party to advocate for this alone. The key is understanding, and we should begin the dialogue with ‘what can we do for you?’ If disabled people aren’t visible, then how can they share their ideas and experiences?


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