What Disabled People Are Actually Looking For When Shopping For Clothing
Disabled Perspectives On Accessible Clothing
When I was four years old, I received my neurodiversity diagnosis. I was born with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD). Neurodiversity makes shopping difficult. I have always had to factor in some sensory stimuli irritating me. Buzzing lights at the mall, for example, make it difficult to focus on my surroundings.
Similarly, fabrics that I’m sensitive to can lead to physical or mental pain. Wool sours my mood and has always been one of my least favorite parts of Toronto winters. But I’m also picky about what I wear. I like bright colors and patterns, polka dots, and garments with artistic flare. I dress the way I dress because clothing is a method for bringing brightness into my life—my clothes are something I can control.
When I can’t wear clothing that I feel comfortable in, I feel a lot less confident. And adaptive clothing options rarely prioritize comfort, confidence, and dignity. No one should have to choose between feeling good and wearing accessible clothes.
What Is Missing From Adaptive Clothing?
Adaptive clothing is clothing that’s adjustable, accessible, and functional for disabled people. It’s also a thriving fashion industry niche. In 2019, searches for adaptive clothing increased by 80 percent. Meanwhile, adaptive clothing’s current market value is over 50 billion US dollars. However, mainstream clothing brands’ approach to adaptable clothing is far from perfect.
In Alice Wong’s Book, “Disability Visibility,” Sky Cubacub’s essay, “Radical Visibility: A Disabled Queer Clothing Reform Manifesto,” explores the inadequacies of mainstream designer’s attempts at creating clothing for disabled people:
“Society wants us to blend in and not draw attention to ourselves. But what if we resist society’s desire to render us invisible? What if, through dress reform, we collectively refuse to assimilate?”
A core cause of this problem is accessing adaptive clothing in the first place. Some options exist, but many of the most popular direct-to-consumer brands have avoided creating an adaptive clothing line altogether. According to Vogue contributor Adrienne Gaffney, the required level of medical knowledge creates a high barrier to entry.
The high barrier to entry for disabled designers also creates a barrier for disabled consumers who either are unable to afford a specific clothing brand or don’t live somewhere where they can easily find adaptive clothing options they actually like.
Blending Fashion & Functionality
Thankfully, disabled designers are introducing adaptive clothing options that bring back disabled peoples’ dignity and confidence while taking accessibility barriers out of the equation.
Eleanor Howie, for example, couldn’t find any attractive underwear options for her wedding and honeymoon. After receiving a mastectomy in her early 20s, she was told to wear clinical underwear. Every pair of clinical lingerie that she could find came in various shades of “nana” beige. To solve this problem, Howie created her own lingerie brand, Valiant, which combines the physical comfort and medical requirements of clinical underwear with the cheerful aesthetic of the bras you can buy anywhere.
Another designer making a difference is Keisha Grieves, the founder of Girls Chronically Rock, a line of t-shirts meant to inspire people with chronic illnesses to have confidence in themselves. Grieves created Girls Chronically Rock to remind disabled people that they rock regardless of disability status. Her work combines her passion for fashion with her muscular dystrophy lived experience.
It isn’t only people with physical disabilities who need adaptive clothing, either. Michelle Hammer, the designer of Schizophrenic NYC, started a fashion line that includes everything from buttons and tote bags to t-shirts and artwork. “I stand at my pop-up shop in NYC with all my inventory and talk to people about mental illness all day long,” she tells me. “After I tell people that I created Schizophrenic NYC because I am schizophrenic, most people open up to me and tell me about how mental illness has affected them in some way in their personal life.”
Messages featured in Hammer’s work include “don’t be paranoid, you look great,” and “it’s not a delusion, you are incredible.” These designs and messages foster a friendly yet truthful discussion about mental health and break down the stigma.
Hammer also includes the Rorschach Test in her art to help normalize mental health—“a series of 10 symmetrical blots. The subject states what they see. These slides are shown in the same order to align modern observations with historical performance.”
“Usually, the test is in plain black,” she tells me. “When a person with schizophrenia looks at this test or just goes through life, they see things differently. I chose to put my artwork in the shape of these tests because now everyone who looks at it sees it differently. [I’m] making people think differently and starting a conversation.”
Making Clothes We Can All Feel Good In
When we think about buying a new outfit, we often consider cost, style, and sustainability. But we need to begin thinking about access and adaptability, too. Brands and designers need to consider how people of all abilities want to look and feel their best.
My advice to designers eager to introduce adaptive clothing options is this:
If you don’t have the same disability as the people you’re designing adaptive clothing for, please get as much input as you can from your target audience to create a clothing line that is genuinely adaptive—this means function, fashion, and comfort. Even if you have the same disability as your target audience, everyone’s disability experience is different. Additional input will help you reach a broader target audience either way.
Rosemary Richings is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with organizations such as Spot App, Uptimize, E-bay, and Saatva Mattress Company. Rosemary’s writing has been featured on Weebly Inspiration Center, Shareable, Search Engine Journal, and more. Rosemary was diagnosed with Dyspraxia when she was four years old and started to write a book about her disability in 2019. Currently, she is working on her novel with Jessica Kingsley Books, and the release ETA is 2022. Her book and her focus on creating a supportive community for neurodiverse people are an important part of her advocacy efforts. Not only is she a founding member of Dyspraxic Alliance, but she’s also a Dyspraxia Magazine Panel Member and a Dyspraxic Me trustee.