“People think ‘disability’ is a bad word to use, but it’s not,” Helya Mohammadian, founder of an adaptive underwear company, told Forbes. Though this message may seem obvious, it is a sentiment that is often ignored, specifically in fashion. As brands attempt to tackle the inclusivity problem in the fashion industry, there is still a group being widely ignored: people with disabilities.
The lack of representation for the disabled community goes beyond just being seen, it is about accessibility. Clothing is often designed with able-bodied people in mind, making much of it inaccessible to people who do not fit that mold. While some brands have begun creating lines that cater to the needs of people with disabilities, there is an alarming number of designers still ignoring this community. Monika Dugar, co-founder of the adaptive clothing brand Reset, said, “Designing for people with disabilities isn’t a trend, it’s a necessity.”
Fashion is one of the industries that must be accessible to everyone because even if you do not care about style and trends, everyone is a consumer of this industry. From easy front-fastening bras to shoes that you can put on without bending down, there are products in existence that prove accessible fashion is possible, but most designers are choosing not to take part. And even some of the brands taking these steps refuse to acknowledge the disabled community in their marketing.
In 2021, Nike released their Go FlyEase sneaker, the first ever sneaker that can be used completely hands-free. The design allows wearers to slip the sneaker on and off without using their hands, an amazing advancement for people with disabilities that struggle to put on shoes. While this is a huge advancement in shoe technology, the launch campaign did not once acknowledge or showcase the disabled community. Despite the shoe being inspired by Matthew Walzer, an athlete with cerebral palsy, the campaign instead showed young, active, able-bodied people wearing these shoes. The exclusion of people with disabilities in this campaign contributes to the stigma around disability. In addition to that, it also doesn't show consumers how this product can make life easier for those who do not have able-bodied capabilities. It did a disservice to the product and to the disabled community when they chose to ignore people with disabilities in this campaign.
This does not mean nobody is getting it right though.
For years, Aerie has been a brand that is on a mission to show that their clothing is made to be worn by everyone. The Aerie Real campaign launched years ago, taking steps to show all kinds of models that are not photoshopped or airbrushed. The campaign showed women with insulin pumps, colostomy bags, and wheelchairs. In addition to this, just last year Aerie launched a partnership with Liberare, a company that produces intimates that are accessible to women with disabilities. Alyssa Silva, the Chief Creative Officer at Liberare, discussed the need to take the voices of disabled people into consideration and actually make those changes. Not only is Aerie x Liberare making underwear for disabled people, but they are making it sexy and feminine, something that is often lacking in accessible clothing.
Source: Tommy Hilfiger
Tommy Hilfiger is one of the few mainstream designers taking steps toward true inclusivity. In 2016, they started a line of adaptive clothing for children, and it recently expanded even further. Tommy Adaptive has since become a large focus of the brand. Hilfiger, himself, told TODAY that he was largely inspired by having children on the autism spectrum and a sister with MS and seeing how their needs are not always met by mainstream clothing. And this is not just a collection made by able-bodied people not taking disabled voices into consideration.
Hilfiger shared, “We asked a lot of people with disabilities what their preferences would be and we took it very seriously.” The collection includes closures that are easier to use such as velcro and magnets, and the advertisements include models in wheelchairs, people with prosthetic legs, and children with Down Syndrome.
In addition to the efforts made by big, established companies, there is a variety of brands started by and for people with disabilities. Slick Chicks, the adaptive undergarment company started by Helya Mohammadian, is on a “mission to empower.” Mohammadian strives to make underwear, something that we all deal with daily, something that does not cause stress or difficulty for anybody. From front-zip bras to underwear with velcro side closures, they aim to create a world where there is one less struggle everyday, especially for people with disabilities.
If everyone has to be a consumer of fashion, it should be the most inclusive and accessible industry in the world, but it unfortunately is not. When it comes to big brands, there is often more of a focus on profitability than on human needs. One in four people in the US have a disability, and yet the percentage of brands accommodating the disabled community is so small. Not only is this industry creating a stigma around disability, but they are isolating such a big part of the world. The fight for inclusion is ongoing, and this is an issue that cannot be ignored. Fashion should be for everyone, not just ¾ of the population.