Ableism in the Industry
I never thought I’d see the fashion industry as visually diverse as it is today. I’ve been disabled since birth, but without a formal diagnosis or understanding from doctors as to what was wrong or why, my parents did their best to adapt to my accommodations as I grew and they changed. I had no name to Google, no example of what my life could look like as an adult, or a character I could relate to.
As a child, the closest I got to making a sartorial decision was getting to choose the pattern on my orthotic insole and which colour laces I wanted for my Clarks shoes. It was only during my teen years – the same years Instagram launched and Fashion Weeks began live-streaming around the world – that I was first introduced to fashion, not as a function but as an industry and a career. Immediately, it was like something had unlocked in my brain. This new world of colour, confidence, art and style completely captivated me, and for the first time, I saw portrayals of unique characters being celebrated in this way. The models themselves looked and moved nothing like me, except perhaps for a predisposed lankiness, and I quickly understood that my role would best be behind the camera, among the eccentric-looking creatives.
Nevertheless, I began to reimagine myself; not as a broken body but as a blank canvas. I realised that rather than judging others, or myself, on the genetic lottery tickets we’ve randomly received in our biological makeup, that instead, the decisions we make about how we look say more about who we are, what we like and what we stand for. This new agency in how people would perceive me felt like a superpower – not as a way to hide beneath the clothes, but through utilising these choices to express what I wanted people to see about me first.
I am not alone in my love for fashion – this feeling of agency is essential to disabled joy. Disabled people have always had to adopt wardrobe hacks or adapt typical techniques to navigate the usual features of clothing and footwear, or otherwise suffer with function-focused designs foregoing personal style. 15% of the world’s population – that’s one billion people – will experience some form of disability, forming the world’s largest minority group. One-fifth of this total, an estimated 110 to 190 million people, experience significant disabilities, making these challenges far from a small problem. The market is expected to grow to $400 billion by 2026 as reported by Vogue Business, leading luxury fashion to finally take note.
I watched with anticipation as new faces Aaron Phillips, Ellie Goldstein and Chella Man were embraced by the industry and changed people’s perceptions of what disability looks like, and I began to believe that change was on the horizon. At 18 I moved to London to study Fashion Journalism and quickly started applying to internships – the illustrious right of passage for any aspiring fashion newbies – hoping I would get the chance to write and engage with my own community of creativity.
Quickly, I was sent to the fashion cupboard to rearrange stock and left alone. There was no understanding of dynamic disability, and even upon my explanation, there were several instances in editorial offices where I was made astutely aware of how easy I would be to replace if I couldn’t get to work on time or I called in sick again. Interning is vastly competitive, and as my body couldn’t keep up with the list of physical tasks expected of me – from lugging suitcases of returns through the snow to offloading delivery vans with endless boxes of magazines and merchandise – I was forced to quit early, and I began to realise that the image of diversity that the industry was portraying did not extend to its working environment behind the scenes.
Diversity and inclusivity are common words that show up when talking about disability in fashion. They’re often used interchangeably, but their meanings hold small differences that are crucial to understanding where the fashion industry’s treatment of disabled people is at. Diversity refers to when society, industries and individuals understand and respect people’s unique differences, and these differences are normalised and celebrated as a sign of individuality. On the other hand, inclusivity refers to the stage when everyone’s diversity is embraced, and we all feel a part of one community that’s made up of these unique differences. While the fashion industry looks decidedly more diverse than it did a decade ago, its inclusion of disabled people within its community is still a long way off.
In the evenings, a whole roster of post-work parties and events litter the fashion calendar, and as I continued working at different publications, I found these increasingly difficult to attend. The expectation to work, or attend on behalf of work, outside of office hours, particularly while in junior roles, is a huge barrier to those of us who have to put all of our energy and focus into making it through a typical 9-5 work day. That’s not considering basic needs like if the space is accessible (how many Fashion Week shows and parties need to take place in an underground bunker, really?), if standing-only venues should have seats (definitely) and if anyone thought to warn epileptic and visually-impaired viewers of the oncoming unannounced (and usually unnecessary) light strobe show. It’s a hard-wired cycle: because we rarely see disabled people in these spaces, they are rarely considered, and thus the space is inaccessible to them.
Remarkably, fashion’s most inclusive faction now is its design, as industry stalwarts including Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Lacoste have released ‘adaptive fashion’ collections in recent years. However, secluding these designs to diffusion lines and labelling them as ‘adaptive fashion’ as opposed to ‘fashion’ furthers segregation between the clothes disabled people wear and those of non-disabled people, and relies on sportswear brands to lead the charge with elasticated laces or larger zip ties.
An illusion that non-disabled people have is that our lives won’t become their reality, when in fact it’s inevitable – as the human body ages, it decays, mobility slows and walking aids and wheelchairs become commonplace. It is this fear, not of our differences but of our similarities, that drives the segregation of disabled people in society. Fashion is uniquely positioned as an industry that can not only embrace those changes or differences, but can be an active member in positively influencing how these differences make us feel. By providing disabled people with fashionable clothing that fits their needs, we’re creating a more positively fashionable future for everyone.
But the truth is, until disabled people are working behind the scenes – in design studios, in editorial newsrooms, in PR offices and event management companies – these changes are unlikely to take place. To truly be inclusive, the fashion industry must become the change it so keenly wants to project.