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How Can Fashion Better Address the Needs of Disabled People?

Disabled people have long been ignored by the mainstream fashion industry. Here are five steps brands can take to be more inclusive of the disabled community.
Kelly Knox was one of the models to walk the runway at the Teatum Jones' Spring 2018 show during London Fashion Week | Source: Getty
  • Tamison O'Connor
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OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — When Sinéad Burke took to the VOICES stage in 2017, she called out the fashion industry for completely disregarding the disabled.

“You’ve been doing it quite wrong,” said Burke, who herself is a little person. “You think you know what disabled people need or want, instead of asking us. Make yourself vulnerable. Bring us to the table and ask us for our greatest insights because we live this experience every day.”

Over one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, according to the World Bank Group. In the UK, almost 20 percent of working age adults are disabled, according to British disability equality charity Scope. Yet disabled people are still very much excluded from the mainstream fashion conversation, despite commanding a global spending power of over $1.2 trillion, according to a report by the Return on Disability Group. This figure hits $6.9 trillion when families, parents and carers of disabled people are also taken into account.

Disabilities come in a myriad of forms and can demand specific clothing needs, such as an adjusted size and fit or alternative closures. For example, regular-cut trousers will often ride up when the wearer in a seated position, making them impractical for wheelchair users. Buttons and fine zippers can be fiddly for those with dexterity issues. At three feet, five inches tall, Burke finds it hard to find clothing that accommodates both her height and her body shape (kidswear is not often designed for a body with hips and a bust). She works closely with a seamstress to make alterations to her clothes so they better fit her body.

Burke returned to VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, a year later to host a discussion about how fashion can best tackle this issue. Industry power players, including C-suite executives, designers, venture capitalists and retail owners, came together to discuss in-depth how the industry could be more inclusive of the disabled community. The conversation was held under the Chatham House Rule to ensure anonymity and allow participants to speak honestly and freely.

Here are five key learnings that emerged from the discussion.

Education is key.

Only once brands, retailers and industry stakeholders become aware about different disabilities, and understand the various challenges that disabled individuals face, will it be possible to make any kind of meaningful or impactful change.

“When we’re thinking about how the fashion industry can better represent disabled people, or anybody who is challenged in any way, we need to readjust our thinking in so many different ways,” said one VOICES Salon attendee.

Connecting with disabled individuals, as well as organisations that represent the disabled community, will help nurture understanding and awareness. Similarly, creating a safe education space where people can say the wrong things and ask questions can facilitate more open and honest conversation.

“There are so many different terminologies that are chosen or not chosen,” said one guest. “By bringing in those voices who have the lived experience, there is this authenticity there, which otherwise we couldn’t predict.”

It’s also important to consider education among the next generation of design talent. One guest lecturer a year at a top design school isn’t enough, pointed out one guest. Brands, however, have the power to push fashion design schools to consider the topic more carefully and embed it into the educational curriculum.

“If institutions are not interested in changing how they teach students, the people who can change that is the brands,” said a guest. “If you say we will accept interns that have specificity and expertise in inclusive design, which college of education is not going to say yes to this?”

Consult your target audience.

It’s really important to bring disabled voices to the table from the very start. Talk to the consumer who will be purchasing and wearing the product, and let them guide you through the process from start to finish. “[They] can give you their lived experience in the most authentic way,” said one guest.

One salon attendee worked for a fashion brand that recently launched an adaptive line. “It’s the most consumer centric thing I think our company’s ever done,” the guest said. “Everyone talks about being consumer obsessed, and it’s the development of this line and really understanding for all of these very different individuals, what do they need to make their life easier, to make them feel more confident.”

Information from the industry on how to go about a project like this was hard to come by. Instead, the brand decided to go out and talk to people. “That’s where the information and data mostly is today, rather than in the industry,” the guest added.

It’s not just about diversity. It’s about inclusion.

Visibility of disability in brand marketing isn’t enough. Brands need to cater to this consumer and include them in as many ways as possible. For the brand that launched its own adaptive line, modelling the collection on its core products was an important part of this.

“You don’t want the different jean, you want the jean that you can’t wear that everyone else is wearing. So the more that it is modelled off your iconic items, the better,” said a guest who worked at the brand.

The brand also found many product modifications actually required relatively simple solutions. For example, adding magnetic closures to a button-down shirt, but leaving the buttons for aesthetic purposes. “Those are very easy things, [and] can make a world of difference,” explained the guest. The brand was able to use its existing supply chain, working with its vendors to make the necessary adjustments.

Inclusion should also be considered in the context of a consumer shopping experience. Often, disabled people and their non-disabled peers cannot shop together in brick and mortar stores due to product offer segregation.

“Retail and shopping is an emotional experience, but also a social experience,” pointed out one attendee. “We need to evolve this sectioning and move it into the whole space.”

When it comes to online retail, it’s about ensuring internet communications are accessible. There are considerations beyond just putting adaptive product up on a brand’s website, such as screen reader compatibility for the visually impaired. “With voice technology, there should be a lot more that’s accessible,” said a guest.

Empower your retail staff.

In most brick-and-mortar stores, disabled people have very little independence. Three in four disabled people have left a shop or abandoned a business because of poor disability awareness or understanding, a study by the Extra Costs Commission, an independent inquiry set up by British disability charity Scope, found. It estimated that UK businesses were missing out on £420 million in revenue each week as a result.

Retail employees are one of the few physical touch-points many consumers have with a brand. But one retail staff’s ignorance can ruin a disabled individual’s shopping experience — and destroy their relationship with the brand.

“There is a challenge, because at the C-suite level we are talking about inclusion and diversity. We are not having that conversation with the 19 year old behind the cash register who is on minimum wage,” said one guest. “If we brought those two conversations together, the customer would have a much better experience and a much more accessible one.”

Shop floor training and education is a good starting point. Offering assistance to those who need it and, as one Salon attendee put it, “basing interactions on empathy, not sympathy” are central to a positive retail experience. This will positively impact a customer’s brand experience, and probably influence how much money they are willing to spend with that brand.

“[Retail staff] are your connection with the client,” said one chief executive. “If they are not able to engage the client, me in the boardroom, I cannot do it and it’s as simple as that.”

Swap competition for collaboration.

Some brands are better positioned than others to make adjustments and changes to support the launch of an adaptive clothing line. For others, it’s a significant time and money investment that they cannot afford.

Partnering with a brand or a retailer that already has the expertise and know-how can be another way to make strides in being more inclusive with fashion product. Creating opportunities for discussion among industry power players will help promote collaboration over competition.

“The moment in fashion you find a consensus, things become easier,” said one attendee. This was the case when rival luxury conglomerates LVMH and Kering came together for the first time to create a models’ charter.

One salon guest gave the example of Moncler's Genius project. "If you take it to the next level," they said. "Not everybody knows how to do it … You create a platform where designers that are comfortable in doing it have the recourses to do it."

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