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‘Inaccessibility Is A Collective Problem’: The Promise And Limits Of Adaptive Fashion

August 20, 2021

When Angel Dixon acquired her disability, clothes shopping suddenly became complicated. She wanted things that worked for her: soft fabrics with no tags (because of nerve pain), and garments without buttons, zips or hooks would have been handy. She also – importantly – wanted to look good.

On a day trip from the hospital with her mother, Dixon realised she couldn’t even access most of the stores with her wheelchair. The change rooms were also inaccessible.

“I ended up finding mid-length jersey material dresses I could just pull over my head and crying when I got back to the hospital from exhaustion and confusion,” she says.

Diversity and inclusivity have recently become fashion watchwords, and brands have responded by, among other initiatives, designing lines of adaptive clothing. Merging fashion with function to cater to differently abled people, adaptive clothing is designed to make getting dressed easier, more convenient and even pain-free for people from all walks of life.

This year, The Iconic became the first major Australian and New Zealander retailer to release a dedicated “adaptive edit” in early August, citing the launch as part of their “commitment to a more inclusive Australian fashion landscape”.

Grace Stratton, director of New Zealand-based communications agency All is for All, says growing up she was made to feel as though her body should be minimised and not celebrated. Photograph: Synthia Bahati

Featuring three brands – the Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive Collection, Jam the Label and Christina Stephens – the range includes products like trackpants with a hidden pouch (for indwelling catheters), shirts with discreet back slips that make dressing easier, and trench coats that make magnetic closures look like normal buttons.

But it’s not the only one of its kind. EveryHuman, which has been online since late 2019, is a platform that features dozens of brands. They aim to create “greater choice for people with disability”.

Matthew Skerritt, founder of EveryHuman, said the products were selected for a range of different abilities. “Whether people struggle with dexterity, mobility or sensory issues, these products make life more accessible.”Advertisement

The Iconic partnered with All is for All – an accessible communications agency directed by New Zealand-based Grace Stratton – to ensure they were bringing the initiative to life through a pan-disability lens.

This project means a lot to Stratton – she feels it’s a “reprieve from that traditional sense of having to fit in”.

Stratton says growing up, she was made to feel as though her body should be minimised and not celebrated because it was “different to the norm”.

“It almost makes me hopeful for future generations – maybe they won’t have to go through the same challenges.”

But Dixon is cautious of touting adaptive clothing as groundbreaking – she flagged that it could be a slippery slope to perpetuating “dangerous ideas” if adaptive clothing and models with disability are segregated and marketed as “special”.

“One garment can’t solve all access problems, but there are ways to embed universal and inclusive design into all fashion designs.

“Inclusive design is something else. It’s clothing that is designed with a diverse consumer in mind and focuses on both form and function,” she says.

She gives the example of zippers at the back of garments (the enemy of anyone who lives alone), saying “inaccessibility is a collective problem”.

As more adaptive fashion lines roll out, some consumers with disability are beginning to realise not all that glitters is gold. Adaptive lines may bridge gaps for many, but a lot of work still needs to be done to make these initiatives truly inclusive.

Cost is one of the major elephants in the room so far for adaptive clothing. Only four garments in The Iconic’s edit – two tees and two long-sleeve tees – cost under $50.

People living with disability are disproportionately affected by poverty – around four out of every 10 Australians living in poverty have a disability.

That point is crucial for Dixon, who says, “There’s a lot of us [living with disability], but that doesn’t mean we all have disposable cash to throw around.”

She still thinks adaptive fashion lines can work. But says “we need to elevate the ranges that exist and we need competition to bring the prices down”.

Stratton acknowledges the barriers people face are vast, and that online-first adaptive edits such as The Iconic’s won’t work for everyone. “[But] we have a responsibility to start somewhere, and I think in the digital age, a lot of people with disability are finding communities online.”

While it’s true we’re in the digital age, the conversation on adaptive clothing has not reached everyone.

Gavin Jackson is a 52-year-old man from Innisfail, a town of about 1o,000 that sits an hour south of Cairns. He has multiple sclerosis (MS) and had never heard of adaptive clothing until we spoke.

“The idea of it [adaptive clothing] is enlightening to me. I want to be aware of what’s out there, because MS is a degenerative disease and I don’t know what I’m going to need in six months’ time,” he says.

Jackson was surprised he had never been told about adaptive clothing, considering he is an NDIS participant and garments can be claimed on most care plans.

Living rurally, he’s also limited if he needs something new to wear.

“Most of the time it’s function over fashion – so I’m just trying to get things that work for me. And sometimes I will wear the same thing because it works.”

Although Jackson uses the internet (we iMessaged back and forth while he Googled “adaptive fashion”), he said he wouldn’t buy from an online-based adaptive fashion line.

“Buying clothes online is daunting. Something may not fit right and returning it seems like such a big deal to me.”

For Jackson, who uses a cane and is primarily unstable on his feet, lugging ill-fitting garments back to Australia Post is just an extra thing he doesn’t need to worry about.

For adaptive clothing to be accessible to those like Jackson, fashion brands need to make changes in their physical shopping experiences, too.

“Sometimes the racks are close together and it makes it difficult to get around. But I still prefer to have that as an option instead of online shopping,” Jackson says.

Stratton is hopeful adaptive edits will trigger a wider conversation on disability rights – but she concedes these clothing lines have their limits.

“Fashion is important, but it’s not a fundamental issue in terms of the things that disabled people face,” she says. “We’re still struggling with access to healthcare and education.”

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