This is what it's really like shopping as a disabled person... and serious change is needed

Disability is fashion’s final frontier.

13 May 2019

Fashion holds a powerful platform within society, with a historic ability to push boundaries and challenge perceptions. It’s an industry that’s wonderfully celebratory of self-expression - this becomes irrelevant however, if we only allow a certain spectrum of society to have access to it. There are currently 13.9 million disabled people in the UK and an estimated one billion worldwide, yet disabled people are often ignored in the world of fashion.

The industry has had to address its problems with diversity and shift its parameters to celebrate the varying identities of its consumers. Fantastic steps forward have been made in the representation of race, sexuality, age and gender. Now, disability is fashion’s final frontier. It’s thought that the collective spending power of disabled people – known as the Purple Pound, is worth £249bn to the UK economy. Brands perhaps need to realise it makes little financial sense to accommodate the able-bodied consumer only.

A world where shop access predetermines what disabled women can and cannot wear is neither a modern nor inclusive one. We are finally beginning to lift the veiled curtain on disabled people’s lives - Selma Blair a made defiant red carpet debut after her MS diagnosis and models with disabilities have featured in campaigns for River Island, Benefit and ASOS. Yet, in a world so innovative in the genius of design, with finger print activated phones and talking ‘virtual assistants’ we should question why design that benefits disabled people, such as adaptive clothing is not the norm.

Whilst representation is improving, is this translating into the experiences of disabled women today?

has had a muscle weakness disability since birth, and has recently began a petition to raise retailer’s awareness of the barriers facing disabled consumers when shopping. Lottie explains: “Fashion is a powerful way to explore identity, culture and celebrate our differences. Despite the fact 20% of people in the UK have disabilities, disabled models are largely absent from fashion campaigns and catwalks. When brands look to improve disability representation, it’s essential they include those with disabilities in the process.”

tells me" “Being chronically ill or disabled is a part of you, but not the only part. The desire to look nice and express your personality doesn’t go away when you get sick.” Nicola suffers from Lyme disease and explains, “Fashion for me also needs to be functional. I suffer with temperature irregularities so need clothes to be warm. I gained five stone due to severe inflammation, so need soft, comfortable fabrics with high waistbands that don’t dig in. This is difficult to find on the high street and will often cost more in specialist shops.”

Fashion can often be dismissed as frivolous and self-indulgent, yet it’s a necessity to dress ourselves each day. To omit a societal group denies agency and breeds prejudice. Last year, Tommy Hilfiger introduced an adaptive clothing line featuring magnetic coverings, Velcro, adjusted hems and easy pull-on loops. The collection was highly praised and brought a welcome change.

- who was diagnosed with ALS at 14, modelled for the campaign. She told me, “I’ve previously been frustrated by other campaigns that feature models with disabilities, but don’t show them in their wheelchairs. I think society in general doesn't believe that people with disabilities are fashion customers. If they did, we'd have an adaptive clothing section the same way we have plus size.”

Clothing can be an ally for disabled women. It can (if desired) conceal tubes, stoma bags and distract from the pain and fatigue of chronic illness. Yet it presents them with problems in both accessibility and dressing. Consider how tough it can be to get into or out of garments as an able-bodied person, then imagine that when faced with a disability. Whist online shopping allows disabled women to avoid some difficulties,

explains, “I like to shop in store to see whether fabrics will work for me sitting down. However, I bring everything home to try on at my own pace because changing rooms are unsuitable for someone with my needs.” Sophie has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a wheelchair full time. Sophie advised, “It would be hard for adaptive clothing to keep up with changing trends, however I think brands could look to make key wardrobe staples adaptable. I often cut the back of my clothes so they fit better, because I want to wear them so badly.” Sophie believes River Island’s recent advertisement 'Labels are for clothes' is, “the best campaign I have seen. It included various disabilities and features children – it’s an amazing way to show them their differences make them unique.”

Last year, Edinburgh department store Jenners began using the Neatebox Welcome app. This allows customers with disabilities to gain assistance from the store’s customer-service team. If used universally, this could have helped women like , who tells me: “Before I had my lung transplant, I’d get breathless shopping. If an escalator or lift wasn’t working I wouldn’t have to access some floors. I’ve not had much control over my body, fashion has been a way to take back some of that control. I was born with cystic fibrosis and had a double lung transplant. Growing up I wasn’t body confident – I had scars from various surgeries, was often on intravenous antibiotics with a dressing under my arm and a gastrostomy tube. When Aerie used a model with a stoma bag I was so excited – I’d waited years to see a body like that existing in a fashion environment, rather than being sensationalised. If my younger self had seen that, I would have felt much more at ease with my own body.”

For , the right clothing make her feel empowered. “I was born without a left hand and didn’t see myself represented in fashion when I was younger. Now, Marit has used alterations to her advantage. “I fell in love with a long sleeve wedding dress asked the seamstress to make one sleeve shorter. It was the best decision ever.”

To champion diversity, illustrator , who regularly works with top fashion brands, ensures her outfits are shown on women of varying sizes, ethnicities and physical abilities. She told me, “As someone creating original fashion imagery, I believe I have a responsibility to make it diverse, to better reflect the world we live in.” Social media has provided a wonderful platform for minority voices to be seen and heard on their terms. tells me, “Instagram has given me confidence to discuss my disability. I can connect with thousands of people experiencing the same difficulties. I've had many lovely messages and comments, which help me to love my body - no matter how it's feeling that day. Ali suffers from ME and Fibromyalgia, and is in constant pain and struggles to manage her energy levels. Ali says, “I definitely feel my disability is judged, someone even thought my walking stick was just a fashion accessory!”

I can't recall seeing women with disabilities represented in street style imagery, and most mannequins appear able bodied. For , who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, brands photographing clothing on models in a seated position would help her imagine how they would look on her. “Better still brands could use more models with disabilities on their websites.” Ellie says knowing how to sew makes her life a hundred times easier. “I can’t tell you how many trousers I’ve had to shorten. Not everyone is going to want to do this - if shops could offer an alterations service that would be a dream come true. Changing rooms are an absolute no go, I can’t get changed unless I can lay down. A changing bench in the disabled changing room would be so beneficial.”

Many women I spoke to praised Primark for their spacious disabled changing rooms and fast-track disability queues. would love to see more stores follow Primark’s lead. For Caprice, Osteoarthritis and Chronic Pain Syndrome mean shopping has become increasingly difficult. “I use two crutches to mobilise and I find it difficult to carry anything, I’m lucky to always have someone with me to help. People are often not very vigilant of me so I am often pushed and shoved.”

The conversation around disability often omits those with invisible illnesses, learning or mental health difficulties. who has Aspergers Syndrome, explains, “As a woman on the spectrum, I both adore fashion and am exhausted by it. I have many sensory sensitivities that require smart clothing choices. If my clothes don’t fit correctly, irritate my skin or weigh me down, I can experience sensory pain and physical discomfort. For Lauren, shopping itself can be stressful, “I’ve worked diligently to build up coping skills so I can enjoy shopping, but often shop online to avoid harsh store lighting, loud music and small talk with sales associates; which can be exhausting for people with Aspergers to navigate. I often wear headphones and shop at the same places, so I know what to expect.”

has suffered a clinical eating disorder, anxiety, depression and Body Dysmorphia Disorder. Lindsey shares, “My mental health issues definitely affect the way I shop and dress. I find shop mirrors where you can see all angles difficult, and in warmer weather I find it harder to have lots of skin on show. When I was at my thinnest, everything in my favourite stores fit - confirming for me that fashion is made with one person in mind. The sizes may get bigger, but the shape doesn’t change. Seeing outfits on a variety of women really helps me. Seeing someone wearing what they want with confidence gives me confidence, and strength to ignore the bad voices in my head. Social media has helped open up the conversation around diversity, it’s not perfect but it’s helped break stigmas.”

Much more needs to be done to accommodate disabled shoppers. Words are fantastic to educate and inspire, but action is required. For fashion’s future to be bright, it must be universally inclusive.