7 decidedly fab examples of disability in fashion

fullsizeoutput_21b3I don’t mean to brag, but among my friends and family, I’m kind of known as the resident fashionista. I have a penchant for finding unique clothing pieces and putting them together in cute, original outfits; and I love looking at online slideshows of the latest haute couture shows.

One thing about which I’m even more passionate than fashion, though, is disability justice. It is defined by Mia Mingus as “a multi-issue political understanding of disability and ableism, moving away from a rights based equality model and beyond just access, to a framework that centers justice and wholeness for all disabled people and communities.” 

You might think these two things are incompatible; and in the past, perhaps, they were. However, I’m delighted to report that in recent years, there has been an upsurge in disabled bodies integrating into the world of mainstream, contemporary fashion.

Here is a roundup of some of my favorite real-world examples of the intersection of disability and fashion at work.

1. Ad[dress]ing Ableism

In April of this year, five students at Cornell University, including two fiber design science majors, created an exhibit utilizing fashion to raise awareness about disability, “acknowledging the broad spectrum across which disability is defined, and changing the way students across campus think about disability and respond to it.” Each of the participating students was either involved with Cornell disability services or self-identified as “disabled.” 

2. Chairmelotte

In The Netherlands, there is a clothing brand called Chairmelotte Wheelchair Couture, “a company offering exclusive, in-house designed, specialised fashion for ladies and gents who live in a wheelchair.” Their website declares, “The clothes are distinct from other brands thanks to a perfect fit tailored to the sitting position, concealed adaptations and extras, and the use of high-quality, mostly natural fabrics with stretch.”

3. Design for Disability

In May, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation launched a six-part web series created “to challenge perceptions and increase public awareness about the need to include people with disabilities in the fashion and design industries,” partnering with fashion designer Derek Lam and six young designers from Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the Fashion Institute of Technology to create the accessible outfits featured in the series. 

4. Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective

Also known as the INFDC, the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective is “the first fashion trade association for people with disabilities.” 

5. FTL Moda

During New York Fashion Week in February 2016, the FTL Moda shows, an Italian fashion platform that brings designers together to show their collections in a cooperative setting, featured a number of models with disabilities, including Madeline Stuart, the first runway model with Down Syndrome, and Shaholly Ayers, a fashion model born with a congenital amputation.

6. Seated Design

Back in 2015, Parsons alumna Lucy Jones won the Parsons Fashion Benefit Womenswear Designer of the Year award “with a collection designed for self-propelled, seated disabled people — a segment of society completely ignored by the fashion industry today.”


According to TIME, in 2012, high-school junior Matthew Walzer, who has cerebral palsy, wrote a letter to Nike in which he said his dream was to go off to college “without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day.” Thus, the Flyease 8, “a LeBron James-branded basketball shoe with a one-handed fastening mechanism” in which “wearers yank on a strap, which zips around the ankle as they pull,” was born.

 What about ADHD?

As is so often the case, while doing research for this post, I encountered a lot of information about physical disabilities and other, more outwardly apparent mental disabilities, but there was a decided lack of references to my disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Granted, disabilities such as paraplegia inherently require more physical adaptability. Nevertheless, ADHD does impact a person’s embodied existence, and it would be refreshing to see fashion reflect that.

Imagine, for example, if shirts were produced with heavy fabric, thereby compressing the wearer like a weighted blanket. Or failing that, it would be great if some garments could consist of flexible, durable fibers less likely to rip should the wearer trip or fall, as ADHDers have a tendency to do. Likewise, now that Nike has conquered zip-up shoes (see above), I would love to see its product designers turn their attention to creating a running shoe with extra traction to prevent unintentional slipping. In fact, I would like all shoes to be designed this way, including non-utilitarian styles such as high-heel booties or Oxfords. After all, ADHD-induced spazziness isn’t confined to the fitness domain — trust me!


Why mobility is a free speech issue

On Monday, Sept. 25, according to the captioning of a HuffPost video,

Over 200 protesters gathered at a Senate Finance Committee hearing for the latest version of the Graham-Cassidy Bill, the latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which would gut Medicaid and allow states to raise premiums on individuals with pre-existing conditions. Protests began as soon as the hearing did.

The next day, The New York Times ran an article with the following lede:

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the oppression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

Other than the week in which they took place, these two events have something else in common: They both illustrate how mobility — or lack thereof — is a free speech issue.

Medicaid is crucial for mentally and/or physically disabled people wishing to live with agency and autonomy. Yet, as stated on the website of Disability Rights Ohio, “an individual with a ‘pre-existing condition,’ such as mental illness, may be denied coverage for that condition as long as other employees … are denied coverage for their pre-existing condition.”

So, in the absence of Obamacare, people with disabilities (PWD) may not be able to afford or have any access to subsidized medication or other essential kinds of treatment. Moreover, many PWD (*raises hand*) can’t work part-time jobs, or even, whether due to architecture or any number of other reasons, full-time jobs, making them inherently ineligible for company insurance. No employer = no employer coverage.

Obviously, speech isn’t always spoken or uttered in protest; a person may be born with a significant speech disorder or impairment, or simply have no desire to speak out on a particular subject on a given occasion.  But when a person with a disability wishes to exercise their right to free speech, it is absolutely (and, in the U.S., constitutionally) essential to allow it. Yet while it seems that healthcare has been saved, at least for the time being, this was not the first time that PWD were forcibly removed from a public forum simply for exercising their first-amendment rights; as such, it is likely not the last.


U.S. Capitol Police arrest a protester. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mobility Matters

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives two definitions of mobility: “the ability to move or be moved freely and easily,” and “the ability to move between different levels in society or employment.” 

It may seem, then, that these PWD do have mobility; after all, the ones with physical handicaps are equipped with wheelchairs. However, although they may move easily, they weren’t being moved freely. Though they peaceably assembled, Capitol police stripped many of the protestors of their mobility by pulling their wheelchairs out of the room against their will, thus keeping them from advocating for the preservation of what they need to be socially mobile: Medicaid. 

‘Moving’ Forward


A woman behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Faissal Al Nasser/Reuters)

Assuredly, Saudi women are reacting so elatedly to the news because of the newfound agency it has brought them. And they apparently were not the only ones celebrating. To quote Ben Hubbard, “Saudi leaders … hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace.” 

What the my dictionary app fails to mention is that in its entry on mobility, the first definition begets the second: The ability to move freely and easily facilitates movement between different levels in society or employment. Whether they seek employment, or guaranteed well-being even in unemployment, all people, including and especially women and PWD, have the right to move or to stay right where they are, thank you very much. And we need to do everything we can to protect that right.