‘Disabling’ fashion: 5 people with disabilities transforming fashion

by Dionne Gray

A stunning woman poses in what looks like an old building of Chinese history but there aren't many inside details so we can't be sure. She is wearing a mustard dress with a chic black leather jacket over it. She wears a really stylish black prosthetic leg and the look is finished off with some trendy boots. Her hair is long and jet black and she is wearing bright red lipstick.
Caption:

The work to advance more diverse and inclusive fashion, while steady, is slow. This slow rate of change is surprising, especially since people with disabilities wear clothing too (unless they've opted for a clothing-optional lifestyle—no judgment here).

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©fotofrol / Adobe Stock

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While there are dozens of people with disabilities who do the good work of advancing more diverse and inclusive fashion, we’re shining the spotlight on five people with disabilities changing the fashion industry today.

Generally, conversations about diversity and inclusion tend to focus—especially in the U.S.—on how and why corporations diversify their talent. Experts all agree that diversity and inclusion lead to better business outcomes. However, the work to advance more diverse and inclusive fashion, while steady, is slow.



This slow rate of change is surprising, especially since people with disabilities wear clothing too (unless they’ve opted for a clothing-optional lifestyle—no judgment here). This means that people with disabilities represent untapped buying potential. To be more precise, the 2016 Report on The Global Economics of Disability counted 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world, with a combined collective spending power valued at $8 trillion.

Here are five trailblazers changing the fashion industry for all:

1. Mama Cāx

When she was 14 years old, Haitian-American Mama Cāx survived bone and lung cancer but lost her right leg, which was amputated at the hip. She had always loved fashion, so she started styling her prosthetic leg and proudly posted pictures to her blog. That decision not only inspired other amputees, but it ultimately launched Cāx’s career as a model, advocate and motivational speaker who uses her platform to talk about body positivity and shift the image of what people with disabilities should be or look like. “I think it’s so important to show [my prosthetic leg to] people who have physical disabilities because there are people out there who have physical disabilities who buy products and who never see themselves represented in any way, shape, or form,” Cāx said in a Teen Vogue interview. She also educates brands about the importance of booking fashion shows in accessible locations. “I make it known that they need to have an accessible venue if they’re going to hire someone who needs accommodation.”

 

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Read more: Mismatched: When our bodies don’t match our world

2. Rafi Solaiman

Eighteen-year-old Brit Rafi Solaiman didn’t let the debilitating stroke he suffered at age 12 keep him from achieving his goal to become a model. The stroke caused his brain to hemorrhage, and he had to learn how to walk and speak again. Just five years after his stroke, he responded to an advertisement for models with disabilities and the rest is history. Today, he still walks with the aid of a walker, he speaks with a slight slur, and he suffers from short- and long-term memory loss. Solaiman’s story was featured in the CBBC documentary, My Life: Changing the Face of Beauty. He even competed in the 2018 Paralympic Games held in Berlin, where he represented the UK in the 100m RaceRunning race. He meets regularly with fashion industry decision-makers to persuade them to include disabled models in their campaigns or on their websites.

 

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“Beauty is inclusion - every size, every color - that's the world I live in”

Prabal Gurung

3. Sinéad Burke

“Design inhibits my autonomy and my independence,” Sinéad Burke said during her popular TED talk on ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone.’ Burke is an Irish writer, academic and broadcaster who was born with achondroplasia, one of the most common forms of dwarfism. When she was 16, she started a fashion blog to talk about the exclusive nature of the fashion industry. She later co-founded the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC)—the first-ever fashion trade association for people with disabilities—with Liz Jackson, a U.S.-based disability advocate. Burke and Jackson were specially invited to attend ‘Design for All,’ a White House event created to highlight the intersection of fashion and disability. In 2018, Burke was named one of Vogue’s Most Influential Women and is now a contributing writer for the magazine. According to Vogue, “Her mission is clear: to educate designers on how to be fully inclusive in fashion and beyond.” “I often forget that I’m a little person. It’s the physical environment and society that remind me,” Burke says.

4. Aaron Philip

In 2018, Aaron Philip became the first black, disabled, transgender model signed to Elite Model Management. Born in Antigua and raised in New York, Philip has cerebral palsy, a condition that can affect motor function, and uses a motorized wheelchair. She credits her now infamous tweet for launching her career: “honestly when i get scouted/discovered by a modeling agency it’s OVER for y’all! by y’all i mean the WORLD! it’s real inclusivity/diversity hours folks, get into it!” She has since modeled for Paper Magazine and ASOS.

Philip is a vocal advocate for transgender and disabled visibility. In an interview with Vice, she recommended simple adjustments for making the fashion industry more accessible to everyone: sew garments in all sizes; make runways physically accessible for models with wheelchairs and mobility aids and cast trans models who aren’t passable or don’t conform to the gender binary. “The way we choose to dress, as trans people, directly affirms and presents our gender identities and expressions to the public in a way that is unique. It’s precious and beautiful to many of us,” she says.

5. Samantha Renke

Bag brand Mia Tui reached out to UK actor and disability activist Samantha Renke to get her thoughts on how to tweak a bag initially designed for busy mothers to serve the needs of people in wheelchairs. Renke, who was born with brittle bone disease, contacted people with disabilities on social media to get their input on how the design could be more inclusive. The result was the Samantha, a bag designed with people with disabilities in mind, but not just for people with disabilities. It sports a bright blue inside color for visually impaired people and a non-magnetic clasp for people with pacemakers. “The little tweaks I’ve made would benefit people [with disabilities] greatly but if you didn’t point them out to someone, you would just think it’s a bag,” Renke told Marketing Week. She also writes a lifestyle column for Pos+Ability, a leading disability magazine, and blogs regularly for HuffPost UK.

 

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While we’ve shined the spotlight on just five people with disabilities helping to change the way fashion includes people with disabilities, Uncomfortable Revolution salutes all people with disabilities committed to advancing a world with more diverse and inclusive fashion. Who did we leave out? Who would you add to this list?


Read more: Fashion designers aren’t ignoring the disability issue: they don’t know it exists.




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Bio color photo of Dionne Gray. Dionne has red lipstick on, is smiling, looking towards the camera. She has a black blouse on.
Article by Dionne Gray

Dionne Gray is a communications practitioner, resume and career coach.

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