Why adaptive and disability-friendly fashion design is a win-win solution for the industry


“You can’t market to people you don’t see, and you just can’t see people you don’t like. “

Four years ago, photos of a young Australian model with Down’s syndrome flooded the Internet. It gained 100,000 subscribers overnight and made headlines around the world.

That model was Madeline Stuart, now a seasoned pro on the runway, the founder of a dance studio for people with disabilities, and the creator of her own fashion label.

Madeline has walked in New York, London, China, Paris and Dubai, and has appeared in Vogue and New York Times. Defended as a beacon for inclusion, her career paved the way for the fashion industry to make room for models with disabilities.

In an ABC interview earlier this year, Madeline’s mother Rosanne said it’s been more common to see models with Down’s syndrome on catwalks around the world since Madeline’s debut went viral.

While this is a big step forward for inclusiveness, virality can often be a symbol of the exception, not the rule.

Visibility isn’t everything, and the fashion industry certainly shouldn’t be resting on its laurels with small, but big steps.

There is a deeper problem that we have to face: presenting models with disabilities is not inclusive if the clothing itself is not suitable for people with disabilities.

Stéphanie Thomas, handicap fashion designer made a speech at the TedX YYC Calgary event on Fashion Design for People with Disabilities, urging people to realize that there is a gaping hole in the global market for stylish and functional clothing for people with disabilities.

Stephanie gave the talk a few years ago, but her message is by no means outdated.

She has what is called a “non-severe” disability: she was born without a thumb and with three toes on one foot and four on the other. About 25 years ago, she was in a pageant competition and was asked why she had never buttoned her left cuff.

“It made me see that clothing for people with disabilities just didn’t exist on a large scale,” she says.

“There was so much apathy in the early ’90s around this issue, and there was so little choice of clothing. I got a little obsessed with it.

Today, Stéphanie is a pioneer of the Disability Fashion Styling System, professor of fashion marketing at the Art Institute of California and manages Curable, a fashion and lifestyle site for people with disabilities.

In the TedX talk, Stephanie describes how people often don’t know she has a mild disability.

“I see life from these two different sides: the one where I’m labeled ‘normal’, whatever it is. Another where I’m labeled “less than” or sometimes even “different”.

Stephanie explains that people with disabilities often need different characteristics and abilities from the clothes they wear.

Rivets, seams, buttons and pockets on the back of jeans and pants can cause sores and other damage to people in wheelchairs. Pants often need to be lengthened to maintain the proper length when the wearer is seated.

For those with limited use of one or both hands, it is essential to replace conventional buttons with magnetic buttons, Velcro fasteners or zippers.

Features inside clothing, such as labels with care instructions, can be helpful in conventional ways, but can be unsettling for people with autism spectrum disorders.

Lobbying for the production of clothing taking into account these needs has been Stéphanie’s mission for more than two decades.

It’s personal to her, but fashion for people with disabilities is by no means a niche market.

One in five people in Australia has some form of disability. We often see stories about children and the elderly with disabilities, but there is also more than two million Australians of working age (between 15 and 64) who have a disability.

All of these people are individuals with their own histories, their own struggles, their own aspirations and their own incomes.

Stephanie uses World Health Organization data to point out that there are approximately 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world, with a massive global disposable income of eight trillion dollars.

Yes money makes the world go round, those are eight trillion reasons why the fashion industry makes fashion for people with disabilities a priority.

There are more than enough customers and a lot of money to spend on comfortable, useful and stylish clothing suitable for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are not charity cases. They pay consumers who deserve clothes designed for them.

With all of that in mind, it’s hard not to wonder why this part of the fashion industry hasn’t already exploded.

On the surface, the problem is that there isn’t enough disabled-friendly fashion available to consumers. But there is a more serious problem underlying this problem, and it is deeply troubling.

It is 2019, and people with disabilities are not valued or “seen” enough, especially in the fashion world.

“You can’t market to people you don’t see, and you just can’t see people you don’t like,” says Stephanie.

She emphasizes that it is not about charity. People with disabilities don’t just need to be seen as human beings.

They also need to be valued as customers, and at the moment it doesn’t seem like that really is the case.

This is the sort of thing that becomes evident when Stephanie points out that there are more fashion options for pets than for people with disabilities.

Of course, there are disabled parking spaces in shopping malls, as well as more spacious ramps, elevators, and changing rooms for people with disabilities to access stores and try on clothes.

While these features can be particularly useful for people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility, there is still a lot to be done.

The belief that making stores wheelchair-friendly is tantamount to making the fashion industry disabled-friendly is wrong. Notably because he forgets to recognize that each disabled person has a different experience. Not all disabilities are the same.

As long as the clothes themselves are made without thinking about people with disabilities, they remain underrepresented.

Recently, powerful singer, designer, and businesswoman Rihanna turned the cosmetics industry around when people began to compare most makeup companies’ lack of variety in skin tones to Fenty Beauty’s inclusion of a wide range of shades.

It is important that diversity is embraced on all fronts. Racial discrimination is a huge problem of epidemic proportions, and the role of the fashion and beauty industry in overcoming it is more important than ever.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is also an incredibly serious problem that often goes unnoticed.

The fashion industry has such a hold on popular culture that it makes sense that this is an appropriate space to start working to dispel the stigma against people with disabilities.

According to Australian Disability Network, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a third of customers with disabilities ended a transaction because they were not treated with respect or fairness.

Data from Australian Human Rights Commission indicates that it receives more complaints for discrimination based on disability than for any other type of prejudice.

In 2017, the Australian Network on Disability conducted its’2017 Self-Confidence Survey for People with Disabilities‘.


They found that 62% of small and medium businesses did nothing in the past 12 months to make it easier for customers with disabilities.

Almost half of those cases were attributed to a lack of “specific requests,” meaning no one had asked companies to take action to accommodate people with disabilities.

Either way, the large population of customers with disabilities is more than enough impetus for businesses to take the lead.

And it’s already starting to happen. Slowly but surely, brands are beginning to recognize that creating clothing tailored to the needs of people with disabilities is not only beneficial in terms of social capital. It is also a way to access a new demographic of consumers.

Target and Tommy Hilfiger are among the big brands starting to delve into “adaptive” fashion and style for people with disabilities.

Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive collection, aptly named Tommy Adaptive, is marketed to those who use wheelchairs, have prostheses or have other limited mobility.

The garments are adjustable and feature zippers that can be operated with one hand, magnetic buttons and velcro, as well as various easy closure systems.

Tommy Adaptive is the result of a partnership between Tommy Hilfiger and the Piste des Rêves Foundation. Runway of Dreams is directed by Mindy Scheier, the mother of a child with muscular dystrophy. He supports people with disabilities in the fashion industry. Tommy Adaptive started with a line for children, but has since expanded to include adults as well.

Likewise, Target has also launched its Cat and Jacques line for children with special needs. The clothes are made from soft and comfortable fabrics, with hidden openings for access to the stomach and diaper. The collection avoids labels and seams.

All things considered, it seems the fashion world is finally taking note of the shrinking public who want to see more clothing designed specifically for people with disabilities.

But we still need a broader representation of people in this demographic.

It is crucial that the role of people with disabilities in the fashion industry is increased. Representation and diversity go hand in hand, so true diversity in fashion will not thrive if the disability community is left behind.

At the end of the day, providing tailored but trendy clothing is good for business, and it’s good for the community.

It’s a win-win.



Joseph E. Golightly