As clothing brands move toward size inclusivity, they should meaningfully include disabled bodies as well.
One afternoon, I was walking down the street in my city in Argentina and noticed the mannequins in a store window were sporting a new accessory: white and green canes. When I walked closer, I saw a poster explaining the new addition. The canes were on display in recognition of White Cane Day and Green Cane Day. Both canes, the sign explained, help people with visual impairments navigate and identify themselves to passersby. The white canes identify people with total blindness, while the green ones identify people with visual impairments.
The store display was meant to raise awareness for both conditions, and for me, it worked.
As an able-bodied person, I rarely think about people who have visual impairments unless I see someone walking by with a cane. The display broke me out of my usual thoughts and made me consider how my city feels to people who use canes to get around. The uneven, often broken or missing sidewalk paving stones could be more than a minor annoyance; the silent crosswalk signals could be difficult to interpret.
Honestly, this city is a nightmare for people who aren’t able-bodied.
There are storefronts accessible only by stairs and steep curbs that drop off without wheelchair ramps. Only a few buses have designated handicapped seating and none have seats wide enough to accommodate a variety of bodies. Many of the buildings are old and not fitted with elevators.
Some places, like my university, have made efforts in creating accessible spaces—there are wheelchair ramps at every entrance. However, there’s not a single automatic door to be found. And these are just the barriers to the most visible disabilities that come to my mind.
They represent, at best, rude interruptions to the daily tasks we all hope to do, and, at worst, physical danger to people with disabilities.
Access to fashion may not be a life-or-death thing for any of us, but the fashion world is certainly full of barriers to people with disabilities. Take the store I passed on my walk, for example. Even the mannequins equipped with canes showed a lack of forethought—their smooth, flattened palms were never designed to hold anything, and the canes dangled awkwardly by their straps.
I’ve never seen a mannequin in a wheelchair, or clothing designed for people with stomas. Ads that show models and athletes with disabilities contribute to awareness and representation, but they exclude people with invisible disabilities. Where are the models who need to sit down frequently because of connective-tissue disorders, or the ones who spend weekends in hospitals dealing with congestive heart conditions or waiting for liver transplants?
As long as fashion labels continue to promote white, young, thin models, they’re also promoting able-bodied models.
This is to the detriment of us all, whether we’re able-bodied and ignorant of other experiences or we have disabilities and face a world that was not designed with us in mind.
As I walked away from the mannequins on display, I wondered what it meant for a fast-fashion shop to promote awareness and accommodation for people with disabilities before the city around it did. I wonder now what I should do with this heightened awareness, and how I can make it last.
I can write this article, for a start, but how much can my able-bodied voice help before it starts silencing the voices of people with disabilities, who need to be centered in these discussions?
One answer came to me this past weekend. I was part of a WhatsApp group chat setting up a time for a Zoom video call. The organizers were quick to ask whether the time worked for everyone and whether they had access to Zoom and the internet. They didn’t, however, ask how to accommodate the deaf person in the group. She called them out, asking them how they planned to include her given that she wouldn’t hear the video. This led to an investigation into what built-in features Zoom had, which, thankfully, included a Closed Caption generator. The deaf woman reminded everyone that these services don’t always work well, and asked that we pay attention to the captions coming out and quickly type corrections if they didn’t match what we were saying.
The organizers thanked her for holding us accountable. I was thankful, too. It sucked that we didn’t think to assess Zoom’s features beforehand and that she had to ask. The least we can do is take on the burden of correcting the captions ourselves.
Thinking about our community members with disabilities and the things we can do to accommodate them before they have to ask us (or we see an awareness campaign in a store) is a necessity for able-bodied people. Since so many infrastructures we interact with are not designed for people with disabilities, they already place an undue burden on them. It should not be their responsibility to advocate for themselves every time they encounter an issue.
As able-bodied people, we should think ahead and seek out accommodations like closed captions, wheelchair access, and elevators.
While it should not be a disabled person’s responsibility to teach able-bodied people how to help them, I think it is important to have conversations about what would be most helpful before swooping in to act as an able-bodied hero. In some cases, trying to help someone we think is in need based on some visible or invisible difference can be rude, belittling, and unhelpful. It’s not fair to assume someone is incapable of a task just because we would do it differently.
This is about building an equitable environment for all people—not getting brownie points for holding a door open.
Staying curious, doing the research, listening to the disabled people around us (may I suggest the podcast “That That Don’t Kill Me” and Jessica Kelgen-Fozard’s YouTube channel?), and finding out what our cities, towns, offices, and schools are doing to support people with differently-abled bodies are the ways we can take awareness beyond the storefront and into the streets.