Adaptive and inclusive design: fashion for people with disabilities

Very few clothing brands cater to people with disabilities. Why is this?

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 09:  Jillian Mercado appears on the runway at the Runway of Dreams Inaugural Gala and fashion show at Capitale on June 9, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Runway of Dreams)
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Traditionally, fashion design has been very narrow in its focus of a single ideal of beauty, with very little inspirational work being done in terms of inclusive design. Designing for the disabled, for example, has traditionally been ignored by fashion designers. This has left special needs clothing to be designed by medical device manufacturers and specialist niche brands, inevitably with a focus on function not form. The idea of buying clothing from a medical device supplier is hardly enticing to a teenager with special needs, who is no less exposed to a barrage of fashion trends and brand advertising. Teenagers don’t want to look any less cool or fashionable, no matter what age, or what the disability.


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A 2011 World Health Organization report estimated that around 1.2 billion people worldwide live with a physical or mental disability. That’s around 15 per cent of the global population. In the US alone one in five adults suffers from some form of disability. Disabled people’s global combined spending power is somewhere in the region of $2.1 trillion and up to $6.9 trillion when families, parents and caregivers of the disabled are counted. Clearly, designing special needs clothing is a massive untapped market. So why isn’t this need being addressed more effectively? Well, likely for the same reasons that fashion has ignored other huge swathes of the population that don’t fit that single ideal of beauty,  the runway model. Short women, larger women, women of colour and older consumers are also poorly served by the mainstream fashion industry.

The range of disabilities that would benefit from adaptive clothing is significant; people with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, muscular dystrophy, anyone wheelchair bound, those that have lost limbs or dexterity, and even those with poor coordination or vision. The past couple of years has seen the fashion industry grappling with issues of representation, whether those of race, size, shape or ability. A few designers are beginning to explore adaptive design from a design perspective, with some flipping the script entirely and changing the concept from disabled to ‘super-abled’. This remains, however, a massive untapped market with the potential for enormous future growth.

Sinead Burke, a Dublin based teacher, PhD student and blogger has become somewhat of an advocate for the disabled. At three feet five inches in height, her diminutive status has given her first-hand experience in the difficulties of finding any clothing to fit, not just fashionable clothing. “My money and my existence is as valid as yours,” she said at the Business of Fashion VOICES summit.