“Disabled people constitute the largest minority group in the world, yet are the most underserved and underrepresented,” says Kelly Cat-Wells, the founder and CEO of disabled talent agency C Talent and Zetta Studios, the first fully-accessible studio. “If one does not design for accessibility, it is as if you’re telling every fourth person that comes through your door that you don’t want their business.”
From brick and mortar stores without wheelchair access to limited options on e-commerce platforms, shopping for clothes can be particularly challenging for anyone whose body falls outside the ableist, straight-sized norm. It’s a missed opportunity for profit-driven businesses; representing a quarter of adults, the disabled population has an estimated spending power of $490 billion in the United States alone. “Disabled people hold a lot of power, and it is only a matter of time until brands start to realize what they are missing out on,” says Cat-Wells.
As shoppers increasingly favor brands that make them feel confident in their clothes, apparel companies have an incentive to make adaptive designs with the potential to empower people with disabilities. It appears big fashion houses are finally catching on. ASOS first created a wheelchair-friendly jumpsuit back in 2018, and in April, was praised for showcasing a model with a hearing aid in an earring ad campaign. Tommy Hilfiger’s disability-friendly collection includes adaptive features like Velcro closures, magnetic buttons and adjustable hems, while Nike’s Go FlyEase shoe, released this past April, marks the first hands-free sneaker ever made.
But the entry of adaptive clothing into the fashion mainstream has not been without its issues. Nike’s new Go FlyEase shoe launched as a limited release available to select Nike members, prompting resellers to quickly jump on the product and resell the shoe at a higher price. “They had good intentions but the delivery was poorly executed,” Helya Mohammadian, founder of adaptive underwear brand Slick Chicks, tells Forbes. Mohammadian critiques Nike for not making the shoe accessible to the people who need it most, “A lot of people who could’ve benefitted from it didn’t.” Similarly, Cat-Wells says, “They finally designed something with us in mind and then ‘forgot’ to give us access to the product.”
Not only has Nike been criticized for not making the Go FlyEase—a shoe marketed as an “accessible solution”—accessible to the disabled community, they’ve also been scrutinized for their approach to representation. “Where Nike has room for improvement is in their storytelling,” says Maura Horton, chief community officer of JUNIPERunltd, an e-commerce and content platform for the disabled community. Mohammadian echoes Horton, “where they missed the mark was actually telling the story about it.” Rather than use their marketing campaign as an opportunity to showcase people with disabilities—namely Matthew Walzer, the young athlete with cerebral palsy from whom the shoe was inspired—Go FlyEase advertisements depicted able bodies engaged in active lifestyles.
The exclusion of people with disabilities from Nike’s marketing campaign points to the larger stigma that continues to plague the disabled community. “People think ‘disability’ is a bad word to use but it’s not,” Mohammadian tells Forbes, pointing out the absence of language about disability in Nike’s advertisements. “Brands and society need to stop being afraid to use and say the word ‘disabled’,” says Cat-Wells. “There is so much misconception and miseducation around disabled people, a lot of that is down to the way we have wrongly been perceived in the media.” With such global influence, disability advocates believe these fashion houses have an opportunity, and responsibility, to shift the narrative by making people with disabilities visible. “Not many companies have the resources or platforms and ability to share a global message of inclusion,” says Horton.
Perhaps the root of the issue is that people with disabilities are rarely involved in the conception of clothing designed for them. “We are seeing more and more brands trying to ‘get it right,’ but they often miss the mark because they are missing the lived experience,” says Cat-Wells. Similarly, Sky Cubacub, founder of adaptive clothing line Rebirth Garments, tells Forbes many companies send adaptive pieces into production without testing them on disabled people first and default to particular adaptive clothing features, like magnets, without thinking through the functionality. “Magnets are tricky, their poles will switch or they’ll be sown in wrong,” the designer says.
The failure to include the target clientele in the design process suggests inclusivity efforts on behalf of major brands are simply for optics. “You can definitely see which companies are really trying to understand their customer, as opposed to who is just trying to check the inclusivity box,” says Mohammadian. “With larger companies like Nike, it’s sad because they have the opportunity to make it right and be bigger advocates for fair means of distribution. We don’t have the capital dollars that a Nike would have.”
Mohammadian is one of several designers at the helm of a growing movement of smaller, adaptive apparel brands who are “getting it right” by using their clothing to empower and unite people of marginalized identities. “It’s about the people, the humanity, showing empathy,” says Mohammadian, whose idea to make side-fastening panties was born from watching her sister struggle to put on their own underwear after an emergency C-section. “The story, for us, is the most important piece of the puzzle,” says the designer. “I tell my story all the time, of my how my sister was the inspiration, but it’s not just her, it was the other stories I heard following our initial launch.”
Similarly, Maura Horton’s journey to become a disability advocate originates from a personal story. Frustrated with the lack of non-medical clothing options for her husband who had Parkinson’s disease, Horton created a magnetic clothing closure system that would enable him to maintain his dignity and independence. She expanded the single design into a full adaptive apparel brand, MagnaReady, in 2013, and now serves as the chief community officer at JUNIPERunltd, a content and e-commerce hub of products and services for the disabled community.
It’s building community that Sky Cubacub says is their “favorite part” of running Rebirth Garments. Rather than a typical fashion runway show, the designer hosts “fashion performances” without the hierarchy of a stage. Models representing all kinds of marginalized identities move freely in their custom-made garments and invite the audience to dance with them at the end of the show.
For all three of these founders, the motivation to make adaptive clothing comes from a desire to help people with disabilities feel dignified, independent and less alone. “Clothing is supposed to make you feel good in your body, I want people to feel that,” Cubacub tells Forbes.
“We are changing the face of fashion, more than people think,” says Cubacub. And yet, these brands continue to struggle to be seen. Algorithms on Facebook and Instagram—social media platforms which serve as crucial marketing tools for small brands without large advertising budgets—often block images of adaptive clothing. “The current algorithms will visually scan the images and if there is any presence of a wheelchair, cane or crutches, the ad is immediately denied and classified as medical,” explains Horton.
The designer says a brand can have two ads with the exact same outfit and descriptions—where the “only visible difference is that the model is a wheelchair user”—and the image depicting the wheelchair will be banned. “The process currently is not done by a human who could override the decision,” Horton says.
Mohammadian first experienced the issue in late 2018, when Facebook misinterpreted a series of advertisements of women with various disabilities posing in Slick Chicks underwear as adult content. “They said we were going against their community standards, we were shocked,” Mohammadian tells Forbes. “We were selling accessible underwear for diverse bodies, we weren’t showing any nudity, it was so obviously ableism.” After dozens of unanswered emails to customer service, Mohammadian decided to launch a petition on change.org. They acquired over 800 signatures and the ban was finally lifted.
“There were a couple weeks where I couldn’t post anything that had humans at all,” says Cubacub, describing various images that Instagram has banned over the years, like one of them showing a hand brace or another depicting a modestly dressed Muslim model in a wheelchair. “Instagram is never on the side of queer, trans, adaptive, POC or fat-positive brands,” the designer tells Forbes. Mohammadian says the censorship is hard for small businesses whose ability to thrive largely depends on maintaining access to their online communities. Still, “it’s a fight we won’t stop fighting,” insists Mohammadian.
These designers refuse to let technological barriers stop them, recognizing that to remain focused on the algorithms is to miss the larger picture. “The social model of disability says that what makes us disabled is not our medical condition, but the attitudes and structures of society, that is exactly what these algorithms are doing,” says Cat-Wells. “Algorithms are built by the same structure and system that has created the problems we have historically and still face today. It is only when society, culture and the law sees us as equal, will we have this shift.”
That shift—towards a world where people with disabilities are treated as equals—starts with normalizing adaptive clothing. It’s for this reason that independent brands like Slick Chicks are strategically partnering with major retailers—like Aerie—who have greater visibility and access to a wider consumer market. “The goal for us has always been how do we get this out there to people who need it,” says Mohammadian. “We’re offering a solution, it doesn’t make sense if we keep it niche.”
Expanding adaptive clothing from a “niche” market requires better representation of people with disabilities across the fashion industry; representation that goes beyond performative inclusivity. “Diversity, equity and inclusion aren’t just checked marks for us,” says Horton. “It is the core fiber of every hire, discussion, decision, debate, and deliverable.” Slick Chicks similarly takes inclusivity seriously, “our manufacturers employ over 350 people with disabilities, our products are actually made by people with disabilities,” says Mohammadian. “It should be engrained in everything you do if you’re really inclusive.”
A genuine commitment to being inclusive looks like incorporating people with disabilities into all stages of product design. “Disabled folks should be included in every single step of the process,” says Cubacub. Similarly, Cat-Wells recommends that fashion brands “hire disabled people throughout their organizations and disability expert consultants on all projects, not just disability-specific ones.”
Bringing adaptive clothing into the mainstream is undoubtedly an uphill battle. “There’s still so much work to be done,” says Mohammadian. Still, the designer is optimistic about where the industry is heading, “There’s been a lot of impactful change, it’s an exciting time to be in fashion.” Similarly, Horton says, “It has been promising to watch brands jump in, immerse their teams, embrace the call to action with thoughtful execution and determination to design for all.”
These designers will continue to push for better representation, hopeful the day will come when “adaptive” is no longer a specialty category of apparel. “Why does it have to be ‘adaptive’?” Mohammadian questions. “It should just be ‘fashion’; it should just be something that whether you have a disability or not, you can find the product you need.”
Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.