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Accessibility & Clothing: Why is there a disconnect between the fashion industry and accessible design?

My name is Molly and I am the person who writes a lot of the of the content for the sacare blogs and social media posts.

I have been working in my role with sacare for nearly two years now. Working within the disability industry definitely opens your eyes to lots of issues within society- issues about inclusivity, awareness and access.

That’s why I think it is important to shine a spotlight on matters faced by those living with a disability, that aren’t an issue for many other people.

Last year we published an article about the single use plastic ban and in-particular the straw ban, that the South Australian government wanted to enforce. As I mentioned in the article, ‘great for the environment, but what about those who rely on them to survive?’. This was one of our most popular posts shared on Facebook last year, it sparked discussion, people even sharing their own stories and I even had the local ABC radio station reach out to discuss the issue. Even though our audience may not be huge- it still ultimately equalled more awareness for an issue that faces the disability community.

Writing this blog, seeing the impact it made and how important it was to the immediate sacare community inspired me to start a new series of articles about inclusivity awareness.

The idea of inclusivity is not new, but I believe that working in the industry and knowing so many wonderful people who have disabilities, it is important to use our platform and voice to raise awareness and potentially help with change.

I do not have a disability, and I have no firsthand knowledge about living with a disability, however, I do have the ability to listen and to share the stories of those living with a disability.

Not all disabilities are created equal and not everyone will face the same accessibility issues, but this series will try to cover as many diverse topics as possible to raise awareness.

I am lucky that working at sacare gives me this platform to share our clients’ stories with the wider community.I hope that by creating a series of blogs and topics we can start to gain a bit of action and change among the wider community.

The first topic that I have chosen to focus on is clothing.

For a lot of us finding the right clothing can already be a chore. Finding the right fit, cut, trying clothing on and staying within budget, often the stuff of nightmares! Now imagine this with the added complexity of having a physical disability...

Although accessible, adaptive clothing does exist, it is extremely hard to find in Australia. Which means when someone goes clothes shopping there are numerous considerations that have to be made, and that’s just while browsing. I went out for a shopping trip with sacare participant Alice Waterman to get a firsthand look at what it was like.

Alice contracted a virus as a toddler and was left with a complex disability, which means that she uses an electric wheelchair for mobility and only has limited movement in one of her hands. If you would like to read, her story please follow this link.

(Alice with her nurse and support worker while we were shopping)

There are some major considerations when buying accessible and adaptive clothing, including:

  • A decent amount of stretch to help get clothing on and off.
  • Simple buttons and zippers (magnets are ideal).
  • Comfortable placement of seams, zippers and buttons.
  • Non-creasing fabric.

Currently the Australian market for accessible and adaptive clothing is hugely limited and exists primarily of clothing for seniors. This is mind-blowing when you consider that 1 in 5 Australians have a disability, many of those being well under the age of 65.

There are a few more youthful companies who are doing an excellent job at creating accessible clothing that have these features, but these are not available in Australia. Right now, Tommy Hilfiger is leading the charge when it comes to adaptive design, but even if the clothing was available in Australia, there is also the issue of cost and personal style, (the designs might not be everyone’s cup of tea).

Beyond the clothing itself, there is also the issue of accessibility when it comes to shopping.

Imagine doing all of your shopping with a trolley. Navigating space, corners, different levels, toilets and change rooms. That’s not too dissimilar from shopping when you have a wheelchair.

I was only shopping with Alice for about 30 minutes and in that time, I was shocked by how difficult shopping centres made her life.

Here’s my top 5 observations:

1. There is NEVER enough space to navigate a shop floor.

Alice and I were visiting a shop that she considered to be one of the more disability friendly stores, and yet navigation was not at all easy. She got caught on one rack causing it to tip as she went around it… and even had to avoid an area altogether because it was too narrow. This draws unnecessary attention and can be embarrassing- considering that it can be avoided altogether.

A lot of these places have plenty of space, but extreme amounts of visual merchandising and big displays. As nice as they may look, they could minimise these displays and provide patrons with more space. Inches can make the difference between easy navigation and ruining someone’s day.

2. Want to try something on? Try again.

Did you know that accessible change rooms don’t really exist for people with physical disabilities? Yes, there can be bigger change rooms, but if you’re in a wheelchair you most likely would need plenty of space to get out of your seat, somewhere to sit/ lie to try clothes on and (in some cases) enough space for 1 or two support workers to help you.If you like something and want to try it on, you’re going to have to take it home. If it’s not right, you’ll have to go all the way back to the store to get a different size… and then go through the whole process again. This is extra annoying when you consider that refunds can take up to 5 days business days to be processed... (which I personally think is amusing considering how quickly the money can be taken out of a bank account!).

Alice and I were having a chat about the idea of big shopping centres (like Westfield) creating a specific spot and service for people with disabilities to book in, take a range of items from different shops then have the opportunity to take her time trying them on in a private and large space. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? (And yes… I will be contacting Westfield soon to share the idea!)

3. There’s more upstairs, but you can’t see it.

There are numerous shops I can think of that are more than one level, so many of them provide you with a stair escalator to the second level… Which is useless when you’re in a wheelchair. It’s even worse when shops (especially in older buildings) only have stairs. There is also an incredible amount of shops that have a small mezzanine, or stairs inside the shop- yes, this might add architectural interest but if you’re in a wheelchair these are big fat stop signs.

4. Boutique shops? Little alley way nooks? Hidden Underground gems? Nope, no way.

I’ve touched on the idea of stairs- wheelchairs and stairs don’t mix. Well, sadly a large amount of smaller shops have one or two stairs on entry, or are tiny and don’t allow for wheelchairs to navigate the space. There are definitely stores out there that are setting there spaces out well- but in general, small stores have to be avoided.

(This is about as close as Alice can get to trying clothes on instore)

What worries me the most about the current state of public shopping centres is that a lot of shops and stores go through renovations regularly. In 2019 it should be second nature for store owners to be creating beautiful AND accessible spaces. I still am dumbfounded when I visit buildings which have been built in the last few years, but they don’t have any form of disability access… but this is a topic that I will talk about a bit more in future.

For now, I will leave you on an excellent quote that I came across in an ABC article about inclusion.

“Diversity is a reality; inclusion is a choice”
– Amanda Lawrie-Jones.

Let’s all choose to be inclusive and make this world better for everyone.

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