May 19, 2024

Ending the stigma surrounding disability involves a huge amount of work but I’m ready for the challenge

Thankfully, my experience of discrimination and intolerance has been limited, in part, due to a combination of a feisty attitude and a strong, supportive network of friends and family.

I appreciate this is a privilege that many women in similar positions do not possess. The prejudice I experience is more indirect and on a societal level – from the inaccessibility of the built environment to inflexible attitudes.

Take for instance a recent fateful dinner at a swanky Japanese restaurant in my neighbourhood. My vital requirement of an easily accessible table was overlooked – despite clearly specifying this on the booking form. Upon arrival I was greeted by the sight of a buzzing restaurant packed to gunnels with diners and the news that my party would ‘regretfully’ have to be seated upstairs.

Offering no apologies about the oversight or understanding of why this would cause distress, I was left painfully aware of my physical limitations. As the consolation prize was a two hour wait for a more accessible table, we took our custom elsewhere. I’m yet to taste their chicken yakitori.

For me, fashion has always held a restorative power. Throughout my life, the simple act of styling myself has transformed my perception of the world – and, in turn, how I am immediately perceived by others. Whilst I’ve had a rare muscle weakness condition since birth which affects my mobility, stamina and physical strength, (this makes getting around difficult, as I cannot walk long distances and am heavily dependent on places being easy to access), I never allowed myself to be defined or labelled by my disability.

So, whether as a child, I was fashioning an extremely dodgy tie dye ensemble for a school fashion show, or more recently, slipping on a gingham seersucker Ganni dress for yet another day of quarantine, style has always been key to my empowerment and a form of protective shield.

Likewise, during a pre-pandemic shopping excursion I was turned away from several retailers due to inaccessible stepped entrances and a lack of portable access ramps. Although many shop assistants gave their sincere apologies and were stunned that access had never even been considered before, the resounding experience was embarrassing; right now, poor accessibility dictates where I can and cannot shop.

Ableism is so much more than a painful, cutting remark to remind you of the cruel reality that some cannot see past outward appearances. It’s about the unconscious bias that restricts the freedom of myself and others with disabilities.

Recently I’ve used a mobility scooter to help with getting around and travelling outdoors, but I still feel a relentless frustration about my limited independence. For example, there are always multiple things to consider when out and about – like will someone stop to help me open a heavy door? Or will a shop assistant see me and bring out an access ramp to allow my scooter over those entrance steps? Naturally, this level of vulnerability is very challenging at times and it’s impossible to avoid the physical constraints of my disability.

As much as I adore fashion, the industry’s historic lack of disability representation cannot be overlooked. It merely reinforces these challenges of how I am treated and perceived in society.

In the past month, urgent conversations surrounding inclusivity have cast a spotlight on how the fashion industry is still failing marginalised voices. More than ever, we are publicly acknowledging that fashion must open itself up and redefine its tall, slim, white, cisgender, able-bodied archetype. As a fashion journalist, I have a rare understanding of how fashion allows us to dream. Fashion should, and must, be accessible to all.

I want people who have felt excluded to take pleasure in it – whether it’s wearing clothes, seeing themselves represented in campaigns or working behind-the-scenes. Inclusivity must outweigh antiquated diktats about physical ‘perfection’.

Right now, society’s perception of disability is way off. Any deviation from able-bodiedness is seen as abnormal. In fact, a study by the disability charity Scope, found that 68% of disabled people expressed the need to hide their disabilities as a consequence of the negativity and discrimination associated with them. I feel like fashion’s reluctance to showcase models of all abilities plays into this oppressive idea that disability should not be visible.

When reporting on the lack of diversity at London Fashion Week last September, I found that disability models were entirely absent from the catwalks that season. The founders of Zebedee Management – the UK’s first modelling agency to exclusively represent people with disabilities like amputations or chronic conditions – revealed to me that they had no bookings despite routinely making calls to designers, brands and casting teams.

Even the show venues aren’t always accessible to the disabled with staircases and dim lighting commonplace. Such physical barriers contribute to the shameful marginalisation of disability in fashion – how can we have disabled models and fashion editors on the FROW until London Fashion Week is fully accessible?

So, the prospect of entering this world after university was intimidating. I feared that any career in fashion would be completely out of reach for someone with a disability. While the internships I had secured involved scrupulous planning on my part, these early experiences were formative and encouraging. And, before the pandemic struck, I’d fought to build up a diverse career that enabled me to work both flexibly and remotely. In addition to my work as editor for Fashion Roundtable (a non-profit organisation that acts as a conduit between the worlds of politics and fashion) and a freelance journalist, I run my own blog where I share my vision for an inclusive media.

I’m aware that ending the stigma which surrounds disability – in fashion and beyond – will not happen overnight. It involves a huge amount of work to rewrite these longstanding misconceptions. But I’m eager for the challenge. Bring it on.

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