Business Mogul and inventor Elon Musk has argued that “brand is just a perception, and that over time, the perception will catch up with reality” (Kaufman, 2020). Elon Musk’s statement implies that whatever people hold onto as perception will finally change over time to become a reality. The transformation in the business world has been key in redefining and owning the narrative for the disability community, which has helped shape perceptions of the common public in the 21st century about fashion and disability. Pullin (2009) admits that the business world has been a key driving force that boosts the evolution of fashion and offers a new template that drives taste and demonstrates that the growing fashion market has no real boundaries. Instead, business intersects across a diverse range of products and services to meet the needs of diverse groups of users (Fox et al., 2019). The fashion industry has been one of the profound segments where transformation has completely overhauled the traditional attitude and perception of dressing. According to Sidiq et al. (2018), the world of fashion has defined itself through the lens of beauty, individuality, and comfort and served both the disabled and non-disabled. The disability community has not been lost in this transformation journey because the fashion industry is focusing on their current relationship with the disability community and redefining their future relationships. To better understand disability studies in society, it is important to view them from each version of life. This paper explores the intersection between fashion and how it has adapted a normalcy mindset throughout the industry, leading to disabilities and stereotypical views. Although the fashion industry has come a long way and has started incorporating other diverse groups, including the disability community, the message has not been communicated effectively. Thus, the major clothing limitation for the disabled community is the lack of adaptive clothing awareness and education about the usefulness of adaptive clothes. Similarly, the lack of understanding of the actual needs of disabled people may be a major barrier for the clothing brands because they are not adequately informed of the market needs.
The global demand for adaptive clothing continues to grow, and brand organizations have been trying to respond to this demand by producing fashion clothes for the disabled (Indiano, 2019). Research has shown that the global market for adaptive clothing is likely to hit 400 billion dollars by 2026, but a few apparel companies are committed to meeting this target (Indiano, 2019). It is also argued that only a few apparel companies have created adaptive clothing lines for producing adaptive clothing for the target audience (Indiano, 2019). This limitation can be attributed to the fact that for these companies to start producing adaptive clothing, they have to invest more in their production lines by replacing the existing production machines to meet the new needs. Additionally, most of these organizations have not done their research to understand the needs of people before they transform into an adaptive clothing business. It then implies a communication breakdown between the market and the fashion brands. Recent studies have identified several clothing-related challenges for people with disabilities and their clothing and proposed solutions to these challenges. However, there is limited evidence on how companies can produce adaptive clothing for children with disabilities (Heiss, 2011). This scenario shows that although the fashion industry is now considering a diverse population and their needs, several gaps have not been explored.
Another challenge that has arisen is that fashion brands engage non-disabled customers by informing them about the products they offer in various avenues. Still, communication with the disabled community about their products has been ignored (Indiano, 2019). Research has shown that most organizations spend up to 70 percent of their revenues in advertising and informing their market about their new products and accessories. These advertisements are done through print media, TV, social media, and billboards, but the disability community has not been featured in these advertisements (Heiss, 2011). For instance, for the blind people who cannot see new products meant for them, brands have not made efforts to include this segment in their market audience, and this is likely to continue creating an “us” vs. “them” perception in the fashion industry. Instead, the brands should have taken the challenge to incorporate special features in their advertisement avenues, including websites where they can engage disabled people to make them feel part of the market.
Media portrayals and perceptions have majorly influenced the definition of what is beautiful and what is not beautiful. The media has laid a skewed perception that beautiful people are those without blemishes. The media has created a culture of using slim, tall, and light-skinned models to promote ads while denying disabled people an opportunity to appear in these promotions (Pettinicchio, 2021). Consumers create meaning from the content and ads they interact with within the media and even judge based on what they see (Pettinicchio, 2021). This judgment is true, especially when consumers interact with real-time content and respond favorably to this content. Since media has already created a perception that models are defined in a particular direction, it becomes difficult for the online community to accept the use of disabled people even with the best fashion clothes. This stereotypical view about beauty prevents fashion brands from investing in adaptive clothing because the public has a contrary perception of the disabled community.
With these stereotypical perceptions, some organizations and individuals have come out to give voice and change the perception of beauty by producing fashionable apparel for the disabled community. For instance, Mindy Scheier, a mother of a disabled child, has changed the terrain of fashion clothing for disabled children by establishing a charitable organization, The Runway of Dreams Foundation, which produces adaptive clothes for disabled children. From her initiative, Mindy has argued that the fashion industry should be used as a platform for shaping perception and as an avenue for defining a new reality (Pettinicchio, 2021). The Runway of Dreams Foundation is one of the most impactful organizations that have transformed the fashion outfits for disabled persons. The organization was established by Mindy Scheier, who leveraged her own experience after failing to find fitting jeans for her disabled son. As a result, Mindy created her non-profit knitting organization that makes clothes for disabled persons. The organization was created on the principle that clothing is a basic need for all humans. Therefore, inclusion, acceptance, and opportunity in the fashion industry are important for the disabled community.
The message about the availability of clothes and other accessories for disabled people has not been well communicated to the target audience. There is a growing demand for fashion, clothing, and accessories for people from all segments, and currently, brands have not ignored persons with disability. With the growing aging population and young children with disabilities globally, the ability of brands to incorporate this population into their target bracket is becoming more prevalent (Pettinicchio, 2021). However, this population does not know about the availability of these clothes and accessories, forcing them to remain with the utilitarian perceptions and mindsets that have not been factored in the fashion industry.
The Coherent Market Insights has established that the adaptive clothing market value is 278 billion dollars, and it is expected to hit about 400 billion dollars by 2025 (Fox et al., 2019). With this revelation, the market brands have understood the importance of market projections, and they are no longer sitting on the edges waiting on how the market will evolve. Still, they have taken active roles to influence the markets (Fox et al., 2019). For instance, companies like Zara, Tommy, and Adidas are quickly embracing the growing market demographics by producing what they have been producing for normal people and venturing into the market segments that they have not explored before. Furthermore, as the world is evolving and the message of more inclusiveness is being chanted, fashion brands have resolved to involve to not only cultivate a more inclusive marketplace but also find new fields such as the disability communities that have not been considered in the past (Fox et al., 2019). For example, in 2016, one of the top dress shirt companies, Van Heusen, launched a new design with magnetic closures instead of traditional buttons. The evolution of this technology tells the advances that have been made in the fashion industry and show that this modernization can be ubiquitous as a preference for all consumers.
The differences between ads and editorials and field dynamics determine how disability is represented in fashion and consumed. Some brands have a hidden intention when promoting clothes meant for disabled people since some want to appeal for sympathy from the public while others are only profit-oriented. The fact remains that when organizations want to push their products to the target customer, they want models that can be interpreted as extraordinary. On the other hand, Fox et al. (2019) posit that editorial producers are only interested in promoting the highest sales of the material they are advertising without regard to work ethics. Thus, some editorial will prefer models with disabilities, especially when they want to meet their criteria for inspiration, exclusiveness, or inclusiveness.
While inclusion is differently motivated according to the nature of the market, representations of fashion and beauty are bound to the target audience. For example, the media portray the virtue of slenderness as beauty while shaming fatness. Similarly, media has portrayed disability as less beautiful, and when it is used in ads, it is meant to evoke sympathy from the public. This stereotypic perception has affected and barred organizations from investing in the production of adaptive clothing. Although the fashion industry has made significant steps in including diverse groups of people in their product offerings, there is a need for the brand companies to initiate new communication ways that will see the disabled community fully represented in the fashion industry.
Fox, A. M., Krings, M., & Vierke, U. (2019). ‘Disability Gain’and the Limits of Representing Alternative Beauty. In Beauty and the Norm (pp. 105-125). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Heiss, S. N. (2011). Locating the Bodies of Women and Disability in Definitions of Beauty: An Analysis of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31(1).
Indiano, C. (2019). Adaptive Fashion: A Design Methodology for People with Disabilities (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).
Kaufman J. (2020). Mindset Matters: Shaping The Brand Of Disability And Creating The Marketplace Of Tomorrow. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathankaufman/2020/02/14/mindset-matters-shaping-the-brand-of-disability-and-creating-the-marketplace-of-tomorrow/?sh=4a95ef814e8d.
Pettinicchio, D. (2021). A model who looks like me: Communicating and consuming representations of disability.
Pullin, G. (2009). Design meets disability. MIT press.
Sidiq, S., Sudarsono, H., RUCHBA, S. M., & Perdana, A. R. A. (2018). Analysis of Potential Creative Industry for People with Disabilities in Special Region of (D. I) Yogyakarta. MIMBAR: Jurnal Sosial dan Pembangunan, 34(1), 102-111.