Tanzina Vega: This week, we've been talking about some of the challenges facing people with disabilities in the United States 30 years after the landmark, Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. So far, we've looked at issues like voting and navigating city streets, but people with disabilities also face challenges when it comes to the clothes they wear.
Today, about one in four adults in the United States live with a disability. For many, it could be difficult to find clothing that's both stylish and functional. That started to change in recent years, with the fashion industry moving toward more accessible and inclusive options. In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger made history when it launched Tommy Adaptive, a clothing line specifically for people with disabilities.
Tommy Hilfiger: Magnets rather than buttons. Jeans that have velcro. T-shirts that are easily accessible.
Tanzina: Since then, other brands and retailers from Zappos to Target have followed suit, their overall progress has been slow. Keah Brown recently wrote about accessible fashion for the New York Times. She's a journalist and author of the book, The Pretty One. Keah, thanks for joining us.
Keah Brown: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: In your piece, you talk about your journey and the role that fashion has played and how you feel about yourself. Tell us a little bit about what that means.
Keah: It means that, for a very long time, I used fashion to shield myself away from the world. I have cerebral palsy and so I would often get bigger shirts to pull sleeves over my hand so nobody could see it, or I would try to become invisible in my clothing. Then when I realized that I could live a much better life learning to love myself, I used fashion as a form of expression. It's an extension of my personality. It really means a lot to me because it was with me on this journey from the very beginning to where I am now. I think that we deserve clothes that reflect who we are but are also accessible.
Tanzina: This journey has ultimately led you to create the #DisabledAndCute which is wonderful. What's the response been to the hashtag?
Keah: It's been wonderful. People have been using it for years, which I think says a lot to see it's still being used years on is really the best thing that I could have ever hoped for.
Tanzina: You mentioned that you've gone through the five stages of fashion grief. What does that mean?
Keah: It means that I have gone through the stages of being angry at fashion, of being saddened by fashion, of bargaining with fashion to care about people like me. It really took me accepting myself to also accept fashion and be able to critique it because I know that it can be better. I always say that we critique the things we love because we know the potential that they have. I'm at a place in my five stages where I'm accepting fashion for what it is, but also, hoping that it can be better.
Tanzina: We heard a little bit from Tommy Hilfiger at the top of the segment talking about some of the ways that the inclusive line that they created was inclusive. What is accessible fashion to you, how do you define it today? Is it having things like magnets instead of buttons, or is there something else to it?
Keah: That is definitely a part of it that I really believe that we deserve clothes that are easy to put on and take off. Also, I think some of the issues with accessible fashion now is that we forego style for function. For me, accessible fashion is as much about style as it is a function, so yes, magnets instead of buttons, moratorium on zippers, please like let's cut zippers out as well.
Something that's easy to put on, something that you can open from sides or close. If I have to have a button, it would be better for me if the buttons are on the right side of the shirt, and then I can do it with the left side because my left is a much stronger side. I do think that accessible fashion itself is really about the experience of fashion. That means, both accessible options, but also, making sure that it's as stylish as what you'd see for standard clothing today.
Tanzina: I've noticed I used to cover advertising many years ago as a reporter so I pay attention to a lot of the ads that we see both on television and online. I've noticed that there's more representation of people with disabilities in advertisements. I'm wondering if that is following suit with just actual inclusivity when it comes to fashion, for example, I've seen people with disabilities and target ads, for example, but does that mean that I want to signal help target, but does that mean that we are actually seeing more brands getting involved in creating fashion that is more accessible and inclusive?
Keah: I hope so, but that was the issue that I brought up in the piece, was that I didn't want to be talking about this another two years from now, only praising the same companies for doing the same work. I think it is important that we praise places like Zappos, and Tommy Adaptive and open style lab, but at the same time, I want to see other brands step up to the challenge as well and say, "Hey, we also see what they're doing and want to put our own hat in the ring." I think it's very much a disservice to disabled people, that dogs have more clothing options than we do.
Tanzina: I'd never considered that. That's a really powerful thing to think about. Keah, I'm wondering whether or not there are brands that are wholly dedicated to creating inclusive and accessible fashion, or whether you would like to see some brands that that's their entire mission, that this isn't just a question of expanding a line, but this is the line.
Keah: Yes, I want to see that across the entire fashion industry. I think with respect to what's happening in the world right now with regard to COVID, that universal fashion is the way to go for the future, that it is imperative that we think of intentional design with regard to both accessible, stylish and inclusive design. I think that the entire industry should think about ways in which we tell stories through clothes, but also the customers that were asking to purchase these clothes.
We live in a society where everybody has to wear clothes, and so disabled people are having to buy clothes two and three times because we have to get some things altered to fit our body but wouldn't it be amazing if we lived in a world where we didn't have to buy clothes more than once, that we could just walk into a store or go into a store, even shop online and have the option of buying clothes once that fit our bodies, have the option of telling our own stories and expressing our own selves through clothes without having to beg for just one extended line or just one special item of clothing?
Tanzina: I'm sure there are some fashion designers who are waiting for a new opportunity and we'll see if anyone decides to pick that up and be innovative about it, Keah. Keah Brown is a journalist and author of the book, The Pretty One. Keah, thank you for spending some time with us.
Keah: It was wonderful. Thank you again for having me.
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