What Not to Wear: Disability Edition: People with Disabilities and the World of REAL Fashion

Hi, readers,

My graduate school classwork is finished! (Cue Hallelujah Chorus). Now I’m home for Christmas, preparing for a student teaching post, and praying for my family to get better (they’re all sick at the moment, but thankfully, not with the flu. Thank goodness for vaccines). And I’m back on the blogosphere. Today’s topic: people with disabilities and fashion.

It has come to my attention that, like many things, such as mainstream classrooms, intelligence, creativity, ambulatory ability, ability to drive, etc., some people think fashion and disability are mutually exclusive. In other words, they think that if you have a disability, you must dress like a frump or a slouch. And what’s even worse is that some people make it that way. What I mean is, some people with disabilities can’t dress themselves (yet, or haven’t been given the opportunity to try) or need help getting dressed. And depending on who helps them do that, they can be taken advantage of in that area, by being put in clothes that are not stylish, not colorful, or not even individualistic (in other words, they express nothing but “disability.”) For example, Arthur Fleischmann (see last post) wrote about seeing some children with disabilities made to wear bandanas so they wouldn’t drool on anything else, or made to wear drab clothing because the group home aides, home workers, or whoever, just didn’t seem to care what these people looked like. And remember that passage where Arthur found his daughter reeking of toilet accidents, in the same clothes she’d worn for two days? I shudder to think of other places and cases where stuff like this happens–and if you ask me, one is one too many.

Now, I am not one of those people who believe clothes make the man or woman. I’m not “stylish” if what you mean by that is the low-cut, skin-tight stuff I’ve seen some women my age wearing. And I’m not “stylish” in terms of being able to wear anything and everything I want. For example, I adore broomstick skirts, but I don’t wear them, because–let’s be frank–normal weight though I am, they make my butt look big! But I do express preferences when it comes to clothes, and I dress in things that make me feel good. Some people might think plaid and argyle makes you look like a geek. Guess what? I love the stuff. I own about two skirts, which I rarely wear. But pants are often more comfortable.

Throughout life, I’ve also been fortunate enough to have parents and therapists who made sure I could dress well, despite disability. When it became apparent I couldn’t tie shoes, my mom invested in hot pink laces that you simply threaded through the shoe once, and then pulled tight after you slipped into said shoes. And we invested in a lot of slip-on shoes (Sketchers has a bunch, including some beautiful ballet flats). When I couldn’t wear certain jeans, pants, or coats because of tiny buttons, we found a seamstress who made Velcro loops to push the buttons through–and bigger buttons. And some clothing pitfalls, I just learned to cope with or get around (I used to mark my shoes so I knew which was a right or a left, and I still check the tags on turtlenecks or solid shirts to make sure they’re not backward).

So, knowing all that, I have to ask myself: why are so many people with disabilities consigned to “special” clothes, just like “special” everything else? Why are the purposes of any accessories they own things like “so you don’t drool” or “in case you pee or poop?” (Yes, there is “incontinence clothing.”) Now, I understand that those things could be helpful. And I understand that some people can’t afford to special-order stuff from catalogues, or whatever else you have to do. What I’m really saying is, why can’t we make these things possible? Why do we assume that people with disabilities care nothing about what they look like? (This includes basic hygiene and hairstyles). And why are people with disabilities made to wear “disability clothing,” with no say in it?

I’d like to see what Stacy London and Clinton Kelly have to say about this. But in their absence, here’s a better idea: People with disabilities, like everyone else, are made in God’s image. Now of course, they, like the rest of us, shouldn’t get obsessed with clothes because the lilies of the field are not arrayed as well as we are. But I say, why can’t we start consistently arraying people with disabilities, with honor and splendor?


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