Commentary: Fashion and Inclusion Are Always A Good Trend!

New York Fashion Week is just about to end, but fashion season is far from over! Last year, we posted about how New York Fashion Week was including models with disabilities on the runway, and about a project The Lighthouse participated in to make clothing more accessible for people with visual impairments. I am happy to say that including people with disabilities in fashion continues to be a trend one year later, and clothes designers all over the world are working hard to do just that.

As the Rio Paralympics are taking place, a nearby fashion designer is working to make clothing inclusive and accessible to woman with disabilities. Christiano Krosh began designing accessible clothing while studying fashion design in college and realizing that there are no stores in Brazil where people with disabilities can buy clothing tailored to their needs. Here in the United States, Runway of Dreams founder Mindy Scheier began designing accessible children’s clothing after seeing how her son – who has a disability – struggled to put on and wear conventional clothing. This line of accessible and fashionable clothing is now sold by Tommy Hilfiger.

Truth be told, I had never given much thought to some of the struggles people with disabilities have when it comes to clothing. As someone who cannot see, I only knew I had to find ways of organizing my clothes.It wasn’t until I began studying at the University of Illinois that some of my classmates with physical disabilities told me about how they struggle to put on and fasten clothing independently. When we really stop to think about it, making clothing accessible for people with disabilities is not as hard as it might initially seem. Simple adjustments, like adding Velcro or magnets allow someone with a physical disability to dress independently. Tags with Braille or large print labels allow people with vision loss to know the color of their clothes. It all comes down to making simple and creative adjustments.

Accessible clothing does not have to be exclusively for people with disabilities. As a matter of fact, the beauty of fashion is that it can include everyone, and always makes for a great conversation among family and friends! Making clothing that is both fashionable and accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. For people with disabilities, it makes us feel more independent and confident about ourselves.

The Chicago Lighthouse will hold its annual Flair fashion show on Monday, October 17 at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. This popular event will feature fashions from Macy’s and Runway of Dreams, among others. Models will include adults and children, some of whom are blind, visually impaired or disabled. Proceeds from the event will support children’s and teen’s programs at The Chicago Lighthouse—helping children and adolescents who may be blind, visually impaired or disabled meet developmental and educational milestones, build supportive relationships, and fully participate in their communities. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit the event page.

Sandy is a blogger on the topic of blindness and vision impairment. She covers a variety of topics intended to educate people who are sighted on what it is to live life with any level of vision loss. She herself is blind and has had no vision since she was three months old. Sandy graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in public relations. She works in the Financial Development department and CRIS Radio at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Clothing Design for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Is It Any Different?

Last week I wrote a commentary about how people with disabilities are being included in fashion events. A question I DSC_0155sometimes get is what kind of clothing do blind and visually impaired individuals prefer or need? Truth is though, that like everyone else we have different styles and preferences. This is something that a group of students and their professor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) recently discovered after forming a partnership with several Lighthouse staff and program participants, myself included. Each student was assigned a partner for the entire project, and had to create a garment tailored to the person’s individual wants and needs.

Cheryl Pope is a professor of fashion and design at SAIC, and one of the organizers of this project. She had previously heard about the Chicago Lighthouse and wanted to get involved for a long time. Since she always tries to engage her students with the community, Cheryl realized that this would be the perfect opportunity.

The clothing designed was as diverse as each participant. Garments ranged from baseball caps to elegant dresses. Whether it was a special texture or color the user wanted to incorporate into the garment, each student carefully worked one-on-one with his or her partner to make sure the clothing had a perfect fit and personal touch.

Amanda Yamasaki work with Daniela Estrada, a Lighthouse employee and law student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since Daniela is pursuing a career as a lawyer, she wanted a dress that would both look professional and feel comfortable. She also wanted something that would be easy to fasten – as women we have all experienced the difficulty of zipping up those back zippers on dresses! Amanda made a dress with buttons on the shoulders. She says that this experience helped her become more aware about how clothing feels on the body as well as some of the difficulties people might encounter with fastening accessories.

Other garments reflected the wearer’s interests. Miles Clark worked with Peter Tucic, an assistive technology expert. Peter wanted a simple but “high tech” t-shirt with a Quick Response (QR) code attached. Given that this was a simple design, Miles ended up making three of these shirts. Since both are into music, they decided to include different songs in each QR code. That way, Peter could identify each shirt by scanning the QR code and listening to the song with his Smartphone. Miles says that this experience not only taught him about design, but also gave him the unique experience of getting to work with and know a successful blind individual.

“I’m super grateful to be afforded this opportunity to work with this organization,” he said.

I too had the unique opportunity of working with this group of budding designers. Luis Mejico was my partner, and by the end of our brainstorming session we settled on a dress that would have both visual and tactile elements. Using his creativity along with my suggestions and preferences, Luis made a black dress with pink sequins and velvet sleeves – talk about a tactile and elegant dress! This was Luis’s first time designing a garment, and he says he learned a great deal from this experience. The fact that he made a custom designed garment and subsequently gave it to me was the most rewarding part for him.

I also enjoyed working with Luis and the entire group. This project gave me a better appreciation of what it takes to design and make clothing. Most of all, I learned that designers should get to know the wearers of their final products so they can meet their needs and preferences. I believe that if more designers work closely with people with disabilities, they will be able to better include this community in the fashion industry.

Professor Cheryl Pope and all of the students feel that the most important lesson they learned from this project is that people with disabilities are more alike than different when it comes to fashion and design.

”There are still so many crossovers, I think it’s not as dramatically different as some people may think,” Pope said. Still, getting to visit the Lighthouse and interacting with the staff and participants gave her more apathy toward the needs of people with disabilities. It also allowed her to think more about how to better include this population in the fashion and design industries.

Kudos to Professor Pope, Luis and all of the students for their effort and dedication to this project! In the end we all learned from this once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’m sure that it is something we will never forget. To the students: I definitely see a lot of potential in your future careers as designers. I sincerely hope you will continue working with people with disabilities so that we will be more integrated in the fashion and design industries in the near future. Thanks for your time and gifts, and we at the Chicago Lighthouse look forward to future partnerships with the SAIC students and staff!

Commentary: Modeling As A Disabled Person

New York Fashion Week’s models were not the typical tall and thin young woman most people associate – or perhaps even prefer – to see at glamorous events. Instead, these models were people with disabilities resulting from spinal cord injuries, amputations and Down Syndrome.

To be honest, I didn’t expect the organizers of an event such as this to fully embrace the concept of inclusion – at least not this soon. It’s not that I don’t think people with disabilities want or deserve to be models, but I have experienced firsthand the long and treacherous road it often takes to convince so-called “normal” people to include us, people who are too often so-called “not normal.” After all, the majority of society focuses on what we can’t do instead of our many virtues and talents. Take the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities. It’s estimated to be 80 percent. This is not because we are lazy or not looking for jobs. But, rather, because immediately after employers find out about a job seeker’s disability, people assume we are incapable of doing the work — whatever it is — and those employers are unwilling to give us a chance.

Before New York Fashion Week, I had read about Madeline Stuart, one of the models who has Down syndrome. Saying that I was thrilled is an understatement. People with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities are often perceived as less intelligent and less capable than the average person. Not only will this show the general public that those of us with disabilities are as talented and capable as everyone else, but I also believe it can encourage others who are in the same situation to have a role model such as Stuart.

As a child, I would have loved to see a model walking with a white cane in hand. It’s not that I didn’t know any successful blind people or that I was ashamed of being blind. Rather, this would have helped reinforce the notion that as a blind person, I can achieve whatever I want to pursue. OK, being a professional model has never been on my list of dream jobs, but at least I would have known it was a possibility.

I strongly hope more fashion shows will continue including and integrating disabled models, just as I strongly hope society will escalate its integration of disabled people into the “norm.”

As a person with a disability, I know we are also eager to show society our abilities, and models with disabilities have an enormous potential of shifting peoples’ negative attitudes and perceptions about us. I sincerely hope that rather than just viewing them as courageous or inspiring, people will see and recognize these models as talented and beautiful people. After all, it’s perfectly OK to be and look different.

In her powerful acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards last Sunday, actress Viola Davis remarked, “the only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”

I strongly believe that the same can be said of people with disabilities.

It is my dream that there will come a day — hopefully soon — when it is no longer news that the fashion and media industries are fully including people of color and/or disabled individuals. Because I know it will be a better world for all of us, when we expand the definition of normal to include all our differences.