Commentary: On Finding Accessible and Fashionable Clothing for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities now have a new alternative when shopping for adapted clothing. Online retail giant Zappos hopes to make it easier for those with physical disabilities and other special needs to shop for accessible clothing. The Zappos Adaptive section in the company’s website lists clothing and shoes that are accessible to individuals with physical and sensory disabilities. These include items without buttons and zippers, pieces that are soft to the touch, reversible clothing and slip-on or easy to fasten shoes. Zappos got the idea for this after hearing that one of their customers had to exchange a pair of shoes for her grandson who was unable to tie the shoelaces because of his disability.

A lot has been showcased in the news about inclusive design for those with disabilities. A couple years ago, Tommy Hilfiger developed a line of clothing that is both fashionable and accessible to those with disabilities. What’s more, the fashion industry has begun focusing on including models with disabilities on the runway. A group of fashion students from the School at the Art Institute of Chicago worked with Lighthouse staff and program participants to learn how to design clothing accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. In other words, the fashion industry is becoming more aware about the unique accessibility needs of those with disabilities.

Just as each disability has different challenges, so does accessible clothing need different adaptations. Those of us who are blind or visually impaired might only need Braille tags or a distinct texture to know the color of our clothes. Meanwhile, people with physical disabilities might find clothing with special buttons or zippers easier to put on independently. Regardless of our needs, people with disabilities still want to be able to easily find and shop for accessible clothing.

Zappos’s initiative of dedicating a section to adaptive clothing is commendable, and is an example other retailers should follow. For one, many people with disabilities nowadays shop online due to the convenience of getting items delivered to their doorstep. This initiative will also help shoppers find clothing and shoes more easily, who will not have to worry about whether or not they will be able to put them on by themselves. Finding and shopping for accessible and fashionable clothing will become even more important in the coming years with the aging of the baby boomers.

It is extremely important for more brands to consider people with disabilities in their clothing design. Moreover, retailers – both large and small – should strive to offer accessible clothing and help shoppers find it easily. This will give people with disabilities more choices and make us feel included. A special thanks to Zappos, Tommy Hilfiger and the countless other organizations and colleges that are working to make the clothing and fashion industries more inclusive of individuals with disabilities.


How do Blind or Visually Impaired People Shop Online?

The holiday season is just around the corner, and many will begin their online shopping very soon. Nowadays we can find products on the Internet ranging from clothing and books to steaks and gourmet food. This has many advantages for everyone, but more so for blind and visually impaired or otherwise disabled individuals. Ironically though, those of us with vision loss often have to use trial and error to find shopping websites we can easily access. Many of the major online retailers are increasingly making their sites more accessible, and that means that we have more options. I will share some of the accessibility snags I have encountered as well as helpful features that allow blind and visually impaired individuals to have more positive experiences when shopping on the worldwide web.

What Makes Online Shopping Unique?

A lot of us love the convenience of ordering our items and getting them delivered to our door. This is a plus for people with disabilities, as it is often easier to get items delivered instead of having to transport them on a bus or cab. The fact that we can shop online 24/7 means we can buy things at our preferred time. Many websites also offer product descriptions and features, so we can often find what we need independently.

What Accessibility Difficulties Exist?

Screen-reading and magnifying software make it easier for people with vision loss to browse the Internet. Nevertheless, there are still “snags” we encounter when perusing online store aisles. These are just some of the most common difficulties I have encountered:

  • Unlabeled form fields. Form fields are the boxes where we enter our information, such as search keywords or credit card information. When these boxes are not labeled, my screen reading software cannot tell me where I should type in each piece of information – my name, credit card information, etc. By doing some guesswork I can usually figure out where things go, but this can be very time consuming.
  • Unlabeled links or graphics. Screen-readers are not able to read or describe pictures or other graphics to us. This means that if we come across a link with only an image, then we will have no clue where it is directing us to. By adding brief text descriptions, websites can make it easier to browse through the different products and parts of the website.
  • Cluttered homepages. There are times when I find out a webpage has many links to various products, offers, etc. This grabs the attention of sighted shoppers, but it can be tricky for blind and visually impaired users to navigate through the website.

Helpful Suggestions

Many of the accessibility challenges can be easily eliminated by a few simple tips, both for users and web developers:

  • Include headings. Even if a website has many links, separating different sections and categories by headings helps organize a website. That way we can use our screen-reader’s heading “hotkey” to better navigate through the page.
  • Users should be familiar with the screen-reader’s “find” function. This can help you easily search for and find a keyword on the page. By typing in a phrase like “shopping cart” you will easily locate it rather than reading through each line on the page to find it.
  • Users should also be familiar with their screen-reader’s links “hot key.” By bringing up a list of the available links, you can easily navigate through and find the link you want to select. Again, this can be quicker than navigating line by line.

Major online retailers such as Amazon and Target have made it easier for blind and visually impaired shoppers to find and purchase things. By making simple changes to the design and layout of websites, online retailers can help us shop quickly and easily. It is also important for blind and visually impaired to be familiar with the various navigation commands of their screen-readers or other software. This can help you have a more positive experience when doing your online shopping and enjoy the convenience of browsing virtual stores. For more information and examples about accessible retail websites, check out this edition of AccessWorld, a publication from the American Foundation for the Blind. Happy shopping to all!