Tom Shakespeare

Growing up disabled, my mother’s view was that I should not draw attention to myself by my clothing. Look as much as possible like everyone else was her advice on minimizing disability. As a young adult, I decided that if people were going to stare at me anyway, I would choose punk clothes and haircut – that way, my oddness would feel more of a choice than a burden.

People with different shaped bodies are not well served by the world of fashion. Disabled people may not feel good about their bodies, and end up in shapeless, baggy clothes which are easy to take on and off. Clothes shops are aimed at young, slim, fit people, and can be intimidating for anyone who does not fit the norm – particularly those who are disabled or older people. Many of us find looking at ourselves in the mirror to be rather traumatic.

When previously I was a walking disabled person, my solution was the tailor-made three-piece suit: pin striped, with a nice tie and cufflinks. After paralysis, I learned that jackets don’t go well with wheelchairs. Cuffs get dirty and frayed, due to pushing those wheels. How would I ever look smart again? I learned the solution at a friend’s wedding: all the male wheelchair users wore distinctive waistcoats. With matching trousers and waistcoat and a smart tie, no one notices the lack of a jacket.

I think designers should have a think about how they can better dress the world’s disabled and older people. Can’t I be the dapper dwarf for a change? Why not elegance for the amputee? What’s wrong with a contemporary style for the person with intellectual disability? Making us look good challenges the stereotype of disabled people as dependent and disadvantaged and makes the individual themselves feel more confident. There’s nothing superficial about that.