India has a population of nearly 1.4 billion people. This means a consumer base of millions, of which 1/5th suffer from some disability: visible, invisible, from birth, genetic or acquired later in life. These special people need adaptive clothing as well as access to the shopping outlets where they are sold…

India has a population of nearly 1.4 billion people; we are a young country with a growing, ageing population. This converts into a gigantic consumer base, of which 1/5th suffer from some disability: visible, invisible, from birth, genetic or acquired later in life, despite the strides that modern medicine has taken and is taking every day

So, what have we got here? A consumer base of millions of people who need adaptive clothing and access to the shopping outlets where they are sold.

Are we catering to them today? NO! But things are changing. For example, till some years ago ‘Plus Size Clothing’ was not retailed at the mainstream shops. Now things have changed and the usual shopping chain of outlets stock sizes upto 3XL.

What is fashion WRT clothing? Something that is trendy, youthful, current and usable. What it is not is a compromise.

By law, Persons with Disabilities (PwD) have the right to everything that the rest of the world does. So why not fashion? What can we do to adapt popular designs and our shops to embrace PwD too?

PwD are usually not really seen in shopping malls and bazaars. This is because of the various stigmas and superstitions that go with disabilities in our country. We are ashamed of the wrong things. We are embarrassed by a person with a disability and how she or he dresses or behaves, but not about the lack of comfort and empathy which can be offered. They also don’t go out much because nothing is accessible to them like the pavements, roads, toilets, parks etc. However, awareness is growing, and today’s malls are being designed to be inclusive. While malls are embracing the change, shopping too, must be an accessible option for the disable.

But before this change happens, there are a few questions that retailers need to answer:

  • What will they buy when they enter your shop?
  • Are your clothing displays and racks accessible?
  • Is your trial room wheelchair friendly?
  • Is your staff trained in helping PwD?
  • Do you employ staff with disabilities?
  • What about your clothes? Can someone with a disability wear them comfortably?

Have We Thought Out of The Box?
When we speak of exclusive designs, we must remember that inclusive is a better word – for humanity and for business.

What Would an Accessible Shop Look Like?

  • Less confusing display areas.
  • Anti-slip flooring and step free as far as possible.
  • Ample manoeuvring space for wheelchairs.
  • Sensitive shopping assistant’s client engagements.
  • Bigger trial rooms with grab rails and good lighting.
  • Exclusive sitting area for elderly and people who have mobility issues.
  • Garments that can be modified with little or no trouble to suit the needs of PwD.

Data on Disabilities
The word ‘Disabilities’ is difficult for many people to say. But people with disabilities themselves choose to define themselves as ‘differently- abled’ / ‘specially-abled’. They believe they are PwD and would choose to acknowledge that their rights need to be reinstated in accordance with their needs. For example, a wheelchair user will have a right to a ramp while someone who uses sign language will need an interpreter.

United Nations Convention for Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD):

Disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Indian Census Report: Disabled Population in India as per census 2011 (2016 updated) – In India out of the 121 Cr population, 2.68 Cr persons are disabled which is 2.21 percent of the total population. Among the disabled population 56 percent (1.5 Cr) are males and 44 percent (1.18 Cr) are females. In the total population, the male and female population are 51 percent and 49 percent respectively.
Majority (69 percent) of the disabled population resided in rural areas (1.86 Cr disabled persons in rural areas and 0.81 Cr in urban areas). In the case of total population also, 69 percent are from rural areas while the remaining 31 percent resided in urban areas.
If we look at the Government of India 2016 report, it identifies some 21 disabilities in their records. While these disabilities are recognised, rights of PwD have also been codified under the RPwD act. The bottom line is that PwD are human beings too and have all the rights that everyone else does. The right to be able to a choice of clothes and the ease of wearing them every day without need for help would be one of them.

Indian link to Adaptive Clothing

Adaptive Clothing has been explored by India’s leading designer Wendell Rodricks in his Visionnaire collection where he used braille labels to help people who are visually disabled to choose the clothes they wanted to wear.

More recently Tommy Hilfiger and Marks & Spencer have launched their adaptive clothing lines.

Tommy Hilfiger has designs for people of all ages. M&S is currently catering to kidswear.

Isolated efforts have been made in different parts of India towards adaptive clothing. Nevertheless, the fact remains that ‘Adaptive Clothing’ is still looked at as an ‘out of the box’ idea for students of fashion and garment design. It has still not become a part of the regular courses and perhaps, therefore, has also not become a conscious part with the mainstream apparel brands.

Clothing labels are commercial companies that thrive on sales and percentage. Numbers are a big dictator of trends and it is essential therefore to see what the market looks like.

The Importance of Adaptive Clothing
If we raise a question as to why is adaptive clothing important then the answer is because clothing is a fundamental right for every human being and the right to equality is a fundamental right. And in an independent country if people are unable to choose the clothes they want to wear and be able to wear them independently, their dignity is also being impacted.

Some examples of difficulty in wearing conventional clothes:

  • A person with Parkinson’s’ has tremors. Buttons, zippers, hooks, etc., can be a nightmare. And this usually strikes senior citizens, those who have lived their lives with great dignity and taught their offspring to dress independently.

  • A person who is blind will not know if her clothes are crumpled or if his or her clothes match. Little tactile patterns on the label will lead her to crease free clothing and the right colour combinations. Once these are standardised, shopping independently will be a breeze for our friends with vision loss.

  • A wheelchair user may also want to wear a Sari. Can we find a ready-made, easy to wear drape that will not cause discomfort yet fall beautifully?

  • There are children with disabilities whose parents worry about their uniforms and how they will manage in school.

  • Coming to undergarments, bra hooks, elastic waistbands, etc., are difficult for persons with arthritis and other mobility impairments to handle.

Like architecture, where built spaces are not designed for all, in fashion too, we find that only certain body types are catered to.

In a recent article in a leading daily newspaper, 38-year-old Indian para athlete Justin Vijay Jesudas, says that things people do in five minutes – like slipping on a shirt, buttoning it up, tucking it into trousers – takes him four times longer to do.

In 2009, a spinal cord injury left him paralysed neck down. While he could use his shoulders, and there was some movement in his elbows and wrists, his fingers didn’t function. “I needed help with buttons and zips. There was never any privacy as someone would have to assist me,” Jesudas – who now works as a researcher with Cognizant in Chennai – told the leading daily.

Then, one day he discovered adaptive clothing — shirts that snap up with velcro strips, zippers with a big ring attached to pull them up and down, trousers with elastic waist. For Jesudas, it meant freedom and dignity. “I can dress and undress on my own. Last year I travelled alone to the US for six weeks with a set of adaptive clothes. I needed just 10 minutes to dress,” he was further quoted as saying by the daily.

What’s Lacking & What’s the Future?
Fashion houses don’t lack innovation, creativity or skills – just awareness. There is demand for adaptive clothing and where there is demand, there must be supply. For India to be an inclusive nation, more and more PwD need to enter the mainstream as is their right, and for that to be achieved, they must feel welcome and catered to.

Universal Design is the only way to go. Whether it is a senior citizen with arthritis or Parkinson’s, a youngster with visual impairments or a middle aged lady with cerebral palsy, we must be able to cater to everyone’s needs to be acknowledged as an equal part of our society.

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