“Why not us?” asks Deepa Malik, when talking about the general perception that it’s okay for people with disabilities to be confined to fashion that’s only practical or lacks a sense of personality.
Malik, who you will find often impeccably dressed, is a Paralympic athlete and the recipient of various para-athletic medals and national awards. The Padma Shri awardee is also the current president of the Paralympic Committee of India, busy getting sports kits ready for the team representing India at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 taking place this year. “There are powerlifters (for example) who have polio, so their upper body is huge. So, when we order their kits, it becomes very difficult to convince vendors that we need lowers of say, a 38 size but a size 44 for the upper,” explains Malik. She goes on to explain how amputees would need pants with a relaxed fit as opposed to the trendy tight fitted ones in order to accommodate the tying of the artificial leg at the knee or thigh area.
Image Source: Instagram/deepa_paralympian
Such is a part of the problems faced by more than two per cent of the entire Indian population. As per the 2011 census, the figure of differently-abled people in the country stood at 26.8 million. The Government of India currently recognizes 21 types of disabilities, including hearing impairments, mental disabilities, intellectual disabilities as well as physical disabilities.
How Conventional Fashion Is Adapted
While clothing poses as a more functional issue for differently-abled sports persons, as pointed out by Malik, many others see clothing as just a necessity as opposed to something to make yourself feel better, explains Ira Singhal, an Indian Administrative Service officer who suffers from scoliosis. “People with disabilities tend to dress down a lot. I see that with most other people, they’re so convinced that you can’t be pretty, so why make the effort,” she says. Singhal, on the other hand, loves to dress up. Being 4.5 feet tall, her challenge is to find the right size and length in clothing. When asked about her go-to brand clothing brand, she opened up about her shopping sessions on the now banned clothing retailer, Shein, “Shein came up with a large range of sizes for clothing. They used to actually mention the length of the clothing, which no Indian site does,” she explains. She prefers trousers and dresses that can be easily shortened or taken in, “Thank God for the short dress trend! Nowadays people wear short dresses, so that becomes a regular size for me,” she says. Indian wear, on the other hand, is a bit of a challenge for Singhal. A sari is out of question because of the length, which takes a lot of effort to get adjusted, and dupattas are usually too long.
Image Source: Instagram/singhal.ira
Malik faces something similar with saris, which she finds difficult to put on, given that she is confined to a wheelchair. “I have slowly started turning my saris into skirts, jackets or scarves,” she says. She, instead, finds comfort as well as style in shirts, trousers, kurtis, leggings and skirts as well as the advent of genderless fashion in recent times. The high waist rise trend also gives her options to choose from for comfortable bottoms, which helps keep her diaper in place. Marks & Spencer, she says, is one brand she enjoys wearing, “They know what a woman’s body is, and I think 80 per cent of my wardrobe is Marks & Spencer.” The Paralympic medallist also likes to layer with light jackets as well as blazers to add structure to her upper body and camouflage any curvatures along the shoulder, and goes a size up on her upper body to account for her strong arms. She layers up with stretchable, high waist leggings to keep herself warm as her body lacks temperature control as well as to keep her diaper in place. Another wardrobe staple for Malik is a pair of boots, which helps support her ankle.
Is Customisation The Key?
For Singhal, it’s the size that does the trick. She points out that it's only recently that brands have started coming up with special sizes like hers, which happens to be an Indian size 35. However, for someone with one leg shorter than the other, it becomes difficult to customize shoes which gives them the only option of medical shoes. Medical shoes don’t come with too much of a variety. For those with different shoe sizes on both feet, the only way out is to buy two pairs, which ends up being an expensive affair.
One of the most popular shoe solutions in recent times has been the Nike FlyEase range which includes a collection of shoes that are easy to take off and put on, as well as those that are hands-free. The range, however, was a topic of criticism as well owing to higher price points and the initial limited availability of stock.
Image Source: Nike.com
India too, sees a number of brands specializing in adaptive fashion. But given the fact that disabilities don’t come with a ‘one hat fits all’ tag, the market is far from large in scale. Even with scoliosis, for example—a spinal deformity that causes the spine to curve sideways, and makes one of Singhal’s shoulders lower than the other--may cause an abnormality in any other part of the body, like arms or legs. Even with the brands available, Singhal feels the need for a sense of fashion and personal style to adaptive fashion that is already available.
India And Adaptive Fashion
Ashima Bhan, founder of adaptive fashion brand, Aaraam Se, agrees, “Who wants to wear a basic outfit? I would love to have the capacity to invest in print or patterns and try and adapt each outfit for each person’s needs.” The designer started out with a range of solids, albeit, in brighter tones, which she has started to customize in different prints as well. Bhan started her brand during the pandemic last year and notes that there is a lack of enthusiasm or encouragement amongst differently-abled people that approach her.
Image Source: Instagram/aaraamse.in
“Because the convenience factor is missing, it’s like what you don’t have, you just adjust with whatever else is available in the market. This is what I feel is happening,” she tells Her Circle. “I’ve had a few people who have approached me. I had a wheelchair user call me up to get a pair of trousers that would be convenient for her or someone who assisted her to go to the toilet when she was at work. We started off with the conversation and it abruptly ended. She mentioned something about the fact that her family thought it was not really something she desperately needed to invest in,” she continues. Bhan adds, “If more people know that there are people willing to go out and find solutions, then people might be more interested in looking for solutions.”
Ekansh Trust, a Pune-based NGO has been working towards inclusivity and accessibility for differently-abled people in the country. One such initiative the organisation has started is Ad-Dress Now, which promotes accessibility of adaptive clothing to those in need. Their website shares access to a free online design catalogue that includes details of pattern making as well as design styles for clothes that cater to different kinds of disabilities among people. The platform also hosted a fashion designing contest and fashion show before the pandemic in an attempt to promote adaptive fashion in the community.
Image Source: thevoiceoffashion.com, ekansh.org
Where The Power Lies
Creating awareness related to disabilities was also the theme of the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp, which follows stars of the show that went from participants at a New York summer camp to activists for the disability rights movement, as well as the journey of their fight for accessibility legislation. The documentary film’s cast and crew made history by appearing on the Oscars red carpet, which featured a ramp for the very first time, to enable people on wheelchairs to conveniently go by. The impeccably dressed stars of the documentary made an iconic fashion statement on the red carpet with Judy Heumann, a White disabled woman in a white dress suit seated in a motorized wheelchair; Andraea LaVant, a Black disabled woman wearing a sequined dress also seated on a motorized wheelchair, with her Labrador service dog to keep her company; and Jim LeBrecht, a White disabled man, wearing a blue tuxedo also on a motorized wheelchair.
While international awareness around the topic of disabilities as well as adaptive fashion continues to grow, the real power of change ultimately lies with differently-abled people. “People don’t even want to transition from a salwar with drawstrings to one with an elastic when they start using a bedpan, “ says Deepa Malik as she talks about transition sessions she helps conduct for the differently abled. She goes on to add, “When you become a physically challenged person, you are infected with the thought that if you’re getting access to food and shelter, that is enough in your life. On top of it, if you want to demand fashion, it’s a luxury.”