What It’s Like to Be a Person with a Disability in the Fashion Industry

Belle Owen works for a new accessible fashion line and says the industry has been slow to adapt to the needs of people with a disability.

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Dec 4 2015, 9:50am

Belle Owen and a coat from IZ Fashion. Photos by Jake Kivanc

Most of us go shopping for clothes with two things on our minds: what do we want and how much money are we willing to spend? For those with a disability, however, there a lot of other variables to take into account. Will the clothing fit? Is the store even accessible? Will some impatient asshole get mad for some kind of nonsense reason?

According to Belle Owen, social media manager of a new accessible fashion line called IZ Fashion, all of these things unfortunately accompany the already stressful experience of visiting crowded shopping malls and busy department stores when you have a disability.

Owen, 30, moved to Toronto a year ago from Adelaide, Australia, out of something she describes as an "uncontrollable impulse" to travel. Previously working in public relations and journalism in the music industry, she ended up at IZ shortly after moving to Toronto. One of the reasons Owen applied is because she relates to the brand: she was born with a disability called pseudoachondroplasia, a bone growth disorder which prevents her bones from growing past a child's length and causes her great pain when walking and carrying things.

The fashion line, by runway designer Izzy Camilleri, was created after an interaction between Camilleri and now-deceased Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull when Turnbull asked to have a custom cape made for her. Owen tells me it's what made Camilleri realize that fashion needed to be created for people with disabilities. To get a better sense of what kind of stereotypes exist both in and outside the fashion industry for disabled people, and what IZ hopes to accomplish, VICE spoke to Owen herself.

VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about your disability?
Belle Owen: OK. So, I have a post-conception genetic deformation. It's pretty rare—my parents could have, like, 100 more kids and it probably wouldn't happen. It means that I didn't start using a wheelchair until I was ten and I still do walk—I walk at home—[the chair] is more for joint preservation and for pain and things like that. I think, without it, I wouldn't have been able to travel or I couldn't have gone to a music festival or gone to social events. None of that kind of stuff.

What was it like growing up with a disability? From what I understand, your condition means your bones don't grow past a certain point. When did you find out?
I was actually two-and-a-half when my parents found out. With my disability, you're born at a regular size and then, as the bones grow, you kind of begin to notice. It's funny, the week my parents found out, they were pregnant with their second child, my younger brother, so they had a lot of tests done. Like, my brother was tested right away, but he's 6'4" or something, so he's totally fine.

My brother and I weren't raised any different, we were always really good friends with other kids and stuff. He just grew taller than me really fast. Even though I grew until I was 18, I just grew really, really slowly. My brother was taller than me by the time I was five.

As far as generally growing up, my parents were really cool. Like, they were really chill. As far as being a kid with a disability, they never really limited me at all. Y'know, my dad was just kind of like, "If you're going to do drugs, just tell somebody what drugs you're doing," and, "If you want to sleep around, don't get pregnant." [Laughs] I had a really cool childhood.

Did you face any stereotyping or discrimination around your disability when you were younger?
You know, I feel like I got really lucky as a kid in that I never felt like an outsider. I was never excluded from friend groups or faced any bullying because of my disability. But it's funny because when I was 25 years old, I actually got assaulted by a stranger in the street. I ended up reporting it to the police, we went to court, and the other person went to jail for about six months. It was a really big thing at the time. What shocked me is when I went to go do the police report, they told me because I had a disability I was a "double target." I'm a woman, and I have a disability. It hadn't occurred to me before that people were in real danger of being victimized because of their stature or because they're a woman. It blew me away, so I feel I'm pretty privileged to not have been exposed to that early on.

What about now?
It's really important when it comes to language around disabilities... When people say 'wheelchair bound' or 'confined to a wheelchair,' it's got negative connotations. But when you say, y'know, 'wheelchair user,' it's more of just a tool that you use. A means to an end. That kind of language is really important to me. I do mentoring to other youths with similar disabilities. Like, when I was in Adelaide, a lot of the time if you do have a disability, especially one that is really physically obvious, people take it as kind of an invitation and people assume they can ask you questions.

A lot of the time, it's very imposing questions. It doesn't necessarily happen to me, but if you ask somebody who had a spinal cord injury, like, 'Oh, what happened?,' you might be asking them to recount something that could trigger PTSD. Yes, people [sometimes] enjoy having those type of conversations, but there's a way to have them and a time to have them. When I was mentoring, I found it important to let [the kids know] that you don't really owe people anything.

Izzy Camilleri

What was it like shopping for clothing prior to coming across accessible fashion?
Honestly, adaptive clothing didn't even occur to me before I found IZ. I never searched for it, I never sought it out. Even when I was mentoring, I was working with a lot of other people who have disabilities, and it was never a topic of conversation because, when you are a wheelchair user especially, you get used to making due so often. Getting into buildings, you gotta make due with where you're going to drink coffee in the morning because, if two places have a step and one doesn't, your choice is made for you. That applies across the board. You get so used to that selection that it doesn't occur to you that there is a better option.

So, I make do a lot. If there was [clothing] that really didn't work, I'd just get something else, or I'd fix it myself. I taught myself how to use a sewing machine. I took it in and redid all my jeans, or took everything up from the shoulders, so, yeah, if you're not making due then you're making the changes yourself. And we hear that a lot. Stuff like, "Oh, my grandma just put some extra fabric at the back and it's good to go." Like, people shouldn't have to do that.

When I found about IZ through the job, I was mindblown, and I think that's part of why I enjoy my job so much as social media manager because I can find other people and tell them. I remember how I felt when I found out about it, like, oh my god. It makes so much sense that it exists, but because it's not discussed, it didn't even occur to me.

What's the general consensus around fashion in disability? Are people having conversations that are supportive and inclusive of disabled narratives?
Outside of IZ, there is a little bit of a movement toward inclusion. You'll see people using wheelchairs, or people using crutches or canes walking the runways at fashion week, but the fashion isn't inclusive. Like, the runway itself might be, but the fashion isn't adapted in any way. It's good that conversation is leaning that way and as a company that does have all those things taken into account, we can kind of steer and direct the conversation to [finding] a solution rather than a Band-Aid.

We talked about how disability and fashion sometimes intersect in half-assed ways. As you said, someone might be on the runway, but the fashion isn't tailored toward them. What do you think are some of the more neglected narratives when it comes to disability?
A lot of people, out of curiosity, will ask, "What kind of fashion are disabled people into?" The thing is that disability is not a genre. It's not, like, 'Oh yeah, these people want to wear X kind of pants and X kind of shirts.' You can't generalize it, everyone is different. Disability is not a group of people and a lot of people don't take that into account.

When we talk about people with crutches or amputees walking runways and we talk about how the clothing isn't adapted for them, we also have to talk about how those same people are not being used in their catalogues. It's not a fully comprehensive thing and sometimes it can feel like sort of a [sympathy] grab, you know what I mean?

I noticed you've done some modeling for the brand. Have you done modeling outside of that?
Not really, just if I've been asked to occasionally. I have a good amount of photographer friends that will ask me sometimes and it's fun, it's definitely fun. I like to be visually represented in a way that's not cookie-cutter or sterile. There's not any pictures on the site right now but we just did some shots for the holidays where there's a couple curled up on a couch, and that's not something that's done a lot around disability. Like, most of the time, disability is not associated with sex or sexuality in any way. That's not to say modeling has to be sexual, but there's no implication of any kind of sexual relationship or sexuality at all. It's good to see real situations and real relationships that aren't just a carer-type situation or a best friend situation.

What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing the disability community, both within and outside fashion?
I think there's this really fine line between what is and isn't, I don't know what the terminology is, but "inspiration porn." I had a friend named Stella Young who died last year, and who had done a TED Talk about inspiration porn that was really amazing. It's a disheartening idea. I really want people to get past seeing disability as something you have to overcome or have to ignore. You know, people assume that normalizing is a compliment.

I have people who I've known for a long time tell me stuff like, "Oh, I don't even notice your chair, I don't even notice your disability," as if that's a compliment. Like, really? My disability is a huge part of me and has shaped who I am and it's not really a compliment for you to say that you don't notice that. It's hard to explain to them when they're coming from a point of positivity that they're being really dismissive of that. To a lot of people, it doesn't occur to them at all. I could be on the subway and someone can say, "Good on you!" Like, dude, I'm just going to work like everybody else, slightly hungover and just as exhausted. It's just trying to find a really strong way to communicate that to people.

I almost see accessible fashion as being a way to empower people with disabilities, when they have choice robbed of them so often. Is that what IZ is going for?
Yeah. A lot of the beauty about it is that it does take into account things like need and function, but the end product doesn't look like it has. It doesn't look like you're wearing special jeans or whatever. It doesn't look like a seniors product. The jeans look sleek and comfortable when you're sitting down, so nobody thinks, Oh, that's cut different or made a different way. It doesn't occur to you; it just looks like a sleek pair of jeans.

What has the response been like? What kind of things are you hearing?
Most of the time it's really positive. People are either very skeptical or have a lot of questions when they hear about the brand, because it's kind of hard to believe. I think the only negative responses we get is that sometimes people take issue with the price point, but that's honestly just the cost that it takes us to make the product, especially because we're a small team that manufactures right out of Canada. Prices usually get jacked on products aimed at disability already, so it's an understandable reaction.

Outside of that, people are really stoked... I don't know if you've looked at our website, but we have different styles of [clothing]. Some of our products have a zip, or some have no zips, or some have a complete wrap where you don't need to stand at all to put them on, so communicating those differences is hard, especially when we don't have a brick and mortar store for people to come into and go, "Oh wow, it really works." When people eventually do try the product on, they're full of praise.

You seem to work heavily with the community due to having such a small team. In terms of your models, are they mostly people with disabilities, and if so, what's that like?
Yeah, they're all people with disabilities. We wouldn't use somebody who didn't have a disability, which is also unique, because normally it's much easier to just get an able-bodied model to try to swap in and out of clothing and try different poses. At the moment, all of our models [suffer from] spinal cord injury, which of course, does slow the process down, but it actually works to educate people.

Like, the photographer may have never shot someone who has a disability, so you can help them learn more through the experience. It's all through experiencing and showing that, yeah, we are going to use people who have disabilities, and I think that kind of education is making a difference. That mindset I think is just going to kind of naturally spread throughout the fashion world and we don't have to shout about how different we are. It speaks for itself.

If there was one thing that you really hoped people to take from the idea of accessible fashion, what would it be?
I think contributing the conversation around disability and changing minds is really important. Our "Fashion is Freedom" campaign is really important to me. Disability, as a community, is seen as really unsexy, while fashion is viewed as the definition of sexiness. At the same time, fashion is seen as shallow or narcissistic. It is kind of about bringing those two worlds together and showing that compromise can be had and that people don't have to settle for one or the other.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

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