Dressing While Disabled (for BADD)

It’s Blogging Against Disablism Day again, a blog carnival hosted by my lovely friends Goldfish and Mr Goldfish. As ever, I’ve been completely thrown off by discovering (once again) that April has 30 days and not 31 and that April is followed by May. Because of the particular ways my learning difficulties interact, these two facts surprise me anew every year and so every year BADD arrives before I’ve decided what to write about for it. A huge proportion of my blog is already dedicated to being “Against Disablism”, of course, as this blog is about my experiences of living with multiple disabling conditions and illnesses in a society (Tory-run Britain) that doesn’t think well of people who can’t work. I’ve written before about benefits, the assessments needed to get them, social care and the disaster zone one must survive to get it. So what am I going to write about today? Clothes. Yep, clothes. With remarkably few exceptions, we all wear clothes. It seems far far too obvious to point out but: disabled people wear clothes too. We have the same range of feelings about clothes as anyone else – from necessary evil through to beloved means of self-expression. What we *don’t* have the same as everyone else is options. we also have a whole host of additional considerations and complications beyond “Does this look good on me?” There are fabrics and cuts and styles I cannot wear because my skin would erupt in pain – and that would include most school uniforms, most business suits and most formal wear. Think of all the places I will never appear to “belong” because I cannot wear the “right” clothes. I and many of my friends need special shoes – I need to have velcro instead of laces and room for orthotics – which again can make us look “out of place”. I can’t wear skinny jeans or skin-tight tops – which sometimes means men I’m trying to flirt with assume I’m straight because I don’t (and can’t) fit a certain image used by many to indicate their sexuality. As well as textures, I have to consider the fastenings. Could I get this or that item on and off by myself if I had to? Is it worth the risk getting something gorgeous that I can’t get myself out of? What about durability? Will any given item of clothing stand up to being worn for days on end? Or being washed over and over as I spill food and drink on myself? Can it stand being slept in from time to time? Can these jeans or trousers put up with frequent falls and with shuffling around on the floor when I can’t get myself up? My friends have to ask themselves whether jackets, sleeves or trousers could get caught in wheels, how will long open sleeves interact with crutches? And more often than any of those questions, disabled people all over the world are asking “But does that come in my size?” We are often fat or short or lopsided. We have limbs that are long or short compared to the rest of us, we have heads that are unusually large or small. Getting things adapted costs. Getting “special” clothes for people with bodies like ours costs too – and a quick browse of clothes designed for wheelchair users and for adults with Down Syndrome is uninspiring. We have fewer options in what we wear and getting to wear what we’d like to is impossible or costly. Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because clothes are used to communicate to others “who we are” and our clothing choices are used by others to make snap second judgements about us. And disabled people, particularly but not exclusively those of us with physical and motor difficulties and those of us with developmental disabilities, have fewer choices to choose from. It’s like we’ve been given a paintbox with red, green and yellow missing and then are looked down on for painting with mainly blue, brown and grey. What clothes we can wear affects what spaces and roles we can be in *and be seen to be in*. What clothes we can wear affects what kinds of people we can be *and be seen to be*. When all the affordable clothes that fit you are children’s clothes, will people see you and treat you as an adult? When all the affordable clothes that you can wear are shapeless, what might people think of you? When everyone you know with the same developmental disability as you have identical wardrobes, how can you remind people you aren’t interchangeable?

Some of us are even denied any choice in what we wear, with caregivers deciding that for us. Some of us can’t decide what to wear because we’re too sick and/or depressed to care. Some of us have never been shopping for clothes because the effort involved is too much or too scary.
Some of us know what image we want to portray but can’t because other people see our mobility aids or our short stature or our assistance dog or the space where they expect to see a limb or facial feature that we don’t have and then they forget to see the rest of us. They don’t see the sequins behind the white cane, the tattoos covering our single arm, the leather collar and studded black clothing of the guy with the wheeled walker (that one is me). Disability is so degendered and desexed that any visible sign of disability – be that equipment or impairment-specific body language – can undo any attempt to present as an adult, gendered, sexual human being. And I don’t really have a solution. But I wanted to say it: there is a problem. Structural disablism is denying us access to a full palette of clothing styles and then often ignoring or discounting any attempts at self-expression we do make. It’s not okay, I don’t know how to fix it but it’s happening.

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5 thoughts on “Dressing While Disabled (for BADD)

  1. Further note: I know this issue is massively, massively intersectional and I’ve not even begun to touch on that here. At some point I do intend to write more about clothes but in the mean time please feel free to write something yourself and link back 🙂

  2. Thanks for this, Liam! Maybe we could pool our various tips, tricks and troubles with this stuff? There are a few cheats I’ve discovered over the years, from keeping warm without weighing a tonne to the bedclothes which pass for “fully dressed” if anyone comes to the door. Maybe we should have a little blog carnival of Dressing while disabled at some point?

    Percy at Bitey Zebra has written about clothes and gender expression, and covers some similar topics.

  3. Wow. I have literally never thought of any of this before, beyond the couple of years when my brother was in a body cast 90% of the time, which made it impossible to shop for pants for him.

    Good info. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Spot on! | A Very Bitey Zebra

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