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Does Indian Fashion Care for Disabled Consumers?

Even as fashion becomes more inclusive, the needs of consumers with physical and developmental challenges remains unseen

“We don’t even have basic accessibility like ramps for wheelchairs everywhere in India. So, , naturally, is an even bigger fight,” says Khushi Ganatra, national para powerlifter and founder of Horizon Sports Academy, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. “I haven’t seen a model or mannequin that represents us. Nor have I come across great clothing options that keep our comfort, sizing and needs in mind in India.”

The inclusivity discourse in the fashion industry is on the rise, especially propelled by the pandemic and socio-political disruptions of the past year. The conversation is, for the most part, limited to size, colour and gender; persons with disabilities (PwD) are almost entirely left out of this conversation.

According to the National Statistics Office report on disability released in 2019, about 2.2 per cent of India’s population — approximately 2.68 crore people — lives with some kind of disability. The Rights of People with Disabilities Act which was introduced in 2016 identifies 21 disabilities. Is the Indian fashion industry actively thinking about them beyond occasional charity fashion shows?

Upasana Makati.

“There is a lot of stereotyping at play. We tend to look at people with disabilities as charity cases or inspirational stories,” says Upasana Makati, Diversity & Inclusion advisor and founder of White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in braille. “Most fashion brands associate with a disability when they want to ‘support a good cause’. They aren’t thinking of them as a serious customer base,” she adds.

Anusha Misra, author and founder of Revival Disability Magazine (a digital media project on disability, sexuality and intersectional ableism) echoes similar views. The 23-year-old physically disabled, queer woman (Misra doesn’t believe in medicalising or pathologising her disability, steering clear of medical terms during our email interview) feels that disability in India still has a very abled gaze, and very limited representation. “As a young girl who grew up watching Sex and the City, I always thought that I’d grow up and dress like Carrie Bradshaw. So imagine my confusion when I discovered there are hardly any accessible clothes for us that are also pretty,” she says. “We need to get rid of the notion that disabled folks don’t enjoy wearing colourful, sexy clothes. We want to look our best and flaunt our powerful disabled bodies in public.”

Ganatra further points out the lack of Indian options compared to inclusive brands available internationally. The latter includes several names: UGG has partnered up with Zappos Adaptive for adaptive footwear, Tommy Hilfiger has an adaptive clothing line, Care+Wear has collaborated with luxury fashion brand Oscar de la Renta on a dual-port access chest hoodie to be used post-surgery, Ffora specialises in wheelchair-attachable accessories, Intimately is a special line of disability-inclusive lingerie and Miga designs inclusive swimwear.

Inclusivity in India

Adaptive clothing includes (but is not limited to) Velcro closures or hooks instead of buttons, zippers with easy pull grabs, side zippers on trousers, open-back tops, elasticated waistlines and magnetic shoe fastenings — design elements that allow PwD to dress with ease and dignity. Accessible gowns easy to step into, hoop earrings with convenient back clasps, and straps instead of lace are some of Misra’s personal suggestions. While the scope is unlimited, the players are not.

In fact, most Indian brands for adaptive clothing have been born out of personal battles with a disability or to help a loved one. Kolkata-based Soumita Basu, for instance, launched Zyenika in 2019, a few years after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called psoriatic arthritis. Unable to find outfits that were both functional and fashionable, she began designing buttonless kurtas, wraparound saris that can be worn lying down and mastectomy gowns, among other designs, herself. Shalini Visakan, a Chennai-based designer and alumni of National Institute of Fashion Technology, conceptualised Suvastra Designs on witnessing the difficulties faced by her wheelchair-enabled husband who is a polio survivor. Her designs include long crotches for adult diapers, bigger loops on zippers and saris that can be slipped on like a night dress.

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