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Meet the Woman Petitioning J.Crew to Help Fight Disability Stigma

Hanna Agar

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Liz Jackson wants J.Crew — preppy bastion-turned-dominion of Jenna Lyons, emporium of classics with that just-modern-enough touch — to sell walking canes. A few years ago, the thirtysomething Manhattanite was diagnosed with idiopathic neuropathy, an illness that caused weakness throughout her body and left her unable to work. Jackson realized that one not-so-small thing that would make it better would be if her longtime favorite store would start selling canes she wasn’t embarrassed to be seen using. Since then, she’s gotten thousands of signatures on a petition addressed to the store, made contact with the mothership itself, and learned a few things about fashion’s commitment to inclusion (hint: it’s low).

We sat down with her to talk about fashion and disability, as well as to admire her spiffy cane — it’s a Top & Derby Chatfield.

The thing that kicked off this whole thing is that you got sick. What happened?

I got sick on March 30th of 2012. I just literally fell out of bed. I tried working for a time and realized I couldn’t, so I went on disability. I started my website because I’d fallen out of contact with my friends and family. I had recently seen The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I was just like, "Oh: The Girl With the Purple Cane." My goal with it was to tell my parents, "Hey, I’m getting better. I’m doing OK. I’m not struggling emotionally." It quickly evolved into an advocacy platform.

Image: Liz Jackson

When you got sick, right away what changed about your life?

I started using a cane the day I entered the hospital. I immediately needed glasses too. I don’t wear the glasses to see; they literally just tilt my vision. When I wear them I don’t get migraines as much; it reduces the strain.

It took a lot longer to get ready, just because everything was a slow process. I would be worn out by the time I had gotten ready, but I would look like myself, and then when I needed to go out I would grab my cane and leave. The only thing about my outfit that didn’t fit was the cane. So you work toward this end goal of being a presentable person only at the last minute to have to grab that thing and go; it destroys you every time.

"The only thing about my outfit that didn’t fit was the cane... it destroys you every time."

What changed for you when you traded in your old cane for customized versions?

The difference between the old medical cane I got in the hospital and the Top & Derby cane is that when I go out, about half the time people say, "Awesome cane." That for me is incredible. Before, it was always, "What’s wrong?" and a pathetic tilt of the head. There is no way to navigate the world as a proud person when there’s something so thoughtless that you’re forced to lean on.

For me, it was a life changer. It was the thing that allowed me to start picking up the pieces.

Top & Derby is these two guys in Winnipeg. They make furniture for EQ3, it’s sort of a West Elm-type store that’s more popular in Canada. And they just one day decided, "Canes are ugly. We’re going to fix them." I discovered them, and we’ve become really good friends.

Image: Liz Jackson

How did you get the idea to lobby J.Crew to sell canes?

I was in a J.Crew and it was sort of this one wild experience. First I saw the glasses, and I was thinking to myself, "How strange is it that you actually have to buy these frames and then take it to your doctor? Why is it that glasses are the thing that are mainstream and fashionable when no other assistive product sits on your face?" Many other assistive products can be purchased without even needing to go to a doctor. I was walking past this table of their T-shirts, and they had all these spring colors. I realized my purple cane would look beautiful with them, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn’t it be amazing if J.Crew had this seasonal line where it’s the same cane, but once a season it was a new color or a new style?" My whole vision has been, what if all the products were no longer carried in the one dreary medical supply shop and what if instead, it was a shopping experience?

"What if all the products were no longer carried in the one dreary medical supply shop... what if instead, it was a shopping experience?"

I want J.Crew to either collaborate with Sabi—that’s the maker of my purple cane—or Top & Derby, the maker of my other cane. The Top & Derby cane was a little over $100, and then the Sabi cane was around $80. The interesting thing is, it’s about the price of a J. Crew pair of jeans.

What have your interactions with J.Crew been like?

A friend of mine told me that [J.Crew CEO] Mickey Drexler used to take calls from the general public. I felt like a crazy person doing it, but one day I called and said "Hey, can I talk to Mickey Drexler?" and then I got a call back from someone else at the company. She said that they were not aware that this was a product that could be marketable and they thanked me for bringing it to their attention. They said they were interested, but not right now because they’re focusing on their brand. My whole feeling was that I didn’t get to pick the moment that I became disabled. If I had the choice, I would have put it off and I would have put it off and I would have put it off as long as I could. But in disability, you don’t get that choice. I felt, and I said to her, that the best way you can pay homage to someone with a disability is to simply do it when it’s uncomfortable. Why are you saying that a cane is not your brand? A cane is not your brand because it never has been, but maybe it should be.

Image: Liz Jackson

NPR included me in a story about design and disability, and they reached out to J.Crew for it. My impression is that they got a firm but respectful no on the cane question. My question was: Where is the respect in that no? Why couldn’t they reach out and say, "OK, this may not work for us, but we think it’s a solid idea. Let’s work together and find somewhere to make this happen?" That would have been respectful.

How has your interest in fashion evolved throughout this process?

In the beginning, I was hugely optimistic. Now, I realize that people are choosing to look away or choosing not to market to my need. There’s an anger there that wasn’t there in the beginning. In the beginning it felt very fun, like "Let’s try this." Now I know I am being actively [excluded]. I think my feelings about the fashion industry have changed, but I’m also more driven than ever to say, "Include me, include my peers."

When I started this journey, disability sites, advocacy sites, everybody was really interested in what I was doing. [But] I could not get anybody, not one person, in the fashion world to take interest.

"I’m more driven than ever to say, 'Include me, include my peers.'"

In addition to looking at disability in the context of fashion and I look at disability in the context of sports. Nike is actually going to be the first major retailer to come out with a product for a person for disability, and it’s their Flyease shoe. For me, it’s an amazing thing, because they made a shoe for this kid that has Cerebral Palsy. What it is is just a shoe, a really cool shoe, that’s just easier to put on. The back peels away and then you just stick it on. But you can go into a Nike store and you think to yourself, "Oh, that’s a cool shoe, and look, it’s easy to put on." When you make something for someone with a need, it benefits society at large. Under Armour has the one-handed zipper. And again, it was designed for an amputee, but who isn’t carrying groceries, or gets caught in the rain, that couldn’t use that?

You can name all the things that are happening in sports. And then you look at the fashion world, and there’s nothing. There’s no person, there’s no company, there’s no brand, there’s no discussion about it. Simply, there is an absolute disconnect. In some ways, the sporting world is kind of forced to pick up the slack. You can look at it and say, "Oh, look, they’re making progress," because last Fashion Week they featured people with disabilities on runways. I’m like, yes, but there was actually a model that was wearing a dress that hung over the wheels of her wheelchair. Her wheels could get caught in that dress. There’s actually no product that they’re making for these models. They don’t see them as a marketable entity. For me, that’s the frustration. I think that the fashion world needs to reassess and needs to include all bodies.