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The Difficulty of Shopping on Wheels

Being in a wheelchair makes shopping for clothes so much harder than it should be.

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Photo: Zero Creatives/Getty Images

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Last summer I found myself in a handicapped dressing room with no handlebars, clutching my sister as she struggled to zip me into a skirt meant for my birthday. If she let me go I would fall, and neither of us especially wanted that.

Breathing heavily after my unplanned workout, I sat back down in my wheelchair and aborted the “try it on in the store” mission. I would buy the skirt, try it on at home, and return it if need be. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong.

Shopping for me is rarely hassle-free, and this time was no different. I dealt with too little aisle space and inaccessible “accessible” dressing rooms. And when I went to exchange the skirt at another location, I encountered a barely-accessible checkout line. After I swapped out the skirt for a floral dress, my wheelchair was too wide to navigate the line. I parked myself at the front of the line, took a mental note of who was in front me originally, and waited to be called to the cashier.

I'm certainly not the only shopper with a disability who's experienced these frustrations, so I asked others about their experiences (because no, we’re not all the same, and no, we don’t all know each other).

Kaitie Hollen of Pennsylvania, who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome along with other conditions, told Racked, “A lot of stores use the accessible changing room as storage.” She has to wait for employees to move the items before she can try things on, and she feels that using an accessible changing room as storage signals that she is an afterthought. A woman whom I’ll call Vanessa from Minnesota who has Functional Neurological Disorder messaged me and kept the uncool coming. She wrote of a recent shopping trip: “I didn't fit into the room so I asked if I could return what doesn't fit. They said no, they have a no return/exchange policy. I said they should make a dressing room that's actually accessible.”

Aside from problems with dressing rooms, many commented on a common lack of aisle space in clothing stores and the problems it can cause, like not being able to access a rack or getting clothes stuck to mobility devices. Vanessa’s account of an incident in this category took the cake: “I actually took down an entire rack of clothes once because there wasn't quite enough space for me — super embarrassing! Nobody who worked there even came to help me. In fact, two customers stopped to pick the rack up for me cause I was stuck.”

I wish I couldn’t relate, but I can. Like many who contributed their stories, I have problems with clothes hung on walls, not only because they’re had to reach but because it’s hard to see the sizes. And Tyrone Crook’s shopping experience complaint goes a little deeper than wall displays. Crook, who has PHACE syndrome, told Racked, “I just hate shopping, as the sales associate treats me [like I’m] ‘nothing’ and always speaks to the person with me. [When I’m] on my own, they act like they don't know what to do or where to place their eyes.” Treatment like Tyrone’s is actually counterproductive for the retailer. Because if customers do not feel valued (let alone human), then they’re not going to value the business.

Steve Nachshen of New York, who has spina bifida, shops online instead. Shopping online seems to be one solution, but at its essence, shopping in a store is supposed to be an experience. An experience that is considered retail therapy for some, one that is featured in a montage of almost every romantic comedy. People with disabilities deserve to have a shopping experience equal to their able-bodied counterparts.

There are a number of ways that retailers can show that they value their customers with disabilities. For example, having wider aisles and lower wall displays. Having disabled secret shoppers would also help to iron out issues. Ultimately, the most important things are to be as ADA compliant as possible and to treat us like the humans we are. Here’s to hoping finding a birthday outfit get easier for me some day.