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Clothing Can Keep People With Disabilities Out of the Workforce

Target and Tommy Hilfiger are the rare retailers that sell adaptive clothing.

A woman in a wheelchair working.
Strict dress codes can keep people with disabilities out of the workplace.
Photo: Getty Images/Blend Images

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Why is the jobless rate for people with disabilities roughly three times the national average? Employment discrimination plays a role, but so might clothing. A recent study from researchers at the University of Missouri found that the dearth of adaptive clothing in the mass retail market poses workforce barriers for this already marginalized group.

While Target and Tommy Hilfiger sell adaptive clothing, most major retailers don’t. Adaptive clothing might feature snaps instead of buttons or accommodate someone who’s had a limb amputated or uses a wheelchair. The problem is that the limited amount of such clothing that’s actually available from mass retailers tends to be casual. So what’s a person with a disability seeking a job in the corporate workforce to do?

All too often, the struggle to find business attire leads people with disabilities not to pursue certain careers or to skip applying to jobs they’re qualified for, according to Kerri McBee-Black, an instructor in the University of Missouri’s textile and apparel management department. She and Jung Ha-Brookshire, director of graduate studies in the textile and apparel management department, analyzed the professional experiences of 12 people living with disabilities.

Although that’s admittedly a small sample size, the researchers note that they identified similarities among the study participants. Half had physical conditions, such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, while the rest had psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The need for adaptive clothing is typically associated with people who have physical disabilities, but some individuals with psychological disabilities have unique apparel needs too.

Racked spoke with McBee-Black about how clothing keeps people with disabilities out of the corporate workplace. She also discussed how employers can be more inclusive and why retailers need to start recognizing that people with disabilities exist.

Are there any retailers that cater to people with disabilities in the corporate world?

Many mainstream apparel brands don’t believe this is a big enough population, that there isn’t a big enough market. But if you look at the population, we’re all going to be disabled at some point, at least temporarily, and some permanently. It’s not going away, especially with the baby boomer generation increasing in age.

With the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and general movement toward inclusivity, maybe now is ... the right environment for the apparel industry to be more inclusive. I don’t want to be completely skeptical, but at the very least, it’s a way for them to make money and be socially responsible, which millennials and Generation Z like. They want their brands to be socially responsible. They want their brands to do good things.

You’ve said outerwear can be difficult to find for people in wheelchairs. How does that affect them in the workplace?

Coats aren’t easy to find for people who use wheelchairs. One person [using a wheelchair] did advocacy work. He would lobby policymakers and go down to City Hall, and he was required to look the part. He was paralyzed, and people who’ve been paralyzed are not able to regulate their body temperature like everyone else. But finding coats is difficult for people using wheelchairs, so a lot of them will wrap themselves up in blankets, which doesn’t look professional. He felt uncomfortable, stigmatized for not being able to wear a coat appropriately.

Your study included people with psychological disabilities as well. What challenges did they have?

The challenges of people living with psychological disabilities were particularly insightful for me. There was this one particular person [with ADHD, anxiety, and depression] who got into a grad school and started to experience stigma from her colleagues and adviser while working on her PhD. She had a very eclectic fashion sense — graphic tees, crazy colors and prints together, vintage. Until then, she never felt the need not to wear that sort of clothing, but she started to dress super conservatively and didn’t feel like she was being herself. In order for her to adapt and be successful, that’s what she felt like she had to do not to draw any attention to herself. In the interview, she told me, “I didn’t want them to think any differently than they already did about me.”

A fashion show featuring designs for people with disabilities.
A Mercedes Benz Fashion Week show that included adaptive clothes for people with disabilities.
Photo: Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

Workplace dress codes can be so restrictive that they lead some people with disabilities not to pursue certain career fields. Can you discuss that?

One particular young woman who used a wheelchair and has a college degree and experience in the banking industry did not feel comfortable applying for a job in the bank when she graduated. She said, “I knew they had a specific dress code and that dress code would make it hard to use the restroom without assistance from others.” She was independent in every other aspect of her life but that, so she never once considered applying for a job at the bank.

Another person with a disability wanted to be a sports broadcaster, but his adviser told him, “Nobody’s going to hire you.” Granted this was back in the ’80s, a different time, but it really impacted him. He’s now a disability advocate and said, “I enjoy my job, but this was not my dream.”

What can workplaces do to be more accommodating of people with disabilities?

Most industries can be more accommodating and need to understand how dress codes impact their ability to access qualified and phenomenal employees. Twenty years ago, companies started to have casual Fridays. Now we need to have companies come up with some innovative ways to be more inviting [to people with disabilities]. There’s evidence that it can be done if the industry is willing to be innovative and to be inclusive.

People living with disabilities are highly underemployed. They have such low income. They’re not being hired, and my little piece of the research showcases how clothing is a barrier.

Wouldn’t it constitute discrimination if a person with a disability applied for a job but was barred from accepting it because of the dress code?

You can’t fire them because they use a wheelchair, but the dress code issue across the board is nearly impossible to prove unless the discrimination is blatant, unless they say, “We will not hire you unless you wear this suit.” That’s why most people with disabilities self-select jobs. They’ll say, “There’s no way I’m going to work there because the dress code is too restrictive.”

A model with a prosthetic leg.
A model with a prosthetic leg in an ensemble by Teatum Jones.
Photo: Niklas Halle’N/AFP/Getty Images

Are there any success stories? Any people with disabilities you encountered who are making it work, even as they’re faced with these barriers?

All of them [the study participants] are working, but they still feel like they have barriers. Some of them just stick with a particular brand. For example, one discovered a certain company makes pants that work for him — he could easily get them on and off — so he bought them in every color and every style. Others will have things tailored and customized. One uses a wheelchair and has had several custom-made suits.

Think about that. You’re already buying clothes, and then you have to pay someone to adapt them on top of that. If you’re a poor person, you’re just stuck with whatever you can get off the rack. It’s just a vicious circle.

Questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.