I’m a documentary fiend.
My Friday ritual includes ice cream, a fluffy blanket and my fur-less babies Lola and Bruno all piled onto my bed. Jumping from one television network to another and scouring each of my online streaming service subscriptions in the hunt for a new documentary.
Last Friday, I was left disappointed – ‘seen it, seen it’ – my thirst for viewing pleasure means that I’ve normally exhausted all avenues. So, I was forced to watch something Netflix had launched a few weeks prior, but that I’d purposely dismissed because I didn’t think it was for me.
The documentary showcases the phenomenon of the brand, while exposing Abercrombie’s policies in hiring staff who they felt were more palatable and, in doing so, effectively white-washing the company.
White-washing means making something bad seem somehow acceptable. In this case, hiring mostly white and staff deemed socially attractive.
As I watched the documentary in horror, I was hit with a wave of unease. This was not just because of the blatant discrimination that played out, but because, for a moment, I was transported back to my teenage years some 17 or so years ago.
I remembered being at the Trafford Centre in Manchester, which was a regular haunt for youngsters in the North West of England.
I would roll past the Abercrombie store in my wheelchair, glancing at the trademark half naked ‘hot’ guys strategically positioned in the doorway to lure you in.
At that moment, I felt excluded. I had been programmed by society not to feel attractive, sexy or desirable as a disabled person and that store intimidated me.
For that reason, I never actually ventured inside.
I always felt overlooked by guys, especially the good looking ones. They used to treat me like I was invisible so the prospect of that or – worse – the cute door men sniggering at me for daring to go into something that was elite horrified me.
The high street has always been a pretty disabling environment – one that, in my view, still has so far to go in order to be fully inclusive
The culture I lived in that excluded disabled people was extended to this shop – a mirror image of what society deemed as acceptable and, even as a teen, I knew I wasn’t welcome. It was an innate feeling.
I now knew why I’d avoided this documentary, because it resurfaced all these unpleasant memories for me.
Yet there was no reference to ableism at all. No reference to the lack of disabled staff, representation or how inaccessible it was for those of us with disabilities – the shops were pretty much pitch black inside, for example.
Still, it would be unfair and inaccurate to single out one particular brand as being ableist because, for me as a physically disabled woman, the high street has always been a pretty disabling environment – one that, in my view, still has so far to go in order to be fully inclusive.
Disabled people are discriminated against in three ways. There are physical barriers, such as a lack of ramps or lifts, or counters that are too high in stores.
Then there’s communication and information, like the lack of alt text on shop websites – that make it possible for visually impaired people to access information – or customer services not providing the right support to disabled consumers.
And then attitudinal barriers, such as the time I went into a store on Oxford Street with my mum – not Abercrombie – and asked the clerk a question, only for him to ignore me and talk to my mother.
For many years, non-disabled people have viewed us in the disabled community as all unemployed, on benefits and have no spending power or desire to wear nice clothes or buy nice things.
According to disability group Purple, the combined spending power of the disability community is estimated to be worth £274billion in the UK alone, yet there are more fashion brands with dog clothes lines than there are for disabled consumers.
I’m often challenged by non-disabled people who insist things have changed. To a degree, I agree with them.
No one has been more delighted to see a surge in inclusive models, including visibly disabled models, on my high street – many of the faces I know personally. It’s been empowering to see people like me in magazines and in shop fronts.
We’ve even seen a few mannequins that resemble wheelchair users. Unfortunately, rarely does this go beyond tokenism.
If we do not recognise and work towards eliminating all the disabling barriers we face, we will never create an equal and inclusive society for the estimated 20% of the UK population that are disabled.
We will never reach equality if we don’t take equity into consideration. Disabled people aren’t a monolith either – inclusive design needs to cater for everyone.
Catering for disabled people is about much more than lifts and ramps. These adjustments are great if you are a wheelchair user like myself, but are neither here nor there if you are blind or autistic.
If I still cannot access your store or your online platforms, if you aren’t engaging with disabled consumers or recognising the market model of disability, which focuses on economic empowerment of disabled people, then what are you even doing to break down inequality?
It’s not all doom and gloom though.
Brands like Unilever and their Sure product that was the world’s first ever deodorant for disabled people did not shy away from the word ‘disabled’. This made me feel seen and heard. It also understood that ‘disabled’ isn’t a dirty word and that we – like everyone else – deserve to be represented.
And more recently, one that made me literally scream ‘F**K YER!’ was the launch of Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS adaptive collection, which features underwear complete with easily maneuverable hook and eye closures for people with mobility issues.
I was surprised that this brand has evolved to represent all women with all body types – perhaps my own prejudice made me believe that this brand wouldn’t dare ‘do’ disability – but the realist within me would say that the purple pound is a large untapped market so brands would be silly to miss out on it.
If we truly want to ensure our brands and the high street are truly inclusive and uphold the Equality Act 2010, we need to train staff in disability sensitivity, make sure all websites are accessible and invest in physical accessibility.
We need to feature disabled people in our marketing and employ disabled people and engage with them right at the beginning of any policies or product development.
I think Abercrombie’s arrogance is what led to their failure – it assumed consumers had to be told what was cool or normal and acceptable. But people have never needed this guidance, we can think for ourselves.
Unfortunately, the fear of being liked or accepted within society has and still is a strong tool in keeping some people silent and compliant.
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