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Parsons School of Design will launch program for designers who identify as disabled


Haven't we all had that one garment we regret? It just didn't fit right, didn't make you feel great wearing it? Or how about that special piece you wish you could wear, but for whatever reason, you can't? Maybe it doesn't come in your size, or you just can't move in it. So now imagine you have a disability and that's every day. It's always hard to get clothes that fit well and make you feel great. That's the problem the Parsons School of Design in New York is trying to solve with a new program to support fashion by and for people with disabilities. I recently spoke with two people involved in that effort. Ben Barry is the dean of Parsons School of Fashion. Sinead Burke is the founder of the accessibility consulting firm Tilting the Lens, which helped develop the program. Burke told me she has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and she realized at a young age that finding clothes she actually wanted to wear was a struggle.

SINEAD BURKE: I'm the eldest of five children, and my siblings are all non-disabled. My father, he's a little person, but my mother is not. And I remember being the eldest, but my sisters in particular, having more range in clothing options and in footwear. I remember that they just didn't have to wear shoes that had Velcro straps and that could light up. They had options and choices. And I remember going to my dad when I was kind of 12 or 13 and saying to him, you know, what do I wear? And, you know, my dad probably had been conditioned by a lack of access to clothes his whole life - meant that he just wore whatever was available. And his advice at the time was not that it didn't really matter, but that there was nothing that we could do about it. And I've always been, I think, a bit of a tenacious individual and never really accepted that as a response or an answer.

MARTIN: Wow. What about you, Dean Barry?

BEN BARRY: I grew up loving fashion, and I have memories that being 4 and 5, going through the clothes and my grandmother's closet, trying on her hats, trying on her white silk gloves and immediately feeling a deep connection between my soul and my body. As I started to get older, I not only learned around norms of brand masculinity in fashion and gender, but I also learned how fashion was so valued for its visual power. The visual primacy was always the most important, and it always didn't connect to my own lived experience as someone with low vision, as someone who engaged with clothing through touch. And so I think for me, it was really meeting other disabled folks, disabled artists, that allowed me to really be proud of my disabled experience and also recognize that fashion is such an incredible way to engage in a multi-sensory experience.

MARTIN: Are there barriers to entry that people with disabilities would specifically experience trying to get into fashion that people outside of it wouldn't necessarily be aware of?

BARRY: Disabled people have always been designers. We've had to make and remake clothes to best support our bodies and minds, to affirm our identities. And so, in many ways, making clothing is part of disability culture. But within fashion, when disabled people have had opportunities to engage in design, it's always been having them - or having us be invited in to test products, to be research subjects, maybe at best as co-designers, but often without the design credit and compensation that comes along with sharing our ideas. And then there's also more worldview changes that need to be made. How do we define beauty? How do we understand the body? So I think so much of this is not just to remove barriers to access to fashion education, but really to ensure that disabled folks can thrive in the fashion industry.

MARTIN: Sinead, before we let you go, you and Dean Barry have both given us, I don't know, for want of a better word, kind of moral arguments, but you've been advising companies for some time over an array of products and sectors, and I'm wondering if there is a bottom line here, too.

BURKE: Yes, there is a moral argument. But even when we think about the moral argument, sometimes that creates this notion in our own minds that it's, you know, a small group of people. I think the reality is, is that even if we look to the U.S., this is 1 in 4 people, and that is without acknowledging that we live in an aging society and that we all become disabled at some point in our lives. But if we think about specifically the business and the finance metrics, there is an economic rationale as to why we should do this. In terms of the disabled community globally, that's about 1.6 billion people. In terms of their spending power, the discretionary income of disabled people globally immense to roughly 1.7 trillion U.S. dollars. So this isn't a niche program for a small group of people. This is genuinely for all of us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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