It’s 4pm on a Thursday and I am deep into it with the Reiss customer-services line. The woman on the other end of the phone is audibly nodding sympathetically as I explain I can’t get into my local Reiss store to buy an item i’ve seen in the sale; I’m a wheelchair user and there’s a flight of stairs with no lift. I’m being forced to pay the online-postage charge, I say, because the lack of access means I can’t pop in the shop. We agree wholeheartedly this is very unfair, she waives the fee and I thank her as she promises to pass it on to management.
A £5 postage charge is not going to make the headlines. It is not exactly the greatest disability discrimination the world has seen. But it’s the sort of treatment of disabled customers by fashion retailers that adds up over the years: a niggle of overcharging here, an outright ban there.
The Pool recently reported how actor and disability-rights campaigner Samantha Renke called out Zara when its assistants refused to help her reach the card machine. While some brands are rightly criticised (something that can vary, depending on which of their premises you’re in), the lack of access for disabled customers is a systemic problem that goes beyond a few bad apples.
A government audit of more than 30,000 shops and restaurants in 2014, the biggest of its kind to date, found much of the UK high street has "shocking" disability access. It discovered less than a third of department stores have accessible changing rooms, 20% of high-street shops fail to provide a ramp for wheelchair users and only 15% of retailers have hearing loops for shoppers with hearing impairments. Two-thirds of retail staff have no training in how to help disabled customers.
There are 12 million disabled people in Britain, with an estimated spending power of £200bn, so making fashion more welcoming is good business sense
It amounts to making what should be a fun experience into something that’s too often stressful or embarrassing. At university in Nottingham, I remember getting changed in a store cupboard in a department store because, despite their size and vast profits, they didn’t have an accessible changing room. An assistant walked in while I was half undressed. When I was 19, I could shake off unwillingly flashing my bra to a stranger. Having hit 30, I avoid the whole thing and get 95% of my clothes online.
There’s hope in the news that some brands are showing signs of trying to accommodate shoppers with disabilities. This week, para-athlete and BBC reporter Chloe Ball-Hopkins announced that she has designed a jumpsuit for ASOS, which, while intended for everyone, is also wheelchair-friendly, thanks to a whole host of very specific design features: the jacket and trousers zip together, for example, the lining is made of soft jersey for extra comfort and the hem is a little longer at the back to stop it riding up as you move. Ball-Hopkins’s announcement was met with a fantastic response on social media, including calls for other brands to take note, as so many people were discussing the fact that their needs are just not met.
Tommy Hilfiger have also recently released an “adaptive clothing” line. It features trousers with plackets at the waistline to make it easier for wheelchair users and bungee-cord closure systems for those who find zips and buttons hard to co-ordinate. And, this month, M&S launched a specialist range for disabled children. Primark has a policy of not asking its disabled customers to queue, which can be fantastic if you’re struggling with fatigue or pain. Jenners, one of Edinburgh’s oldest department stores, announced last month it would now be using the Neatebox Welcome app – an app designed to help shoppers with disabilities find assistance by alerting the store’s customer-service team when the user arrives at the store.
I wrote about the difficulty of dressing with a disability two years ago for The Pool and it’s encouraging to see at least some brands make progress in this area. The US website AblDenim – which sells softer denim suitable for wheelchair users – is already at the top of my wishlist for autumn, while mainstream stores like All Saints – whose unique cut is especially flattering if you’re sitting down – is my go-to for dresses and tops. In the summer, pleated skirts and cigarette pants are ideal and mainstream brands like COS and Zara do great versions without zip fastenings.
On top of clothes, there’s a range of tweaks to shops themselves that would make a big difference for various disabilities. Accessible pay points, such as lowered tills, and queues that aren’t arranged in zig zags are great for wheelchairs users, as well as enough space to manoeuvre between racks. Softening fluorescent lighting or booming music would be great for many with autism, epilepsy and migraines, while “quiet hours” (much like some cinemas already do), perhaps opening for an extra hour once a month, would be ideal for people who find busy stores overwhelming. Extra seating – in and outside changing rooms – would be a lifesaver for people with chronic illnesses who need somewhere to sit and rest, and hooks big enough to hang a walking stick off. Clothing sizes and prices in large print in store and more detailed descriptions of items online would help those with visual impairments.
As Renke found, staff play a big part in making a positive shopping experience. Some of this is as easy as enforcing existing ideas, like not using accessible changing rooms or lifts as makeshift stock cupboards and being vigilant of other customers misusing large changing rooms. Some is a better understanding of disability generally, such as speaking directly to a disabled customer asking for help (one of my first shopping experiences was learning that staff would talk over my head to the nearest available non-disabled person).
There are 12 million disabled people in Britain, with an estimated spending power of £200bn, so making fashion more welcoming is good business sense as much as the right thing to do. Progress may be slow, but, with a bit of effort, shopping can become more accessible to disabled customers – one £5-postage cost at a time.
Frances' accessible edit
I hunt for trousers without zips or buttons to avoid pain from sitting down all day.
I find pleated skirts ideal as a wheelchair user (they flow past the thigh and you don’t lose the style) and look for styles without zips.
All Saints tops are great if you use a wheelchair or want a bit of breathing space around the waist as the unique way they’re cut hangs in a really flattering way.
Finding a pair of jeans can be impossible if you’re disabled but AblDenim make a range with specialist soft denim for wheelchair users, as well as designs suitable for catheters, avoiding pressure sores, and people with dexterity problems who struggle with traditional fastenings. It's US based but ship worldwide.
The specialist underwear range from Vanilla Blush not only supports and conceals a Stoma Appliance/Ostomy Pouch but look beautiful.