There's a consumer group of around 8.5 million people in the UK and 54 million in the US that is ignored by clothing manufacturers and retailers. In an industry where every company is struggling to improve profits it seems extraordinary that such a substantial market is being overlooked. But disabled people are used to being ignored. "They are not our customers" is an all too easy response and it's a response that disabled consumers are confronted with every time they shop for clothes. But whose customers are they? asks Tania Casselle

Disabled consumers tend to raise three major areas of difficulty when shopping for clothes: retail access, fashion industry attitudes, and the garments themselves.

Scope, a UK disability organisation with a focus on people with cerebral palsy, has recently been running a poster campaign to promote retailer awareness of disabled customers' needs. This coincides with new provisions to Britain's Disabled Discrimination Act in October 2000, which say that suppliers of goods and services have to make reasonable adjustment to their services to allow disabled access.

It's all about access
"Retailers have until 2004 to make those adjustments," says Scope's Marcella McEvoy. "However, we launched a survey called Left Out in July 2000, which inspected 500 businesses of all kinds across the country to see if they were meeting the DDA and found that 74 per cent of them posed one or more entry problems for disabled people."

Steps were the most common problem, followed by buildings without lifts or automatic doors or ramps, inaccessible toilets and patronising staff.

"You've got to think not just about wheelchairs and the width of aisles and so on, but also about visibility and hearing impaired customers," observes McEvoy. "

"When the DDA comes into action disabled consumers will be able to take businesses to court if they feel unfairly discriminated against."
It's all about consulting with disabled people in order to make small changes at very little cost. Often it's just about staff training in disability awareness. We're trying to work with businesses now because when the DDA comes into action disabled consumers will be able to take businesses to court if they feel unfairly discriminated against."

A Scope survey of five major Oxford Street retailers - Marks & Spencer, BhS, John Lewis, Debenhams and DH Evans - illuminated stark contrasts in standards.

"Scope's exercise was a real eye-opener. While John Lewis and Marks& Spencer came out very positively, the others still seem to have some way to go, particularly when it comes to training employees," comments Mark Faithfull, editor of Retail Interiors.

John Lewis performed best, not just for access and services such as large print literature, hearing induction loops and trained signers, but also for staff attitudes. The company's disability awareness training programme includes a company video called 'Just another customer' featuring disabled customers talking about their shopping experiences. If these experiences are anything like some of the anecdotal stories that abound - disabled women being asked by sales assistants why they would want to buy pretty lingerie or cosmetics for example - the value of such an exercise is evident.

"There's 8.5 million people in the UK representing a large consumer market," concludes Scope's Marcella McEvoy. "It makes sound business sense for companies to start embracing the disabled pound."

Julian Wing, of Awear agrees with McEvoy's diagnosis. Awear is a forum of disabled people and fashion industry professionals working to change the way stores deal with disabled people.

"Disabled people are very important economically and if they can get access to clothes they will spend the money," says Wing. Awear has established an accreditation scheme to recognise good practice in retailers, based on access, staff awareness and goods and services. George at Asda became involved in the forum and the pilot for the scheme took place in 20 Asda stores in 2000, 16 of which became accredited. Awear is now in discussion with other retailers.

"It's a revolutionary scheme for retailers," says Wing. "Once one or two big players get involved others will see the benefit."

American attitudes
In the United States, where the 10 year old Americans with Disabilities Act incorporates the anti-discrimination access measures now posited by the UK's DDA, retailer awareness seems generally to be higher. It's fair to add, however, that most retailers in more modern countries like America and Australia don't face the same problems of historically built-up city centres and listed building regulations as their European counterparts.

"Over recent years sensitivity in the US to the needs of disabled customers has grown," says Susan Sprunk, vice president for business marketing and strategy at "For example, you see ride-on carts in stores and disabled people are featured in ads, which you wouldn't have seen six or seven years ago." is a site for consumers to find items at lowest sale prices in bricks and mortar stores. For disabled customers, the service is especially useful as it signposts nearest stockists and lets them compare prices without travelling around. Sprunk was previously a vice president of both Mervyn's and J.L. Hudson Company, divisions of Target Corporation, which is one of the top three discount retailers in the US alongside Wal-Mart and Kmart.

"As long as 20 years ago, Target came up with the idea of opening stores early one day a week for both the elderly and the disabled so they could shop in a less crowded environment," recalls Sprunk. "Target was also the first store to use disabled people in ads. Once they started to do it, others followed. Someone has to do it first. People aren't opposed to it but they just don't have the imagination."

Two recent advertising-related initiatives in the UK have been aimed at encouraging just that kind of imagination.

In December 2000, disability care charity the Leonard Cheshire Foundation ran a competition to find and promote disabled models, and thus help increase representation in mainstream advertising.

"One in seven people in the UK has a disability of one kind, but how often do you see it portrayed in advertising?" asks Rosemary Hargreaves of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation. A survey by the foundation found that consumers aren't deterred by disabled images, and 70 per cent of respondents said they would not assume an advert featuring a disabled person was aimed solely at the disabled.

"However, the advertising industry can't find models," comments Hargreaves. "In response to this our competition launched the careers of 16 finalists who will go on the books of London's Visible Model Agency for 'models with impairments'."

And in November, Scope's first ever 'Give us a (Commercial) Break Awards' celebrated advertising featuring positive, non-stereotypical images of disabled people. The winning agency was M&C Saatchi for their 'Catwalk' ad for Freeserve, starring model and paralympian Aimee Mullins in a fashion show.

"Our questions were 'How far is the disabled person in the ad portrayed as having a contribution to make and how far are they portrayed as a natural character in the story?'" says Scope's Christina McGill.

"All the commercials in the showcase are for products or services that are not in any way 'about' disabled people and it's interesting that all of these ads are in some way related to fashion or glamour. We are encouraging more disabled people to go into modelling and Scope will be holding a fashion show with high street and designer names in March 2001."

Fashion forward
Some of Italy's Alta Moda designers have already set a trend in that direction. Giacomo Alvino, Egon von Furstenberg, Gattinoni, Fausto Sarli, Renato Balestra, Camillo Bona and Raffaella Curiel all included disabled models in their summer 2000 runway shows. The garments' fit and fastenings were modified to match the model's physical needs without losing an ounce of sex appeal.

Unfortunately, for the average disabled fashion afficionado, this is not a typical scenario. Traditional clothing ranges for disabled people have sacrificed fashion for function, with an emphasis on classic lines and basic colours.

"Disabled people can still be glamorous and a positive self image is important," says Trevor Dobson, a UK campaigner for disability rights. "Take wet weather gear - the capes used to come only in fluorescent yellow and really I'd rather get wet! Now there is a wider range of colours, but you'd still be lucky to get anything in the high street in an average town specially made for disabled people, and the specialist designs are much more expensive because they are not mass-produced."

"As customers with disabilities are more likely to have asymmetric body shapes and differing needs, it is inherently problematic for any clothing manufacturer to take a 'one-size fits all approach'"
As customers with disabilities are more likely to have asymmetric body shapes and differing needs, it is inherently problematic for any clothing manufacturer to take a 'one-size fits all approach'. However, there are some universal rules that tend to apply.

Wheelchair users often have larger shoulders in proportion to the rest of their bodies, so specialist designs are cut to allow for this, while sleeves allow plenty of clearance for arm movement in maneuvering the chair. Shoulder seams are also moved forward to compensate for the seated position. Trousers and skirts have to be cut higher at the back and lower at the front to keep the waist level while sitting and also to stop tops from untucking and riding up at the back, which doesn't only look messy but is uncomfortable if your shirt is rumpled up behind you all day and you can't reach round to straighten it out. Elasticated waistbands improve comfort and a longer cut on trouser legs prevents drafty and unsightly gaps at the ankle.

"A lot of the issue around clothing is not just what it is, but how you get it on," comments Dobson. Pieces that slip on easily with simple and accessible fastenings such as Velcro are essential for people with limited hand movement.

It's not unknown for those who can afford it to go to Savile Row or other bespoke tailors, but some of the best suppliers of contemporary disabled or 'adaptive' clothing can be found on the Internet.

Good examples of entrepreneurial suppliers in America include Finally It Fits, Specialty Care Shoppe, Easy Access Clothing, and Adrian's Closet. aims at a young, professional audience, with loose-fitting raglan styled coats that are cut shorter so wheelchair users don't sit on bunches of fabric., based in Glasgow, Scotland, guarantees it can make clothes for anyone," regardless of age, disability or size" and is the winner of several design awards including Millennium Product Status in 1999.

Sharp and chic
An outstanding supplier is Rolli-Moden, which has a funky site that's full of chutzpah, selling well-cut, sharp and chic pieces. Prices are competitive - jeans at $55 feature a Velcro fly and waist closure and a high back and low front to maintain a level waist. Founded over 30 years ago in Germany by Manfred Sauer, Rolli-Moden expanded in 1997 to the San Diego in the US and the now ships globally from the two countries.

Rolli-Moden is among 250 suppliers accessible through The Boulevard (, one of the first Internet directories of services and products for the disabled.

"We receive about 15,000 unique visitors each month among a total of 40,000 visitors," says The Boulevard's founder, Jim McVay. "Adaptive clothing is one of the top three categories, averaging around 2-3,000 visits a month." As well as the US, there is a strong representation of visitors from the UK, Japan, Germany and Italy.

"One of the reasons this area has started to get greater recognition in the US is because of the recognition of the aging population, so it's being taken seriously as a huge opportunity for suppliers," says McVay. Clothing issues for older consumers often resemble those for disabled customers - someone with arthritis also appreciates easier fastenings for example.

Perhaps the most exciting potential however is through a whole new approach to manufacturing.

"Disabled people don't want specialist shops and mail order," asserts Awear's Julian Wing. "We want to provide clothes through ordinary shops using cheaper manufacturing processes." Awear is therefore working with pattern generation software that will work with a smartcard holding the customer's individual body measurements and particular needs.

"They pick a garment off the rail in an ordinary shop, the smart card is swiped and goes downline to a small response, short-run manufacturer, which is much cheaper than starting from scratch," says Wing. The system could also be used by extra tall or petite consumers, or simply by women having trouble finding a pair of trousers that fit, thus making the system more viable for manufacturers.

"It demands a change of attitude from retailers and manufacturers but you achieve a high customer loyalty and eliminate excess stock," concludes Wing. "The opportunity is great not just for disabled people but for everybody - this could be the way for retail in the future."