Finding stylish mobility aids amid a sea of dull, colourless options which match the aesthetic of a hospital ward is the bane of many fashion-forward disabled people’s wardrobes. In the UK the spending power of disabled people tops £249 billion per year yet affordable and elegant mobility aids that consider aesthetics are a rarity.
For the 1 billion of us who live in disabled bodies, it can be a fierce challenge to embrace our disabilities without shame, which is intensified by the stares, comments and uncomfortable questions that plague us while using mobility aids in public. Despite becoming disabled as a 14-year-old, it took nearly a decade for me to finally embrace my identity; the struggle to use a cane without embarrassment was even more difficult. I often submitted to internalised ableism and prioritised looking non-disabled over managing my pain levels to avoid the inquisitive rudeness of strangers.
Although the representation of disabled people has soared over the last few years, many of us still struggle to embrace ourselves in a society that remains stubbornly ableist in the face of countless advocates and campaigners highlighting inequalities. "When you are disabled, you are instantly different in the eyes of many, and society, so you stand out," Şirin Atçeken, psychologist, therapist (MFT) and EMDR specialist at WeCure told Refinery29. "For many, this can lead to feelings of discomfort, low self-esteem and anxiety."
"I’ve felt lost at times, not being able to trust my body to support me or function in a predictable way, causing me to live quite an isolated lifestyle," says multiple sclerosis advocate and podcaster Roxanne Chanel Murray, who uses a walking stick and a walking bike. "For a whole year after being diagnosed I never went outside."
"You’re meant to start finding yourself at 15," explains content designer and freelance writer Chloe Tear, who uses a walking stick and a wheelchair and has mild cerebral palsy, chronic pain and is blind. "I was struggling with mobility, losing independence and didn’t want to be seen with an aid."
Disability can sneak up on you, come crashing into your life or it can be with you from birth but, either way, it transforms the way you live your life and can eat away at your sense of identity. "I was worried about losing my identity and the disability started to consume me, everything was medicinal and, when I was in the hospital, I was introduced only as a tetraplegic, not as Heidi," explains personal stylist Heidi Herkes.
The explosion of the self-love movement has taught many of us how to direct love inwards but this can be a lot harder for disabled people who are frequently objectified and dehumanised because of the exact identity they are trying to embrace. "Someone surrounded by love will learn to embrace disability quickly," Şirin says, "whereas someone who doesn’t have this support may become resentful, developing negative feelings towards themselves."
For the disabled people who need them, mobility aids are an essential tool for thriving but they also moonlight as a symbol of empowerment. The interlocking of mobility and personal style can help carve out a route to self-acceptance, regardless of how supportive the people around us are. Investing in a beautiful cane with intricate flower designs was transformative for me in accepting the chronic pain and hypermobile joints that impede my mobility. Now I never feel shame for getting my cane out in public, even when people stare at the apparent oddity of a young, visibly disabled person.
Harley Primrose found that matching their alternative style with an array of canes has given them a new confidence. "It definitely took some time to work up the courage to not just fold my stick away every time I got a rude stare," they say. "But I’ve just stopped caring and I have the confidence to dress, look and act how I want to. If people are going to stare, I may as well give them something to look at!"
"When your walking stick complements your outfit, it’s like it’s meant to be there," agrees Chloe. "It no longer looks medical or misplaced in the hand of a 22-year-old – it’s exactly where it needs to be."
We all know the impact that a fantastic outfit can have on our self-esteem but this feeling is elevated to a whole new level when combining style and function. "It’s about making the [disabled person] feel like themselves again," Heidi explains.
Switching a beige cane for a colourful one or accessorising your wheelchair spokes may seem inconsequential to a non-disabled person but the impact of turning medicalised mobility aids into a fashion statement is not to be trivialised. "Right from childhood, accessorising makes us feel empowered and allows us to take claim of our personality," Şirin says. "Accessorising disability aids can be incredibly powerful and means disabled people stand out and embrace what makes them different on their own terms. It can also promote conversations, allowing them to talk openly and honestly about their disability."
"It helped me not to see it as a burden or something that has taken so much of my personality away from me," agrees Roxanne. "The standard NHS-style aids made me feel invisible but I feel seen when I style my mobility aids."
Too often disabled people, and their rights, fade into the background. Accessorising our way into the forefront of people’s minds empowers us to embrace disability and push non-disabled folk to change their attitudes, acknowledge us and consider our needs.
Although the accessorising of mobility aids is not an instant fix for ableist attitudes, Chloe, like Harley and me, has found that it can make a significant difference. "Over time I’ve learned that it’s not a bad thing to be intertwined with an aid; if anything, it enables me to do more, challenge attitudes and become empowered," she explains. "It’s allowed me to be more open about my disability and my needs."
The broadening conversation around disability is playing a key role in untangling ableism, which is translating to real change on a personal and societal level. But gaps remain in the accessible fashion industry.
Victoria Jenkins is a disability designer and advocate who lives with a complex combination of gastrointestinal issues and uses a walking stick. She creates accessible work attire with her company Unhidden Clothing, which was inspired by a fellow patient whose clothing was not accessible and who had to strip naked every time a doctor checked her stoma. "Unless you have disabled people in the room that you are consulting with and listening to, as well as paying for their time, it won’t work," she explains. "You can’t design for a disabled person if you are not disabled because you do not know what they need."
Gradually, disabilities and the accompanying mobility aids are springing out of the shadows of shame and becoming an opportunity for disabled people to interlace their fashion and disabled identities in one stylish look. "It’s not just something I have to endure, it’s not just memories of pain and doctors' offices. It’s stylish and cool – it’s my signature style now," explains Harley. "I don’t have to try and hide it or be ashamed of it, or have it be stigmatised; it’s normalised and something that people can compliment me on, too."