One in four adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, but you wouldn't know it given the lack of representation in the workforce, Hollywood, and media coverage. On the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Voices of Disability celebrates the real stories — not the stigmas or stereotypes — of this dynamic and vibrant community of individuals.
Stephanie Thomas has what she calls a “non-severe disability,” which she says allows her to see the world from two perspectives: one from the vantage point of a person without a disability and one of a person who has one. It’s those two concurrent viewpoints that have allowed Thomas, the founder of Disability Fashion Styling platform Cur8able, to successfully provide the one in four people who have a disability with clothing that both looks and feels like it was made specifically for them.
The fashion stylist is missing one thumb and three toes; one on one foot, and two on the other. In her daily life, non-disabled people rarely notice that she’s any different from them. But she is different, and it’s because of her disability that the entrepreneur kicked off a successful 28-year journey of inclusion. Her goal? “To eradicate negative perceptions of people with disabilities,” she says. “Styling is the tool that I use.”
Through Cur8able, Thomas curates adaptive clothing, which is specifically designed for people with disabilities. She also uses her Disability Fashion Styling system to consult with brands about the countless financial, social, and ethical reasons for including these customers. Her site also highlights people with disabilities by sharing their stories and helping them gain recognition in the fashion, beauty, and entertainment industries, where, more often than not, people with disabilities are left out of the conversation. “Disability is the overlooked D in diversity,” Thomas says. But things are moving in the right direction thanks to work like hers.
In the beginning, long before she trademarked her Disability Styling System, Thomas focused on making getting dressed easier for her clients. “Back then, I called it ‘Accessible, Smart, Fashionable’ because those were the three questions that I asked most frequently,” Thomas says. “I would first ask, ‘Is it accessible? Can you get in and out of it?’ Followed by: ‘Is it medically safe? Will it harm your body?’ And finally, the most important question: ‘Do you love it?’” To this day, these are the questions Thomas asks. And finding the answers to them has become her life’s work.
Working to destigmatize disabilities in the fashion industry isn’t easy. “I still have the original letter that I wrote to different major fashion designers in 2003,” she says. “They took my calls, but they were very much not hearing me.” During some meetings, Thomas recalls how “disrespectful” people were. “They didn’t know I was a person living with a disability.” Despite “hating” having to listen to people’s ignorance and disregard for those with disabilities, in doing so, she was able to hear what people really thought. It was in those meetings that Thomas gathered enough information to “bridge the gap” between how the public perceives people with disabilities and what people with disabilities are really like. After a year of non-answers from designers, Thomas launched Cur8able with a new goal: to create change herself.
Over the next decade, she “nerded out” on all things disability fashion. In 2008, she spent a year talking about dressing with disabilities on an FM radio station as part of a PJ DJ campaign, at the end of which she held her first-ever fashion show. “That was when I first started to pick up attention from the press,” she says.
In 2016, Thomas was selected to present a TEDx talk at TEDxYYC, Canada’s third-largest TED conference. Her presentation, titled “Fashion Styling for People with Disabilities,” allowed her unique take on fashion styling and working with people with disabilities to be shared on an international scale. In 2019, Thomas was featured on Business of Fashion’s BoF 500 list alongside Latinx actress and fashion model Jillian Mercado who has muscular dystrophy and is a wheelchair user.
As the media caught wind of her Disability Fashion Styling system, her clients’ expectations began to change. “They now feel like they have a voice to ask for what they want and what they need. That alone is one of the things that makes me the happiest.” Thomas works closely with Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, the star of Give Me Liberty, who was diagnosed with ALS at 14. Spencer, who calls Thomas her mentor, recently hosted the stylist on her weekly Instagram Live series, The New Narrative, where they discussed shopping based on different disabilities, appropriate language surrounding people with disabilities, and how the fashion industry can move forward.
With Spencer, as with most of her clients, Thomas “co-creates” their looks. “I pay attention to who you are and let you guide me on how to best assist you — to challenge you to be the person who you see in your head,” Thomas told Spencer during the episode.
The industry itself is changing, too. In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger, who has two children who are on the autism spectrum, launched an adaptive fashion line for children in collaboration with the disability-focused nonprofit Runway of Dreams. His adaptive line has since expanded to serve men and women, and includes subtleties like magnetic buttons, adjustable hems, and velcro-band and bungee-cord closures. The spring ‘18 campaign starred the late Mama Cax, a Haitian-American model whose success in the fashion industry as an amputee paved the way for the next generation of people with disabilities. “Tommy’s line has been moving a lot of the conversations forward,” Thomas says.
Last year, after mass retailers like Target and ASOS began offering clothing options for people with disabilities, Vogue Business ran a detailed feature on adaptive fashion. The publication found that, by 2026, the global market for adaptive clothing will be valued at almost $400 billion. The population with disabilities in the U.S. alone has a collective spending power of $490 billion. When Selma Blair, who was diagnosed with MS in 2019, arrived at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscars after-party in a Ralph & Russo gown and custom patent leather cane, designer Christian Siriano hinted at a line of adaptive clothing in collaboration with the actress, according to Harper’s Bazaar. Blair’s red carpet look was vital to the adaptive fashion movement as it forced designers to realize the importance of designing fashionable clothing for people with disabilities.
Just as the industry is adapting, so, too, is Thomas. “I'm starting to do something that I was apprehensive with doing, which is ‘putting myself in the narrative a little bit more,’” she shares, referring to the famous line from Hamilton. For Thomas, that means talking more about her own experience in an industry where she’s never felt fully accepted.
“I’m finally telling my own story and talking about it in a way to educate people — to even challenge the idea of what disability looks like,” she says. “I'm 51, so I fight ageism. I fight people looking at me and not taking me seriously because of my ethnicity. And then add the disability element.” For a long time, Thomas had kept her personal journey as a Black woman with a disability silent, instead focusing her efforts on uplifting others. What she failed to realize was that her own journey was uplifting, too. “I don’t have a story that’s straight and narrow, nor did I do something that people look at and feel it’s unattainable for them,” she says. “Actually, I still feel very relatable, like, ‘Oh, if she can do this, I can do this.’”
After ending 2019 on a high note, Thomas, like most people, has found 2020 to be exceptionally challenging. Despite feeling motivated whilst quarantining at home during the first few months of the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles, June’s arrival took a toll on her. “It was a lot harder on me than I thought it would be,” she says of the videos portraying violence against Black people that began circulating following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. “I relaunched my site and then simply wasn’t able to work on it. I've just been trying to stay mentally healthy myself. You don't realize how a lot of stuff can weigh on you until you're in it. A lot of those videos are traumatizing.”
Even so, the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Thomas to reexamine the ways society had shaped her sense of self. “I've allowed white supremacist ideas to impact the way that I saw my own beauty when I look in the mirror,” she shares. “I've never seen myself as being attractive — I just always thought I was talented and smart and really hardworking. I never felt beautiful.” For a month, most of which was spent isolated at home, Thomas questioned the narrative she’d written for herself. “That's my struggle during June: having to really just take responsibility and say, ‘Crap, I believed things about myself that weren't true,’” she says.
In addition to being Black, being a woman with a disability also lent itself to certain societal biases that Thomas admittedly accepted about herself without ever acknowledging it: “I had to say, ‘You have made this your story, and that's not your story,’ and take some time to really face my own belief system.”
Following this period of reflection, Thomas is once again reclaiming her narrative. “What I’m doing now is actually creating the content that I want to see at the intersection of fashion and disability,” she says. “That intersection doesn't exist in the way that I want it to — all of these ideas that I've had over the years that I've been waiting for other people to partner with me to bring to pass, I'm just going to do them myself.”
Voices of Disability is edited by Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate who was born with cerebral palsy. She has spoken about her disability on the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend, and written on the subject for Vox, AFAR, Gay Mag, and more. Find her work at kellymdawson.com.