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How Fashion, Shoes And Accessories Enable The Disabled

By Chidirim Ndeche 16 February 2018   |   3:11 pm

Fashion photographer Jerris Madison thought his titanium rod leg spelt the end of his glamour days when doctors amputated his leg four years ago in a battle with bone cancer.

In this photograph taken on February 13, 2018 shows Afghan amputees practice walking with their prosthetic legs at a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for war victims and the disabled in Kabul. Photo credit: AFP/ Shah Marai

But, in 2016, designers Alleles, a small Canadian company, spotted a photo of him wearing his prosthetic on Instagram and sent him their latest product for him to try out: one of their dazzling, colourful array of prosthetic covers.

“When I opened the box, I felt like it was Christmas,” 45-year-old, Los Angeles-based Madison told AFP. “Having that leg cover really boosted my self-esteem,” he said.

Walking around in just a bare titanium rod used to make him feel self-conscious. “People would stare and know I was an amputee. Now, they look at me as a walking piece of art.”

Madison isn’t the only person with a disability who has seen their daily life improve thanks to a growing market of products designed to make things easier, but also look chic and stylish at the same time.

From now until September an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York is showcasing some of these new products, from the low- to the high-tech.

A group of prosthetic leg covers are displayed as part of the Access+Ability exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum February 8, 2018 in New York. Phoyo credit: AFP / Don Emmert

“In the last few years there has been a proliferation of new design, very functional and aesthetically desirable products for people with all sort of disabilities,” says Cara McCarty, curator of the exhibition.

Besides the tattooed-style covers made by Alleles, which start at $375, the exhibition shows Nike “FlyEase” sneakers, first made for a student with cerebral palsy, with a wraparound zipper and adjustable strap to make getting them on and off easier.

There is also a walking stick, made in the colour of your choice, which can be propped up easily against a wall without falling over, on sale for around $100.

For everyone

A hearing aid looks like a giant earring. A bracelet connected to a smart-phone GPS app which guides the blind and tracks obstacles above the knee.

An Ora ring, Band ring and Nippu keychain are displayed as part of the Access+Ability exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum February 8, 2018 in New York. Vaartus is a three piece series of jewelry-like tools designed to assist individuals with limited dexterity. Photo credit: AFP / Don Emmert

Another item is a jacket, included in a new clothing line for disabled children carried by Target, that comes apart both sides making for easy wear.

The key to success for lots of these products, says Caroline Baumann, director of the museum, is that they are so practical.

When Target designers conceived of the jacket “they were thinking about the child on the autism spectrum that might have difficulty putting on their jacket, but what they are finding is that people of all abilities are buying that jacket,” she told AFP.

“I would love that jacket for my three-year-old because its a fight every morning to put him in his parka,” Baumann laughed.

Keith Kirkland, a former designer at Calvin Klein who co-conceived the vibrating GPS “Wayband” bracelet, agrees.

If the bracelet was tested on the blind, the idea in launching it for sale later this year is that “anyone” can pick it up “to figure out which way to go.”

More cross-board appeal also means products can be more affordable.

“A lot of times the reason the product is so expensive is because you have to amortize that cost over a much smaller market,” Kirkland said.

A Superflex Aura Power Suit is displayed as part of the Access+Ability exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum February 8, 2018 in New York. Photo credit: AFP / Don Emmert

Breaking down stigma

Designers are also eying an ageing population, which bring their own disabilities, as another source for market expansion.

“One out of three people from the age of 62 has some kind of visual impairment and that ageing population is supposed to double by 2060,” says Kirkland.

Matt Kroeker, whose small Canadian firm Top & Derby created the non-falling walking stick, says the idea is to create products that aren’t simply practical but which people enjoy using.

“It’s just like glasses who were utilitarian until the late ’40s and became more fashionable after that,” said the entrepreneur, who has also designed a range of compression socks in more exciting colours than the usual black and brown.

But if these products are sexy, few are widely available in retail outlets. Most are sold solely online.

“The biggest barrier right now is people want to buy these products but the companies responsible for distributing or selling to the end user are very apprehensive,” Kroeker explained.

“There is a mentality that people don’t really care about well-designed, thoughtfully-designed home healthcare products and we are trying to change that,” he said.

Madison also hopes to help change attitudes by giving his prosthetic leg cover its own Instagram account.

“It is about breaking down that stigma, so you are no longer hiding a hearing aid or hiding a prosthetic leg. You are saying ‘I am more able with this tool that has been designed so well, and I am not embarrassed about it’,” says Baumann.

***AFP / Catherine Triomphe

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