Kathy Bates

"Dear Santa, I can explain . . ."  – unknown

I refer to shopping as my second favorite sport. I love to find bargains. I usually don't buy a piece of clothing unless it matches at least 3 things in my closet. My husband used to say that my "brain worked like a computer" when I was in a store. I really love finding the perfect Christmas gift for my friends and family. However, shopping amid a pandemic has been vastly different this holiday season. There has been much less in-store shopping and much more online-purchasing. The way products are being marketed is also different. Companies are focusing on being more socially responsible to meet the needs of underserved and underrepresented communities. 

According to the American Institutes for Research (AIR), there are 22 million adults with disabilities of working age in the United States. This is on par with other minority groups. When you consider the disposable income of people with disabilities, their friends, family, and or caregivers, this is a spending force too big to ignore. The products, services, and experiences targeting people with disabilities should not be limited to this population if the goal is to be more inclusive. Advertising is key to developing an inclusive brand. Companies have been paying more attention to full representation of diversity. Aerie, a partner of American Eagle that sells intimate apparel, included women with disabilities modeling their product line. These models included a woman who's a wheelchair user and other women who have down syndrome, vitiligo, an ostomy bag, and an insulin pump. They were all beautiful.  

I love it when I see a model with a disability in an advertisement. If the focus is to be more inclusive, then businesses are better able to develop their brand and sell more if their models don't look so perfect an airbrushed, like regular people. The best part of this trend is that if one company starts a marketing campaign directed toward people with disabilities, others will soon follow. Shortly after Target came out with their "Universal Thread" adaptive denim jeans, Tommy Hilfiger came out with their own adaptive clothing line.

Fashion is one of the industries that I have seen the most significant changes to merchandise. Target, Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos, Uggs, and IZ, are all companies that cater to consumers with disabilities. Their adaptive clothing has features things like, hidden Velcro or magnetic closure, wider openings for ease of dressing, jeans with yoga pant waste bands, different cuts to accommodate the needs of wheelchair users, and hidden loops that also make dressing easier. These companies all stay true to their brand and you don't have to be disabled to be comfortable in their clothes because they look and feel like the rest of their products.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the toy aisle in Walmart. When I reached the Barbie section, it was a lot more diverse than in years past. I specifically wanted to check this out because I had read an article in Disability Scoop about the Barbie brand rolling out a more diverse collection of dolls, including dolls with different hair styles, skin colors, eye colors, body types, and disabilities. In fact, I noticed two dolls that were wheelchair users, one was African American, and one was white and there was also a doll with a removable prosthetic leg. This diversity also included Ken dolls who had varying skin colors and even a man bun. These dolls represent even more examples of diversity on the Barbie website.

My nephew probably couldn't get through his day without playing his video games, at least for a little while. Participants can communicate with each other from different houses, which has proven to be a necessity during the pandemic. Kids with motor differences have, up until recently, been left out of the video game craze, so they were missing out on a huge social connection that occurs when people participate in such a popular activity. Last year Microsoft came out with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. You can connect external devices such as switches, buttons, mounts, and joysticks to create a unique custom controller experience around the player's needs.

Understanding that the need for inclusivity extends to services, Starbucks opened the only American Sign Language (ASL) store in Washington, DC, located near Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing. Every barista employed there is fluent in ASL. The staff members emphasize that the store isn't about deaf versus hearing, which doesn't quite capture the community accurately rather they prefer signer or non-signer. Tables are low with a matte finish so people can see better to communicate. As one  barista pointed out, "it was wonderful to be trained for a job in the language I use…This store is one of the few places where hearing people can experience what it might be like for a deaf person to get through an everyday experience as common as ordering coffee with a language barrier.” The more diversity present in all levels of marketing, whether we are talking about customer or employee experiences, the more accepting of each other we will become.

From Where I Sit …

We are taking steps towards a future where disability is seen as just another form of diversity. It may be happening slowly, but it is happening. We need to do more though to create a welcoming, universally designed, inclusive community. Diversity has to be represented, recognized, and commonplace. Next time you are shopping or watching TV and see any kind of diversity represented in a positive way, point it out to someone. And, if you can, let someone in a leadership position know that you appreciate it. Remember, the best way to be included is to be visible and participate. Happy shopping and Happy Holidays.