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Tom Shakespeare

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Tom is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University. His non-fiction books include Genetics Politics: from Eugenics to Genome and The Sexual Politics of Disability.

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Putting the access into accessorize

5th January 2009

Among my visitors during the recent festivities was my dear pal Sara, sporting a rather fetching gold eyelid accessory. Since her recent brain surgery, the left side of her face has been paralysed, so in order to be able to blink she sticks a tiny weight to her left eyelid each morning. This is obviously all very annoying for her, but it made me quite excited.
Close-up of a hand on a wheelchair's wheel
In my experience, it’s almost unheard of for medical or disability paraphernalia to look so stylish. It’s true that I was offered a choice of colours for my manual wheelchair – I went with a fetching purple shade, since you ask - but my other new bits of kit, such as the shower chair, the ‘helping hand’ tool and my transfer board, all came in a choice of grey or, er, grey.

I know that people have started to think about disability and fashion. I’ve recently seen some new buildings where the access elements are a beautiful and inclusive element in the overall architecture. If, as I sincerely hope, the days of trackie pants and makeshift ramps are long behind us, then we also need to attend to the messages our aids and adaptations are sending. Most of this stuff gives out appallingly retrograde signals and is distinctly drab and clinical. More Trabant than Mary Quant. Not only is anything with the label 'disability equipment' attached about ten times the price you should normally expect to pay, but it’s also ugly and boring into the bargain. I think it’s outrageous, and Something Should Be Done About It.

But what, you ask? Here are some suggestions.
First, we need to take aids and adaptations out of the hands of Occupational Therapists, most of whom wouldn’t know style if it slapped them round the face. It would be good for the profession, who could get on with doing something interesting for disabled people, and it would be great for ensuring we got better stuff.

Second, we have to influence design schools to include access equipment in their curriculum. Would-be product designers need to understand that although we're disabled, we still have taste and we still have feelings. Plus we have big spending power, or at least the powers-that-be who spend a lot of money on our behalf do. Designers should be consulting us properly, and putting their imaginative talents to work on meeting our needs more stylishly.

Third, a national award should be introduced for the year’s most fetching piece of disability kit. We’ve had the Oscars, the Baftas and the Grammies - now it’s time for the Dippies. (That stands for Disabled People’s Innovative Equipment, but please don’t hesitate to come up with a better name.) We should get that nice Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen or the dashing bloke from Grand Designs to hand out the gongs.

Finally, in this day of reality TV, I imagine that nothing will really change until a programme format is devised. Given the number of makeover shows on the box, it can’t be beyond the wit of a television executive to come up with something. I suggest starting with Pimp My Ride, adding a dash of Britain’s Missing Top Model, and then checking whether Mik Scarlet has space in his diary. I quite like the idea of Pimp My Shower Chair for starters.

It’s quite simple, really. Assuming that this website is as influential as the editor assures me it is, I look forward to the day when rehabilitation supply catalogues have more rhinestones than Dollywood, more Nordic pine than IKEA, and more leather than Agent Provocateur. After all, we disabled people should be interested in the image that we put across, surely? We should have a choice in how we portray ourselves, whether that's through what we wear or what kit we use. We should be able to opt for the image we want – whether that's fashion victim, executive, retro, alternative or even Goth, if you must. Anything's better than ‘loser’, which is what most of our equipment says about us right now.

Of course, many disabled people are already pimping their own aids and adaptations. Many people adorn their wheelchairs and personalise all sorts of equipment in order to express their individuality and get away from the clinically dull. I learn from Sara that her eyelid weight originally came in flesh pink: it’s only gold because she painted it with nail varnish. Since I saw her, it has mutated into bronze and has now gained tiny nail art rhinestones.

My daughter’s stepfather is a cabinet maker, and when I needed a specialist piece of disability kit recently, he carved it out of a length of oak. It’s a beautiful object – varnished, elegantly curved, and very stylish. I could imagine it becoming an heirloom, turning up on some 22nd century equivalent of Antiques Roadshow.

Such quality and design should be the norm, not the exception, and it should be available to all disabled people. It would make us feel better about ourselves, and would probably win us more respect from the non-disabled world. Make it so, as they say on Star Trek.

Comments

  • 1. At 2:11pm on 07 Jan 2009, TraumaDoll wrote:

    "...even Goth, if you must..."

    Yes, I must. Why not?

    Is this, like the metal bar and the pain clinic alike, going to be another place where I don't *quite* fit in?

    ;P

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  • 2. At 6:00pm on 08 Jan 2009, banana_pancakes99 wrote:

    you say all your stuff looks clinical.....
    I in fact, experience the other extreme and find that my equipment comes in bright horrible babyish patterns suitable for a six year old (in their desperate attempt to make the whole thing seem fun) even though i am a teenager. I want to try my best not to draw attention to myself and frankly equipment doesn't help me. I also feel equipment is made unecesserily bulkly.......so yes we should start a revolution :)

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  • 3. At 11:55pm on 09 Jan 2009, hellsgranny wrote:

    A painting starts with a blank canvas, similar to dull disability aids.

    They become what you as the artist make them, I nearly chose a purple wheelchair, but decided it was not a good canvas to develp my own peculiar personality.
    Disability aids are like life, and Life is What You Make It.

    cheers hellsgranny

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  • 4. At 00:50am on 10 Jan 2009, comprogro wrote:

    If you want to break out, break out. My tricycle is Kermit Green - a real eye-catcher.

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  • 5. At 02:14am on 10 Jan 2009, wartyferret wrote:

    i hate grey. I was recently lucky enough to be able to buy a 4wheeled walking frame with seat in a nice metallic blue. Made in UsA and much more suitable for me that the Red one with stuck up in the air handles. Not much cop when you have an arm 6" shorter than the other.However I'd like a purple quad stick with the small base but no luck anywhere.

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  • 6. At 4:05pm on 11 Jan 2009, Debbie wrote:

    I agree with the concept (but in defense of OTs, I know some who do really think about style/appearance as well as functionality).

    A student of mine and his friends did a little YouTube video on this topic a year or so ago, just a spoof and youthful but cute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpLT4z3Y_dM&feature=channel_page
    They love viewers!

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  • 7. At 2:47pm on 12 Jan 2009, Bernard wrote:

    So...who wants to come to my shop and buy nice things? Beige is banned and puce is purged and grey has gone away.

    Now, what can I get you?

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  • 8. At 4:18pm on 13 Jan 2009, eLle-on-wheels wrote:

    This taps into one of the biggest banes of my life - after the totally disabling neuro illness, skin cancer and bad hair days!! i have written a lot on my own website about it - example here http://www.stilettowheels.co.uk/lifestyle/swlstylesept08.html

    BUT it just never changes...are there just not enough of us to make a difference or are we just less than averagely concerned about quality, style and being totally ripped off - too much else to think about, I guess...damn, I am just so superficial!?

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  • 9. At 4:28pm on 13 Jan 2009, eLle-on-wheels wrote:

    I so agree with this. It is one of the banes of my life - after the ghastly neuro illness, skin cancer and bad hair days!! I write regularly on my own website about it - example here: http://www.stilettowheels.co.uk/lifestyle/swlstylesept08.html

    Why is it so? Are there just not enough of us to be a significant market or do we just care less than most about style, quality and being totally ripped off - too much else to worry about, I guess...damn, I am just sooo superficial!?

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  • 10. At 5:32pm on 13 Jan 2009, Dizzel123 wrote:

    testing

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