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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.

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