Writing for Vogue in March last year, journalist and model Madison Lawson recounted her experience at New York Fashion Week. “At one point,” she wrote, “my personal assistant had to throw me over her shoulder and drag my chair up the steps behind her — not the entrance I had always dreamed of.” Madison was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, a condition which causes progressive muscle loss throughout the body. Her article is one of millions of accounts by Disabled people describing the frustrations of living in a world in which the Disabled community is overlooked, underrepresented, and underserved.
Nearly twelve months on from Madison’s article, and this year’s fashion week has just kicked off in London. While it may well be the most inclusive London Fashion Week yet, there is still a very long way to go. In the fashion sector and beyond, disability remains one of the most underdeveloped areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. At MBS, I spend much of my time talking to leaders about DE&I, and their hesitance to discuss disability is often palpable. While strategies to improve gender and ethnic diversity are frequently built into long-term business goals, policies around disability are either thin or non-existent.
Encouragingly, the fashion sector has a real opportunity to provoke change. One person who knows this to be true – and who has dedicated her professional life to ensuring the industry makes a positive mark on our world – is Sinéad Burke.
For many, Sinéad needs no introduction. As founder and CEO of Tilting the Lens, a consultancy that brings visibility to inaccessibility, Sinéad advises global brands including Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Starbucks on their move from awareness to action. She is also a member of Gucci’s Global Equity Board and ITV’s Cultural Advisory Council, part of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and a member of the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins’, Council of State.
Earlier this week, it was a real pleasure to catch up with Sinéad, and to hear what needs to be done to move the dial from one of the most authoritative voices on DE&I in the UK.
As a starting point, Sinéad tells me, organisations should rethink their motivations for focusing on disability inclusion. “We have to think about this not as something that’s good to do – but as something that is essential for the future of the business. To make real and lasting progress, companies must recognise that embracing the Disabled community is completely vital to sustainable business growth.”
“We have to think about this not as something that’s good to do – but as something that is essential for the future of the business. To make real and lasting progress, companies must recognise that embracing the Disabled community is completely vital to sustainable business growth.”
This commercial imperative plays out in a few ways.
First, through talent. Prioritising disability inclusion significantly widens the available talent pool, giving businesses choice of the very best people to bring into their organisations. Beyond the Disabled community, companies that establish themselves as purposeful will be more attractive to future generations, who want to be part of businesses that are rooted in societal change. Disability inclusion also benefits existing employees: most of us will be Disabled in our lifetime, and if not, will have a lived experience of disability through our family and friends. Companies that can provide accessible spaces will also be more inclusive to temporarily Disabled people and our rapidly aging workforce.
Second, disability inclusion brings innovation. We know that having different lived experiences within organisations results in more imaginative decision-making, but, as Sinéad points out, Disabled people are innovative by design: “we live in a world that was not designed for us,” she explained to me, “so we are constantly problem solving – and we bring this creative mindset to work with us every day.”
I’m reminded of Moira’s interview with Sara Weller, an NED at BT Group who was diagnosed with MS in 2009. “In many ways, I feel as though I’m a better person at work than I was before,” she told Moira, “I’m more considerate of others, I listen better and I’m more committed to creating an inclusive environment where difference is seen as a strength.”
Third, there is a pressing business imperative. Around 15% of the global population have a disability, and it’s a community which spends $1.7tr every year. This figure only goes up when you include the spending power of Disabled people’s family and friends. Businesses which fail to cater for this demographic are making a serious commercial mistake (in the UK alone, businesses lose an estimated £2bn every month by ignoring the Disabled market).
Across the fashion landscape today, most organisations are focusing their efforts on this third pillar. As we will discuss in more detail in next week’s column, we’ve seen some small but promising shoots of progress when it comes to representation, visibility and choice for the Disabled community. In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger became the first major brand to launch a line designed for people with disabilities; in 2020, Gucci made Ellie Goldstein, a pioneer for models with Down’s Syndrome, the face of its Beauty campaign; and earlier this month the adaptive lingerie brand Intimately received funding from the British Fashion Council. Elsewhere, Channel 4 recently made history by bringing together a 100% Disabled presenting team for the Winter Paralympics.
But Sinéad insists that this isn’t enough. “The focus of the conversation needs to shift,” she tells me, “from discussing output and visibility metrics to working towards systemic long-term change. We need to embed principles of disability inclusion into the entire industry – not just our design rooms and marketing departments.”
“The focus of the conversation needs to shift from discussing output and visibility metrics to working towards systemic long-term change. We need to embed principles of disability inclusion into the entire industry – not just our design rooms and marketing departments.”
For this to happen, we agree, Disabled perspectives must be central to the decision-making table. In the fashion industry, change will happen in the boardroom, and product choice and visibility will follow. This is, of course, not a quick-fix: after decades of discrimination, the pool of board-level Disabled talent is small. “Therefore,” explains Sinéad, “the route to entry is normally at a more junior/ lower level.”
Part of the work Sinéad is doing at Tilting the Lens is advising organisations on how to make this route accessible for Disabled people – both literally and figuratively. As Madison’s Vogue article explores, physical accessibility remains a serious problem in the fashion sector. This is particularly consequential in retail. Most available roles in the fashion sector are in retail teams, and yet many luxury brands choose to house their stores in historic buildings with protected status. “If stores don’t have step-free access, or the back of house is inaccessible, and making adaptations like putting in a lift isn’t allowed due to a building’s protected status… then automatically a specific cohort of the Disabled community can’t apply for a role in that location. We need to bring in a minimum set of requirements to ensure the accessibility of retail spaces and company headquarters.”
For corporate roles, Sinéad calls for a complete rewriting of the hiring and onboarding process. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive, asking people at the earliest possible opportunity whether there are accommodations that can be made to encourage them into the company.” Minor adjustments like providing adjustable workstations and screens, better lighting, color-coded keyboards and screen reader software can often make all the difference.
There are countless further operational considerations – What does accessibility look like in the metaverse? How can businesses partner with schools to nurture future Disabled talent? Why aren’t adaptive practices yet being applied to mainstream product design? – but for Sinéad, efforts must be focused on a top-down approach to societal change.
One last word of advice to CEOs, board members and decision-makers? “Ask yourself ‘who’s not in the room?’ If we continue to question which perspectives are not being considered, and move from awareness to action, to build immediate and long-term strategies to bridge the gap, we’ll be sure that change occurs with as much intention and intersectionality as possible.”