2021 was the year I became an ambulatory wheelchair user. I can walk, but I have not lost motor function of my legs—so, yes, you’ll see me standing from my chair to reach something at the store. My multiple illnesses made walking painful and caused extreme fatigue, so I got a chair. One third of all wheelchair users are ambulatory, meaning they may be able to walk in some circumstances, but they use a wheelchair as a mobility aid some or all of the time. It is simultaneously a huge deal and a non issue. My chair became my access to the outside world in weeks where my fatigue made walking more than a few meters impossible. It also made me more easily identifiable as disabled, which affirmed part of my identity, and also introduced me to much more ableism in everyday experiences.
I have always been into clothes, collecting vintage and small brands since I had access to an Asos account. Since becoming sick, I fell out of touch with dressing up, and only now am I finding new ways to wear old favorites. I've started shopping again for select pieces that work better sitting down instead of standing up.
Dressing as a wheelchair user is complex and individual to each person. It is interlinked with a person’s general mobility and dexterity: Can you open and close zippers or access buttons? This includes the accessibility of shops, too: How can I look for new items to purchase if the stores aren’t well laid out for chair use, and the disabled dressing rooms are used as extra storage? Shopping online is most often the easiest. However, it is nearly impossible to find mainstream brands that have wheelchair users as models, so it is luck of the draw on how a new item will look once it arrives.
There are things I wish I knew before I got a chair, both practically and style wise. After 365 days of experimenting (with many weeks spent unwell in between), I have settled on a few rules that are helping me get dressed in my chair when I do leave the house.
Don't dress down just because you're lower to the ground
I thought it was better to wear muted colors and less makeup when I went out in my chair, for fear people thought I wasn't "sick enough" to be using one. I realized people stare whether or not i'm in my Burberry trench and red lipstick or last nights PJs so I might as well go with what I want. Bright colors have always made me feel like me, so this year I bought a couple of statement knits that are super soft, and also go with my neutral bottoms like a slip skirt or wool trousers. Shoes matter less to me now I spend less time walking, but I was an avid sneaker collector when I was younger, so I can’t pass up a new trainer style when it comes around. And the new dad trainers that are currently everywhere happen to be comfy, too.
Elasticated waistbands are all you need now
Something about sitting down permanently on a day out makes the button of your jeans dig into your stomach and an ache will start, like that one you get when your hair is in a tight ponytail for too long. Soft materials are vital when spending time seated in the chair—anything that rubs or causes friction can create pressure sores, which are extremely painful. I’m all about elasticated trousers now, and grateful they’re in mainstream style. To keep in line with rule number one of dressing up and not down, my favorite sweatsuit is a bright Crayola crayon green.
Short dresses over long—but not too short otherwise you'll chafe
I like my legs, even if they don't work as well as everyone else’s, but it's easy for your legs to get lost under the fabric of a midi or maxi dress. I prefer to keep dresses at calf length, or better yet, above the knee. In the winter I wear Uniqlo's heat tech leggings underneath to keep warm and make sure there’s enough fabric to cover my bum when I sit. During the warmer months, I usually wear cycling shorts under anything short for peace of mind and extra comfort when sitting.
Accessories are still important
Back to the things I thought I couldn’t do when I started using a chair: Carry cute handbags, wear my huge sunglasses collection, and anything involving animal print. It goes back to the idea of wanting to disappear in the chair; not wearing anything that draws looks in my direction because those looks are often filled with pity or disdain. Last summer I had a brief remission from fatigue and was able to go out with my girlfriends. Being in a larger group with my friends all dressed up, I felt safer and more able to act like the old me.
Although I said I love color, I think all black can make you feel unstoppable, too. My love for leopard print comes from my mum, and this hat draws some attention, but I like to think people are admiring it instead of thinking that disability and animal print don’t match.
Cropped on top
My torso is pretty long (like all six feet of me), but when seated it almost always shrinks. Cropped layers, like puffer coats or sweater, make for a much more flattering and comfortable look as they cut me in the right place without the material bunching around my waist. Jackets and coats cause me particular trouble. Now that I'm sitting still for long periods of time, I find myself getting even colder than before, but anything too bulky and I feel like I’ve become the Michelin Man. Again, my trusty heat tech thermals are below this outfit; they keep you warm without the added bulk.
If you’re looking for more disabled dressers, the #DisabledAndCute hashtag, created by Keah Brown, has a myriad of stylish people attempting to dispel the tired stereotypes of disabled people’s lives as sad and inconsequential. If you’re a fashion brand reading this, hire disabled designers and models who use wheelchairs. We want to know what our outfits will look like without doing any guess work on your website. Disabled people are here living lives that deserve good outfits.