Empowering People With Disabilities to Dress With Confidence [With Audio Description]

[With Audio Description]

According to the CDC, one in four adults in the U.S. live with a disability, yet models with disabilities rarely appear on the pages of magazines and high fashion campaigns.< />

Tetiana Anderson is joined by disability fashion stylist Stephanie Thomas, who strives to bridge the gap between the fashion industry and people with disabilities, ultimately changing negative perceptions of the larger community.

Posted on:

September 27, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Stephanie Thomas is the founder and CEO of an L.A.-based disability-fashion consultancy. It works to empower people with disabilities to dress with confidence, dignity, and self-reliance. As a congenital amputee with a passion for accessibility, Stephanie strives to bridge the gap between the fashion industry and people with disabilities, ultimately changing negative perceptions of the larger community. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. For more than 20 years, Stephanie has researched clothing and retail trends exclusively for people with disabilities. And today she's known as the go-to stylist for disabled actors and influencers in Hollywood. Stephanie joins me today. Stephanie, thank you so much for being here.

Thomas: Oh, thank you for having me.

Anderson: So, this is quite a niche you've carved out for yourself. How did you get here? I mean, what really inspired you and your drive to integrate fashion and disability?

Thomas: Yeah, well, after talking to anyone that I could talk to about disability, and learning from occupational therapists, medical professionals, learning a little bit more about what their challenges are with the ADLs and helping people with their activities of daily living, I developed a disability fashion styling system which is now award-winning. My disability fashion styling system makes sure that people can dress in a way where it's easy to put on their clothes, making sure that they're medically safe when they put on their clothes, and also making sure that they love what they put on. And like you said at the intro, it started for us at Cur8able Consultancy two decades ago. And it's just been a wonderful journey of learning and creating change.

Anderson: So, why do you think that fashion for people with disabilities has been such an afterthought? I mean, how much of this is really a missed business opportunity up until now?

Thomas: Well, as far as the missed business opportunity, as reported by the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people now live with a disability. And those are only the people that are reported. And the idea of the fashion industry -- really, the system of the fashion industry is a social construct, right? So anything that is constructed can be deconstructed. And that's what needs to happen, because right now the fashion industry is a microcosm of society. Society is predominantly ableist, not because people are horrible, but because of how disability is presented to society. And so that's why it's a missed opportunity.

Anderson: You are actually styling some pretty big names. Who are we talking about, and how do you feel that you've really created visibility for your clients?

Thomas: Well, there are clients that I work with in entertainment that are not actors. And what I've done for them is, I'm very proud of the fact that several of them have now gone from being on Social Security and not being able to earn more than $2,000 without owing Social Security and being able to really help them move their lives forward. And I'm also proud of the work that I've done for Lauren Spencer, who is on "Sex Lives of College Girls," and also Katy Sullivan, who was just recently nominated for a Tony. Katy has prosthetic legs and feet, and Lauren uses an electric wheelchair. And oftentimes, when people see them coming, it's easy to get lost in the assistive technology or in the prosthetics and not necessarily give them an opportunity as you would any other actor. And so that's why I do the work that I do with them.

Anderson: You've talked about this idea of seeing yourself as what you've called an undercover agent. That piqued my curiosity. Explain that for us and how others' perceptions of you really make you the perfect person, as you've said, to ignite this conversation about fashion and accessibility.

Thomas: Yeah, that's a -- that's a good question. I thought of that a few years ago when I found that I would be in rooms and people would have conversations about disabilities as if I wasn't part of the community. And it's kind of good because I really got to see what people -- I really got to hear what people thought about disability. And most of what I learned as an "undercover" agent of sorts is that people are mostly afraid. When they see other people with disabilities, a lot of what I heard was, "Oh, man, I hope that's never me," "Oh, I'm glad that's not me," or "I feel sorry for them," which doesn't mean that people are inherently evil. It just means we've done a bad job, as a society, on educating people about how not to be ableist. Because if anyone has ever been injured and had to use a wheelchair or have a brace on, they know that sometimes, when you're in a wheelchair temporarily, sometimes people don't even look at you anymore. They talk to the people that are with you, as opposed to talking to you. When you have a brace, when you have some type of assistive technology, people are annoyed when you take too long to cross the street. It's a whole nother world. And that's what we work to do. That's what I work to do. That's part of our mission at Cur8able, to close that chasm between nondisabled and disabled, so that people can live lives without feeling like second-class citizens.

Anderson: And speaking of mission, you've already had such a great impact. I'm wondering where you do take your mission from here.

Thomas: Well, really, education comes through interaction. So we're really focused on that -- using technology to help create prompts. And we're really looking at AI, because we think that there's some really great opportunities to pour my brain into an algorithm of sorts and help businesses curate what they have, move away from adaptive fashion totally and more into human-centered fashion. And with regards to the community, we are working to create the content that we want to see, because no one tells our stories better than we do.

Anderson: Stephanie Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.

Thomas: Yeah, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers for watching, as well. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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