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10 months ago
An exhibition in New York shows how fashion, shoes and accessories can empower the...

Fashion photographer Jerris Madison thought his titanium rod leg spelled the end of his glamour days when doctors amputated his leg four years ago in a battle with bone cancer. But in 2016, designers Alleles, a small Canadian company, spotted a photo of him wearing his prosthetic on Instagram and sent him their latest product to try out: one of their dazzling, colourful array of prosthetic covers.

“When I opened the box, I felt like it was Christmas,” said the 45-year-old, Los Angeles-based Madison. “Having that leg cover really boosted my self-esteem,” he said. Walking around in just a bare titanium rod used to make him feel self-conscious. “People would stare and know I was an amputee. Now, they look at me as a walking piece of art.”

Madison isn’t the only person with a disability who has seen their daily life improve thanks to a growing market of products designed to make things easier, but also look chic and stylish at the same time. From now until September, an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York is showcasing some of these new products, from the low- to the high-tech.

A companion pet dog which is part of the Access+Ability exhibit. The robotic pet can be therapeutic for people with conditions such as dementia and autism. (AFP)

“In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of new design, very functional and aesthetically desirable products for people with disabilities,” says Cara McCarty, curator of the exhibition. Besides the tattooed-style covers made by Alleles, which start at $375, the exhibition shows Nike “FlyEase” sneakers, first made for a student with cerebral palsy, with a wraparound zipper and adjustable strap to make getting them on and off easier.

There is also a walking stick, made in the colour of your choice, which can be propped up easily against a wall without falling over, on sale for around $100.

A MagnaReady magnetic shirt designed with magnets under the buttons to aid people with limited dexterity. (AFP)

For everyone

A hearing aid looks like a giant earring. A bracelet connected to a smart-phone GPS app which guides the blind and tracks obstacles above the knee. Another item is a jacket, included in a new clothing line for disabled children carried by Target, that comes apart at both sides making for easy wear.

The key to success for lots of these products, says Caroline Baumann, director of the museum, is that they are so practical. When Target designers conceived of the jacket “they were thinking about the child on the autism spectrum that might have difficulty putting on their jacket, but what they are finding is that people of all abilities are buying that jacket,” she said.

Bedazzled and bejewelled earring aids. (AFP)

“I would love that jacket for my three-year-old because its a fight every morning to put him in his parka,” Baumann laughed. Keith Kirkland, a former designer at Calvin Klein who co-conceived the vibrating GPS “Wayband” bracelet, agrees. If the bracelet was tested on the blind, the idea in launching it for sale later this year, is that anyone can pick it up to figure out which way to go.

More cross-board appeal also means products can be more affordable. “A lot of times the reason the product is so expensive is because you have to amortize that cost over a much smaller market,” Kirkland said.

Prosthetic leg covers on display. (AFP)

Breaking down stigma

Designers are also eying an aging population, which bring their own disabilities, as another source for market expansion. “One out of three people from the age of 62 has some kind of visual impairment and that ageing population is supposed to double by 2060,” says Kirkland.

Matt Kroeker, whose small Canadian firm Top & Derby created the non-falling walking stick, says the idea is to create products that aren’t simply practical but which people enjoy using. “It’s just like glasses who were utilitarian until the late ‘40s and became more fashionable after that,” said the entrepreneur, who has also designed a range of compression socks in more exciting colours than the usual black and brown.

A bunch of walking canes on display. (AFP)

But if these products are sexy, few are widely available in retail outlets. Most are sold solely online. “The biggest barrier right now is people want to buy these products but the companies responsible for distributing or selling to the end user are very apprehensive,” Kroeker explained.

“There is a mentality that people don’t really care about well-designed, thoughtfully-designed home healthcare products and we are trying to change that,” he said. Madison also hopes to help change attitudes by giving his prosthetic leg cover its own Instagram account.

“It is about breaking down that stigma, so you are no longer hiding a hearing aid or hiding a prosthetic leg. You are saying ‘I am more able with this tool that has been designed so well, and I am not embarrassed about it’,” says Baumann.

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