How Dress Codes Interfere With Workplace Accessibility

The social model of disability takes a radically different approach than the medical model, under which bodies can be considered "insufficient" or "broken." Rather, the social model sees disability as something society creates. People do not need to be fixed, but the way we organize the world does.

One new study from the University of Missouri shows how starkly able-bodied and neurotypical bias can erase people with disabilities. Nearly one-third of Americans with disabilities live in poverty. Access to work doesn't just mean ramps for wheelchairs or allowances for a service animal. According to researcher Kerri McBee-Black, the simple lack of presentable clothing for disabled people presents a huge barrier to employment.

"Consumers want clothing that expresses their sense of style," she said in a press release. "They want clothing that makes them feel confident. Unfortunately, the apparel industry has yet to sufficiently meet the demand for this population."

McBee-Black reported that lack of adaptive clothing can depress self-confidence and even keep qualified candidates from applying, out of fear they can't meet the office dress code standard. Numerous studies have shown that increasing employee diversity makes companies more innovative and more productive. (As a New York Times opinion piece this week puts it, "We Are the Original Lifehackers.") Disability should be a focus of diversity initiatives, just as with gender identity or race.

If you're in a position to advocate for positive change in your office, review your policies to figure out how you can improve accessibility for all workers, including dress code policies. And if you're looking for great adaptive apparel for adults, you know how difficult to find and expensive it can be. One bit of good news? Marketers are already exploring this "untapped" avenue. It's not the full fix by a long shot, but it's a step in the right direction.