Making space

10 Sep 2021

This week: How retail can do better for neurodiverse and disabled people.

creatures of comfort


Q: Down to make the world a more inclusive place? A: Always.

Consider this: over one billion people around the globe live with some kind of disability.

• If you want to drill down on the numbers, that’s 26% of Americans, and 1 in 5 people in the UK. That’s 15%... of the entire human population. 75% of people with disabilities in England have experienced being unable to complete in-person or online purchases. “If one does not design for accessibility, it is as if you’re telling every fourth person that comes through your door that you don’t want their business,” said Keely Cat-Wells, founder of disabled talent agency C Talent. “Disabled people constitute the largest minority group in the world, yet are the most underserved and underrepresented”. There is so much retail can, and needs to, do to address that.

• The in-store experience would be a good place to start. “The problem is that experiential retail is the new post-lockdown trend and it often deliberately seeks to cultivate and step up multi-sensory design, particularly if targeting Gen Z shoppers,” reported Vogue Business. 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent, meaning they are more prone to feeling stressed out and anxious when experiencing sensory overload.

• In their latest newsletter, Courier wondered if “store owners should be focusing on… a store of the future that’s less futuristic and, instead, a lot more inclusive”. Post-pandemic, disabled people are even less comfortable shopping in-store. In terms of accessible spaces, indies unfortunately lag behind major chains. “Sadly, the independents are often the biggest disappointments,” said Will Pike, a disability consultant. “‘Inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ have become such buzzwords, but disability still feels like it’s at the bottom of the list”.

The barriers aren’t just physical, either. Algorithms, mistakenly identifying products for disabled people, have blocked ads from small businesses on platforms like Instagram.


Okay, so we’ve (barely) scratched the surface of the challenges faced by disabled and neurodivergent shoppers.

What are retailers, brands and entrepreneurs doing about it?

• The adaptive clothing market is expected to hit $1 billion this year. Part of that progress is due to innovations by designers who are disabled, or have family members living with disabilities. “Adaptive design is a basic human right,” said Maura Horton, founder of Juniper, which aims to be the Asos of disability-friendly clothing. “I like to think of adaptive fashion as being similar to plus-size fashion or extended sizing a decade ago,” said Meredith Wells, co-founder of Social Surge, a DTC fashion brand. “Clothing is supposed to make you feel good in your body, I want people to feel that,” said Sky Cubacub, founder of Rebirth Garments.

• “Autistic thinkers are catalysts for innovation, as are all kinds of neurodiverse talent. We can offer insights and turn things around in ways that neurotypical people would have never been able to imagine because we view the world differently. This is a gift waiting to be opened,” said British fashion designer Reuben Selby, who recently spoke with Forbes about being a founder with autism. He’s far from alone. There are “legions” of SMEs run by disabled and neurominority creatives and entrepreneurs.

• People with disabilities often go unseen, though. They appear in only 0.06% of British advertising, and 1% of U.S. primetime TV commercials. There have been some marketing hits, but more misses. “Disabled communities almost exclusively make it into the media when their extraordinary talents are on show… the disabled person as Super Cripple,” wrote Professor Colin Barnes, founder of the Centre for Disability Studies. “When brands from a broader range of industries are more inclusive of disabilities in their creative, they help balance the narrative,” noted a recent Nielsen study. Instagram, for all its ills, has been a powerful platform for representation. “Social media became a tool through which people with disabilities could finally control the way they were being seen,” wrote Madison Lawson, Editor of

“We cannot consider disability representation without looking at representation of all differences, especially since disability occurs among all ethnic groups, gender identities, and age groups,” wrote Xian Horn, a beauty advocate and self-described positivity activist, in an op-ed piece for Allure.

“[It’s] important to represent a fully diverse range of disabilities. The general public otherwise remains ignorant to the vast spectrum of disability, whether visible or invisible”.

So if you don’t know, now you know.

Words by Amy Tai, creative consultant and native New Yorker now based in London.