Guest Post: Stacy on Style and Visibility for Women Who Use Wheelchairs

I’ve been following Stacy’s blog, stacyverb, for at least a year now, and am consistently impressed by her enviable sewing and jewelry-making skills, her bold use of fun prints, and her dazzling smile. She’s also a smart, curious, enthusiastic blogger with a true lust for life, and it really shows. She’s a joy to read, I tell ya.

When reader L. wrote to me recently and asked if I’d post about style and visibility for women with mobility issues and other physical disabilities, I knew that Stacy could offer far more insight than I, and immediately hit her up for a guest post. Read on for her thoughts on her own sartorial challenges, and how she meets them.

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Hello, Already Pretty readers! Sally asked me to talk to you all about my experiences as a style-minded woman who uses a wheelchair.

Let me start by saying that all disabilities are different, and each person’s individual experience with the same disability is different. I don’t pretend to speak for all women with disabilities, or even all women in wheelchairs, but I do hope that some of my insights could be useful for many people, whether they use wheelchairs or not.

I was born with my disability (osteogenesis imperfecta), so for me, physical limitations have always been a part of my life, and they’re not something I spend a lot of time dwelling on. But for many people, especially those who have become disabled later through illness or accident, it’s only natural to focus at first on all the things your body can’t do anymore. Personal style can be a way back into thinking of your body as something other than a source of frustration. Regardless of when your disability became part of your life, maybe you spend a lot of time getting prodded, scanned, etc., by medical professionals. If so, sometimes you may feel like your body doesn’t even belong to you. But it does, and you get to decide how to adorn it.

For anyone with a disability who’s interested in experimenting with style, there aren’t exactly any rules or road maps to follow. It’s not like we see models and celebrities in wheelchairs rolling down the runway during fashion week or on the red carpet on Oscar night. This is basically uncharted territory, which means it can be disorienting – but also liberating!

When women in wheelchairs are deciding what to wear, a lot of the standard style advice simply doesn’t apply. For example: I’m short, but even if I dress in one solid color from head to toe as some experts would advise, my figure will never appear as one long, sleek, continuous line, because it’s not: I’m sitting down. My style line, such as it is, is always kind of folded at 90-degree angles. I might wear heels, but shoes will never make me taller: I’m sitting down. (Maybe you’re sensing a theme here.)

Personally, I do have some guidelines I go by, based on experience. I favor three-quarter length sleeves and avoid bracelets, because when I’m wheeling my chair, anything on my wrist will rub or bang against the wheels and end up getting ruined. But I can’t say that’s a broad rule for everyone who uses a wheelchair (for women with electric wheelchairs, for example, it’s probably not an issue). Everybody’s situation is different. Coming back to shoes, some people’s ankles don’t bend at the proper angle to wear anything besides flats. Others might feel free to wear super-high heels, knowing they don’t have to worry about whether or not they can walk in them!

As with much style advice, dressing a body that has physical limitations really comes down to accentuating the positive. Wear silhouettes that work for your shape, whatever it is. Depending on your physical situation, if you use a manual wheelchair or crutches, you might have great arms. Show them off! Tanks and halter neck tops can be your friends. Wear flattering colors. Play with clothes and find what makes you feel good, while still being practical for your disability. I love bold – even wacky – prints, so I take advantage of the fact that I’m not afraid of these things by wearing them a lot. It helps that I love to sew, because it’s easier to find crazy prints in fabric than it is in ready-made garments. I also make jewelry. A colorful necklace or unusual earrings can be a great way to draw attention to your face and away from other parts of your body that might make you feel self-conscious.

Ah yes, body image – how does using a wheelchair affect that? Again, it’s impossible for me to generalize. Maybe women with obvious disabilities struggle less with body image issues than other women because they have more pressing physical things to deal with. (If your legs can’t walk, some cellulite on your thighs probably isn’t your biggest concern.) Or maybe disabled women struggle more with body image, because their bodies are even farther from the “ideal” than the average woman’s is.

Like I said, this is mostly uncharted territory. It’s very rare to see people with visible disabilities in the media unless they’re talking about … their disabilities. (I’m doing it right now!) I don’t really have the opportunity to compare myself to other women like me because I just don’t see any. If we all had to “relate” to characters on TV shows, for example, I’d lose interest every time a character stood up and walked across a room, because I can’t relate to that. So I’m much more likely to look at someone’s outfit and think about parts of it that would or wouldn’t work for me, rather than comparing her body to mine. I already know our bodies are different – that’s just a given.

Women with obvious disabilities may be invisible in the culture at large, but that doesn’t mean we have to be invisible in real life. When it comes to matters of style, we shouldn’t make assumptions like, “No one is going to look at us anyway, so why bother?” But we also shouldn’t let self-consciousness get the best of us and make us worry that everyone is staring at us all the time. Why be afraid to take risks with fashion, of all things? If we try a look that doesn’t work, what will happen – will it cause physical pain? Will we need expensive medication or rehabilitation? Perspective is key. Our bodies have given us trouble, to be sure, but playing with style can be a way for them to let us have fun as well.

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34 Responses to “Guest Post: Stacy on Style and Visibility for Women Who Use Wheelchairs”

  1. Cynthia

    Stacy, excellent post! I’m going to be sharing this one.

    Now to take myself off to your blog to look around…… 🙂

  2. Carly Wilson

    Wow, awesome article!!

    I work in the disability sector and I just have forwarded this on to our head office! The people I work with have (often severe) intellectual disabilities and you can really tell how much their house or parents care about them based on what they are dressed in every day. Some are wearing sweat pants with food stains every day while others are dressed in beautiful flowing skirts with stunning jewelry.

  3. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Wonderful article, Stacy, thank you! You’ve given me much-needed perspective on fashion, and more, from a “sitting” point of view. I am going to read your blog right now!

  4. thetroubleis

    This is a great guest post, Stacy.

    I’m invisibly disabled and a service dog user, which isn’t the same situation, but you’ve given me some helpful starting points. I struggle a lot with balancing form with function, as a lot of the stuff I’d like to do style-wise isn’t practical with the way I work my dog, among other issues. Your mention of sleeves spoke to me for different reasons, but was still helpful.

    I just peeked at your etsy shop and your work is stunning.

  5. Paula Burckhard

    Dear Stacy, Thank you so much for this beautiful post. Can’t wait to read your blog! I have three children with Down syndrome and have always tried to dress them well. I am just turning the corner now and starting to take care of myself as well and am revamping my own style.

    I also teach an honors course at our local university called “Disability and Society”. May I share this with my students? My co-professor are trying to impart to our students that disability is a natural part of the human experience and that people who have disabilities do not have to be “fixed”….society and its barriers do need to be fixed!

    Brava to you! Blessings, Paula Burckhard

  6. Sandy

    Thank you very much for inviting Stacy to guest post. I already follow her blog, because she’s very stylish and creative. I’m pleased to see this topic front and center because people with disabilties are so often marginalized. Way to go!

  7. Debi

    Great guest post! I’ve been following your blog for some time and love all your sewing projects and your sense of style!!!

  8. LinB

    Hurray! Loved seeing this post. Body image is especially important to women and men who have been dealing with physical problems for most of their lives. One of my college friends (who had suffered spinal damage as a young teenager) was anxious that her shoes not appear brand-new — an immediate sign to any who met her that she could not walk. She lent her shoes to those of her friends who could wear them, and we wore them until the soles were sufficiently scuffed for her taste. Little things like that can give you such a sense of power over your life, power that may escape you in other areas.

    • Hazel

      It is strange, the things that start to matter to you when you can’t control them. I’m glad your friend was able to identify something that made her feel better, and that you were kind enough to help her out.

  9. Rebekah

    “Why be afraid to take risks with fashion, of all things?”

    Exactly! Great guest post, Stacy. That print skirt is fantastic in so many ways.

  10. Mary

    This is a great post! My mother had a spinal injury 5 years ago and has really started dressing more fun (granted it doesn’t hurt that I love sequins and neon)–she likes the comments and discussions it starts at her place of residence and she loves finally having all of the seasonal and holiday wear that she couldn’t necessarily afford before (I stalk Quacker Factory online sales for her).

  11. Beckee

    Thank you Stacy for sharing! You look fabulous in that print skirt! Great post.

  12. Toby Wollin

    For those who knit for women who are not built like everyone else or who have disabilities, the very best book I’ve found (it’s out of print but there are a lot of used ones out there) is “The Prolific Knitting Machine” by Catharine Cartwright-Jones. She literally works from the ground up in terms of designing knitted garments that meet the need, look great, and DEFINITELY would make the wearer not invisible.

  13. Amy

    What a fantastic post. And I’m so glad to see Stacy here — she is the reason I started following Already Pretty!!

  14. alice

    I really enjoyed your post and your perspective. A couple of days ago I saw a stunning stylish woman who happened to be in a wheelchair. That was the first time it struck me that most of the people I see in wheelchairs don’t bother with style (likely for a whole host of reasons, including having other things to worry about) but this woman really caught my eye and was the opposite of invisible.

  15. Clarice

    Thank you Stacy for a thought-provoking and absorbing post. I love the combination of colours in your outfit, with the top and necklace picking up the tones of the beautiful print in the skirt. Also, the cheeky dash of leopard-print on your arm-rests really made me smile.

  16. Eleanorjane

    Awesome post! Thanks so much Sally and Stacy!

    I started work in the disability sector a couple of years ago and I’ve found it so eye-opening to explore some of the issues that the able-bodied world just never thinks about!

  17. Amber

    I enjoyed reading this. I don’t have a physical disability, but I am facially deformed. Not the same thing, for sure, but it comes with some of the same broad thoughts on style and the challenge of trying to incorporate something that seems like it is for “other girls” into YOUR life.

    “Maybe women with obvious disabilities struggle less with body image issues than other women because they have more pressing physical things to deal with. (If your legs can’t walk, some cellulite on your thighs probably isn’t your biggest concern.) Or maybe disabled women struggle more with body image, because their bodies are even farther from the “ideal” than the average woman’s is.”

    I’ve tried to answer this for myself, and I can’t. I waffle from moment to moment and somehow balance both in this one imperfect body.

    When I’m above the struggle, I will look you straight in the eye and expect you hear to me when I speak and not zone out staring at my face. I will enter contests and not worry if the winner has to have their picture published somewhere. I will wear flowery dresses and fun shoes and funky necklaces, even though it all might seem like too much effort to you because it’s all obviously not enough to make me “normal.”

    Yet, I won’t get one of those funky, short haircuts I wish I could have, because it would draw attention to my face. I won’t even wear my hair in any way besides “down.” I won’t walk into certain clothing stores, because they aren’t for “girls like me,” and somehow I’m not good enough to be associated with those pieces of cloth hanging on those plastic hangers.

    So…is it possible to struggle less and more at the same time? Ha!

    (Hey, like the original blog post said–It’s uncharted territory. So who’s to say I’m going in the wrong direction, right? Right!?!? Wait…don’t answer that!)

  18. April

    Loved this. I am Mum to a 14 year old boy who is a wheelchair user. The female perspective has been so well articulated here, and has given me a new viewpoint.

  19. Regina

    Beautifully written! One of my friends in college was in a wheelchair. We all would get mad at her because she would wear the most beautiful, near impossible to walk-in shoes. You know the ones, I call them “sitting shoes” She would laugh at us and say, “Well, at least my shoes wont get all worn out and they’ll stay pretty!” And she rocked them. Her philosophy was, “well, just because I don’t use them doesn’t mean they can’t look pretty”. She is one of the most awesome people I know!

  20. melissa c

    As a wheelchair user who relies on a personal care staff to assist me with daily tasks, I realized I had to get rid of all my comfy, shlubby clothes when I found that my assistants kept dressing me in them against my preferences. Sure, they were easy to put on me, but they did not project a professional appearance!

    In fact, I try to dress more in a slightly more polished manner than most of my colleagues, so people are more likely to take me seriously as a professional. When I go clothes shopping, I am very mindful of necklines. Because most adults are taller than I am when I am seated in my chair, many shirts reveal more than I would prefer them to.

    For me, outerwear is my biggest challenge, because I am not able to put it on and take it off by myself. I have to find something that protects me from the elements, looks good when sitting down, and is easy for other people to help me with. And once I find something, it usually needs to be altered in some way, which is an additional expense.

    On a final note, I love Stacy’s sandals – I can’t wear anything strappy or with heels because I break them with my spasticity, but I admire shoes like that on others.

  21. Hen

    Nice article! I enjoyed your pictures in Me-Made June and Self-Stitched September.
    I think a personal style is very important for people with disabilities or visible chronical diseases, also because of they way they are seen and identified by others. You are not “the woman in the wheelchair” but you are “the woman with the fun prints who uses a wheelchair”. I also know a “woman in a YELLOW wheelchair” and a “man in a wheelchair who always wears a cowboy hat”.

    • LinB

      Agreed. A college friend who used a wheelchair always sported a “Mr. Rogers” cardigan. He had them in every color in the rainbow, and some in colors not found in nature. Kept him warm and comfortable, and you could always pick him out of a crowd. He also had a wardrobe of colored canvas lace-up shoes, which he sometimes coordinated with his sweaters. And on special occasions, he sported a bow-tie.

  22. Katja

    Another wheelchair user (and proponent of dressing well) here. I worked out my basic rules for choosing attractive, practical clothing some years ago (The Well-Dressed Wheeler), and have discovered that the rules are liberating – just like the woman who figures out what her body type is, and what cuts and shapes flatter her the most, I don’t have to waste time deciding not to buy something with a sleeve that drapes down over the hand, or trousers that don’t break properly over my shoes.

    I have recently had jeans custom-made for the first time (by Indi, more at Sometimes You Just Want a Pair of Jeans), and am looking forward to ordering more styles from them – I think this may open up a whole new area of casual dressing that I haven’t had.

  23. Stacy

    Thank you all for your wonderful feedback! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s perspectives. Thanks again, Sal, for inviting me to guest post!

  24. mar y hutson

    I just found your website and really enjoyed it. Since I have been in a wheelchair, I have found that I can wear the kind of clothes that I enjoy. I am tall with skinny legs and a round middle. Pants never fit, but now that I sit, I don’t have to worry about a really perfect fit. I have begin to wear a different style, and people have commented about it. I feel good about myself.On another note, I want people to feel comfortable around me, so none of the poor pitifull Pearl stuff for me.!