Why companies shouldn’t label clothes ‘adaptive’

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Clothing for people with disabilities is a growing market in the US, but companies need to consider the language they use when marketing it, a new study shows.

Retailers and brands such as Kohl’s, Nike, Target, Tommy Hilfiger, and Zappos have recently launched adaptive apparel lines, and economists predict that the US adaptive clothing market could grow to $54.8 billion by 2023.

But the term “adaptive” can make the apparel seem separate from the general market, researchers say.

“Terms such as ‘adaptive apparel’ are popular with companies,” says Kerri McBee Black, instructor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri. “However, calling an item of clothing adaptive can alienate and exclude people living with disabilities. Like all consumers, this population wants to feel embraced by a brand, not excluded as someone different.”

For the study in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, McBee Black and coauthor Jung Ha Brookshire surveyed how four terms—adaptive apparel, functional apparel, universal design, and inclusive design—were used in apparel research and in the marketplace.

They found that some consumers with disabilities interpreted the term “adaptive” as apparel that focuses on their disability and not on their apparel needs and wants.

They also found that while “adaptive apparel” was the term most commonly used in the marketplace, “universal design” and “inclusive design” were rarely used, although these are terms seen as less stigmatizing to people with disabilities.

“Adaptive is the popular terminology but very noninclusive of the disabled community,” McBee Black says. “Perhaps the adaptiveness of the products should be communicated using a more inclusive tone.

“This would allow consumers to see adaptive apparel as useful for anyone and not just apparel designed for wheelchair users. Using inclusive descriptors within marketing and communications strategies benefits all consumers, including those with disabilities.”

McBee Black says she hopes her research on apparel and people living with disabilities will bring about change for consumers, brands, educators, and even policymakers.

“Currently, the Americans with Disabilities Act focuses primarily on the built-environment,” McBee Black says. “Including language about inclusive or universally designed products used in everyday life, like apparel, could help remove the barriers to social participation, including workforce participation that many people living with disabilities face. It also might drive apparel brands to consider a more inclusive approach in their designs.”

The researchers suggest that apparel brands need to invest time into understanding how the words used to describe the apparel they are marketing affects consumers with disabilities.

Source: University of Missouri