Guest Post: The Unwritten Dress Code For Service Dogs at Graduation

 

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Image Description: A golden retriever in a work harness wearing a graduation cap with a black and white tassel.

 

Graduation season is again upon us, which means students across the US and Canada are donning their graduation regalia and marching across the stage. It is also the time of year local news agencies around the country start reporting on the adorable service dogs that are also prancing along the stage with their handlers. If a local news agency is picking the story up, there’s a good chance the service dog was wearing a cap and gown as well.

With the current graduation style trend incorporating decorated hats, and other colorful accessories, it’s easy to brush this parallel trend under the umbrella of fashion and the euphoria of the day. However, there are differences between how abled-bodied students choose to express themselves, and how the handlers of these service dogs are treated.

People frequently anthropomorphize animals. Dogs do not seek personal gratification through earning honorary degrees, nor do they understand or care about public displays of adoration. Service dogs work because they enjoy it, because they get to hang out with their handlers all day, and because of perks like getting showered with love when they do a good job. Yet every year dogs across the country are given honorary degrees.

These degrees are handed out not for the sake of the student or their accompanying service animal, because it certainly does not reflect either the student’s academic prowess nor how the dog perceives affection. No, it is instead a phenomenal opportunity for universities to get showered with praise for being so welcoming to students with disabilities, and is free advertising. In effect, it is a publicity stunt intended to serve the needs of the higher education institution. Perhaps it also serves to get donations to the progressive school who supported their student with the service dog.

The scheme does little to showcase how accommodating schools are to their students with disabilities. No one is going to pat the university on the back and tell them how amazing they are for having their staff spend weeks before school is even in session sitting at a scanner working on making materials accessible for students. But you can bet someone is going to hand over a fistful of cash when they see an adorable dog on stage receiving an honorary degree.

With the amount of pressure being put on grads to put their service dogs miniature regalia, you would think that there was some kind of dress code we’re all unaware of. When I told staff that I was just going to put a few flowers and ribbon in the university colors on O’Hara’s harness, it was met with serious disappointment. Staff tried to convince me how adorable it would be to have her in a little outfit. Service dogs don’t exist to add an entertaining cute factor to university sponsored events—or any event. O’Hara’s role that night was to do what she does every day. To guide me safely around obstacles, and keep me safe. Given the extra distractions of a loud audience, unfamiliar environments, the stopping repeatedly, and other strange going-ons, O’Hara didn’t need to be worried about wearing a cap and gown when I needed her to worry about where the microphone cord was, and making sure I didn’t faceplant.

The graduation of service dog handlers from universities does not mean it’s open season for publicity stunts for those universities, or regalia companies, or anyone else. Service dogs are not an excuse to exploit them to increase the cute factor for entertainment, or for inspiration. Pressuring handlers into putting regalia on their dogs is not acceptable, and they don’t owe you the chance to see a charming dog all dressed up. In fact, the only thing handlers and their dogs owe to anyone, is respect for the other half of their service dog team. I happily chose to dress up O’Hara’s harness with ribbons and flowers. It was simple, understated, and did not disrupt her work. Nor did it play directly into hands of a publicity stunt. More importantly, it was an artistic expression of self, which was exactly what all the other students were doing with their own adornments. O’Hara did more than look pretty in regalia that day, she did her job with poise, and served me with all the dignity her training called for. That is something that cannot be represented in regalia.

 

Author bio:

Kit is a freelance writer and public speaker working toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in STEM fields. She currently runs Femme de Chem a source for science, disability, and geek news that is 100% accessible.

 

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I Bought a Pair of Nike’s Shoes for Disabled People, They’re Not Really that Accessible: A Review

When Nike released their heavily marketed shoes for disabled people in July of 2015, I was excited. All of the media (and there was a lot of media) proclaimed these shoes as being for disabled people. The thing was they really weren’t. At the time of their original release they were only available in men’s sizes 7 & up. This left out many women whose feet were to small (mine included). I wrote a post about it at the time, you can read it here. The shoes also didn’t come in children’s sizes. This meant that by and large the shoes were not for disabled people, they were for disabled men.

More recently Nike has expanded the line from the men’s basketball shoe to include men and women’s running shoes and children’s shoes. Selection unfortunately varies by country. In Canada where I am you can only buy medium width women’s running shoes while in the USA they also come in wide.

In Canada the selection of children’s shoes only includes basketball shoes while American children can also select running shoes.

The Canadian Nike website looks like this

Nike Flyease selection Canada

Image description: A screenshot of the Nike online store for Canada showing the selection of shoes with Flyease technology. There are five pairs of shoes. Link to website here.

The American website looks like this

American Flyease selection

Image description: A screen shot of the American Nike online store showing the selection of shoes with Flyease technology. There are ten pairs of shoes. Link to website here.

There are even some countries where the shoes aren’t available at all like Australia.

I’ve been needing a new pair of gym shoes and decided to give the Nike’s a try now that they’re available in my size. They are only available online so I had to order them. They arrived last Friday and I’ve been wearing them for the last few days to get a sense of them.

First, I’m going to discuss why accessible shoes are so important to me.

Given the fact that I only have the full use of my right hand and only very little dexterity in my left, tying shoes is a time consuming chore. It’s also a skill I didn’t develop until well after my peers. I was around ten years old when I was finally able to tie my shoes well consistently but it still takes me at leat three times as long as nondisabled people.

I spent most of my early childhood wearing shoes done up with velcro. Unfortunately, this was the nineties, long before vecro actually started being used in fashionable shoes as a result, they were generally only available in sizes for toddlers, small children and adults (designed for the elderly. There were definitely a few years when I had outgrown the available children’s options but did not fit into adult shoes.

Despite what confused people on the internet seem to think, not everyone is falling over themselves to help disabled people when we genuinely need it (see the comments where people just can’t understand why I refuse to agree that disabled people should have to ask for prepared produce in this post on peeled oranges). So I had to graduate to laces but couldn’t actually deal with them. My mother didn’t want to be constantly tying my shoes for me, so she tied them loosely so that I could slip them on and off without untying them (this was not ideal as they were not a secure fit).

I distinctly remember one summer, going to a family event for my dad’s work, where one of his coworkers thought it would be hilarious to untie my shoes, admittedly, I’m sure he assumed I could retie them but I couldn’t ans my mum, dad and siblings weren’t close by so I just started to cry because I couldn’t really go anywhere until someone retied them for me.

As a kid I would have loved shoes that were accessible and designed to be fashionable. They wouldn’t have so obviously set me apart by having to wear shoes done up with velcro long after all of my peers had graduated to laces.

But back to the Nikes. Here’s what they look like

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Image description: Front view of Nike’s Zoom Pegasus 32 Flyease running shoes. They are grey with magenta accents.

From the front, they appear like an average running shoe. The only hint that they might me different is that the laces are thin and have no visible way of adjusting them. This is because the laces are actually internally threaded through the shoes and are connected to the back zipper seen here

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Image description: rear view of the Nike Zoom Pegasus 32 shoes. The zipper closure id visible along the heel of the shoe while the strap is attached on the inner side of the shoe, it is attached to the lace string which is visible on either side of the zipper.

The shoes are unzipped to allow the foot to enter and exit from the heel.

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Image description: Back view of an unzipped Nike Zoom Pegasus 32

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Image description: Side view of an unzipped Nike Zoom Pegasus 32. The heel is visibly separated from the shoe to allow top and rear access.

The wearer can then slide their foot into the shoe, you have to have your foot shoved as far forward as possible and then the zipper can be pulled across and the zipper strap secured with velcro.

When I bought these shoes, my intention was to particularly look at how well these shoes work with various orthotic devices. I have an Ankle Foot Orthosis (AFO), a Bioness L300 and a basic custom insole to compensate for leg length discrepancy. I was going to check how well these shoes worked with each device and report back with pictures. The problem is that these shoes don’t accommodate any of them.

I first tried the shoes with just my lift

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Image description: a black custom made orthotic lift designed to compensate for leg length discrepancy.

After I had inserted the insole, I could barely get the shoe zipped up and the fit was so tight it hurt. I had to remove it. I suspect the shoes might work with a heel lift wedge, which is less invasive but I don’t have one at the moment and will have to find a supplier in Toronto.

I didn’t even bother trying the AFO because it takes up way more space in the shoe and I suspected trying might damage the zipper.

The heel sensor for A Bioness L300 isn’t as invasive as my lift (but I need to use the two things together). Even without the lift, the Bioness (you can read my thoughts on that product here) still isn’t compatible with these Nikes because the heel sensor has to be clipped to the inner side of the shoe.

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Image description: A blue shoe with the Bioness L300 sensor clipped in proper position over the ankle on the inner side of the shoe.

As you will recall, the Nikes zip to the inside and the zipper would get in the way of where the sensor needs to be clipped. Not only does the clip require significan dexterity in at least one hand to operate, it also include internal spikes to hold it firmly in place. It is difficult to remove which detracts from the needed accessibility of the shoe and repeated removals and replacements would likely damage the zipper of the Nikes.

So these shoes are really only useful for people who have no additional orthotic needs. I’m not sure if the wide version of the shoes would better accommodate a lift but i can’t find out as that version of the shoe isn’t available in Canada. The basketball shoe may also provide more space but it isn’t available in my size so I’m not sure.

Now on to the merits of the shoes themselves.

They can indeed be zipped up one handed, but that hand will need some strength and dexterity. The motion isn’t smooth and requires some maneuvering but definitely took me less time than tying laces.

I could however only zip them with my right hand. My left hand could neither negotiate the zipper or the velcro, so be aware of that before ordering. Some hand dexterity and strength is required to properly operate the zipper.

Due to my hemiplegia my left foot is significantly smaller than my right but the shoe still fit comfortably despite my buying the size for my right foot.

That being said, be aware that the tightness of the shoe can’t really be adjusted. As I mentioned above the top laces are attached to the zipper, so if you loosen the shoe, you won’t actually be able to zip it up. You can tighten then a bit but it’s finicky and requires dexterity. I find this to be a major design flaw. The shoes really need to have top laces that can be tightened or loosens independent of the zipper. Doing that might make them more usable with orthotics, though as long as they zip to the inner side, they won’t be compatible with anything like the Bioness.

Other thoughts

While there is an inner covering to protect the foot from the zipper, I highly recommend that people wear socks as the zipper is hard and may irritate your foot.

Conclusions

These shoes are best suited to people who either have the full use of one hand or only minor limited dexterity. They are also best suited to people who don’t use orthotics of any kind.

As with my original thoughts on the Nike accessible shoes back when they were only designed for men, I maintain my conclusion that the claim that these shoes are for disabled people generally is false. They will meet the needs of only a very small portion of the disabled population. I unfortunately can’t really see Nike trying to rectify that any time soon or ever as they are to heavily invested in “Hey we identified a problem for disabled people and we fixed it!” style advertising. They are unlikely to acknowledge that in order to make a more widely accessible shoe, much more work needs to be done.

It is clear that they considered the needs of an individual (see the video in my previous post for background on how the shoes came to be) and didn’t really consider that an individual’s needs are not representative of the scope of people they have now claimed to cater to.

For these shoes to be more accessible they would need to zip to the outside edge (so as to be compatible with a Bioness), they would need to be able to accommodate a variety of orthotics. The shoes also need a mechanism to independently manage the tightness of the shoes that isn’t attached to the zipper. This last one might actually rectify the orthotic situation, at least for insole type orthotics, though likely not an AFO.

Ultimately, I do think these shoes will be good for some people and I will be able to use them as gym shoes because, running and cycling don’t aggravate  issues caused by my leg length difference the way walking does but I won’t be able to use them for everyday use (unless I can get my hands on a heel wedge and it works, I’ll report back if I do).

The biggest issue isn’t even how limited the consumer base is with these shoes. They will definitely help some people. I would have loved them as a kid, back before I became an adult and my body was more forgiving of not wearing my corrective orthotics. Nothing is universally accessible and it’s unreasonable to expect a single thing to cater to all disability needs. The biggest issue is that in all the media, the shoe is presented as though it does fix all those problems. It’s the shoe for people with disabilities. Not the shoe for people with very specific needs because admitting that means that Nike admits to leaving people out.

The thing is we need to acknowledge that these shoes while a step in the right direction DO still leave people out and those people deserve to have their needs catered to. The first step in that direction is for people to express their needs and to have manufacturers acknowledge them and commit to working toward fixing them. The “Hey look we fixed it” mentality and overly inclusive language put out by Nike and happily parroted by the mainstream media are a major barrier in moving forward with further progress and it’s a barrier that needs to be knocked down.

 

Nike’s Shoe for Disabled People Doesn’t Include Disabled Women

A headline from People proclaims “Nike’s New Sneaker Will Solve a Very Important Problem for People with Disabilities“. Similar headlines can been found from USA Today, Huffington Post, Glamour, and so many more. Another key article title  comes from theshoegame.com it reads “Nike Designs Flyease to Improve the Quality of Life for Disabled Athletes“.

All of these articles are talking about Nike’s new FLYEASE technology which allows a person to put on a shoe by opening the heel and just sliding their foot in and closing the shoe around the heel. The new design removes the need for laces. So for those of us with hand dexterity issues, shoes using this technology are a breakthrough.

I have been seeing the articles about the shoes, Nike FLYEASE Zoom soldier 8 everywhere around the internet for the last few days including on blogs specifically devoted to disability issues.

Most of the press around the new shoes includes references to Nike’s mission statement which includes the line “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. Which is a great sentiment. Too bad it took Nike this long to include disabled people as a targeted market.

All of the run up marketing for the shoe’s release today has had a focus on all disabled people and includes this video from Nike explaining the inspiration for the shoe and why it’s important to include disabled people.

The video talks about both a Nike employee who had a stroke and a young man with cerebral palsy. Both of whom were instrumental in having Nike design the technology and having them bring it to market. The video is very clear about the wide ranging applications for shoes like this. Designer Tobie Hatfield says “it’s not just about stroke victims. It’s not just about cerebral palsy. It’s about all of it and thus the FLYEASE technology”

The language surrounding the technology and the shoes is so universal that you might believe it when they say disabled athletes or people with disabilities. I did.

I waited for today (the official product launch and googled Nike Zoom Soldier 8. I found them at Footlocker, they seem to be selling well as many sizes are already unavailable (or they just seriously understocked).

The problem, they are only available in the Men’s section. There is no corresponding design for women. So when they were talking about people with disabilities and disabled athletes. They really meant men with disabilities.

I thought that I must be mistaken so I searched for FLYEASE and women and got nothing. I went to shoe websites and searched new Nike arrivals for women and still no accessible shoe for women.

The product news announcement on Nike’s website doesn’t mention a separate launch for a women’s version of the shoes. Just a lot of talk of including disabled people even though women don’t seem to be included.

So if everyone with a body is an athlete. What about disabled women’s bodies? Do we get shoes too? Or was there some mistake and I just haven’t found them yet?

Seriously Nike, let me know.

Update:

I e-mailed Nike about this and their response so far boils down to “we’re looking into it”. If I get anything more concrete I’ll update again.

The Joy of Shoes that Fit: Fashion and Disability

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I have never owned a pair of truly pretty shoes. All of my shoe purchases are generally based on whether the shoe works with my various orthotics or if I’m going for a dressier shoe (because I have yet to find a pretty shoe that works with even the least invasive orthotic) will they stay on my feet. This has left me with runners for day to day and casual (almost exclusively black) Mary Janes for when I need to dress up.

I have been wearing some version of this type of shoe to every formal event for my entire life.

I have been wearing some version of this type of shoe to every formal event for my entire life.

Shoes are the stereotypical feminine obsession. Chickflicks are full of characters who either have copious amounts of shoes or are lusting after a particular pair of inaccessibly expensive pumps in the store window. Brands like Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Miu Miu and Gucci are commonly mentioned with reverence. While these fictitious portrayals often exaggerate reality, there is a very real social expectation that women will wear pretty shoes.

It is not at all uncommon to see women wearing heels or ballet flats for everyday activities. These shoes are either notoriously uncomfortable (heels) or provide little support for the foot (flats). Stylish shoes are not only meant to be worn to special events or occasions but are often expected in day to day life. Some employers expect their female employees to wear heels. Though there is push back against those expectations.

Shoes are a fashion statement and it is very common to see women going their entire day wearing ballet flats or heeled boots.

I can’t wear either.

Day to day I am either using either my AFO

My AFO

My AFO

Or if I don’t know how many stairs I will encounter a pair of shoes that can accommodate my custom orthotic that compensates for the difference in my leg lengths

I had to get D width shoes to accommodate my AFO despite my B width feet and the fact that I only use an AFO on my feft foot. When I am just using an orthotic lift, I can get shoes of the appropriate width but my left foot is significantly smaller than my right so no matter how I shoe shop I always have one foot that is swimming in to much space (I can’t afford t buy two pairs of shoes to accommodate the difference). With runners, it is generally possible to tighten the shoe sufficiently to make a single pair work.

When it comes to formal or just more dressy events I have to forgo orthotics for the duration if I don’t want to have clunky runners paired with my nice dress. I am ok with this as these events are not frequent. One day or a few hours without orthotics every month or so is manageable–I rebelled when my job at a department store required black dress shoes and wore black runners instead–but finding dress shoes that fit is its own kind of hell.

I can’t wear heels (I would end up breaking an ankle) and flats just fall off my smaller foot. So I have been stuck with Mary Janes (flat shoes with an ankle strap). Even then I run the risk of rubbing the ankle of my smaller foot raw if the strap isn’t snug enough. Add to that the fact that my smaller foot has for the last few years been swelling in hot weather and dressy shoes are just a recipe for pain and discomfort.

So when my sister asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding this summer, my main wardrobe concern was the shoes. Luckily she left the choice up to the individual rather than restricting style or colour which would have made shopping a nightmare. It’s hard enough finding serviceable shoes as it is without adding restrictions. Although being unemployed I was dependent on my mother to purchase the shoes for me (she is a notorious bargain hunter).

Ever since I discovered the online marketplace Etsy, I have been obsessed, though generally from afar. I was particularly interested in the shoe makers who offered custom fit shoes. They have always been well out of my price range but I coveted them.

For the auspicious occasion of her daughter’s wedding and my role as bridesmaid, my mother (with much trepidation) agreed to buy me a pair. I selected a cute pair of oxfords. They are dressy enough for the occasion and cover enough of my foot so that the leather won’t dig in if my foot starts to swell at my sister’s outdoor wedding.

I sent them my foot measurements and e-mailed them scans of my feet so that they could tailor the shoes to my individual feet.

Just over a month later after a minor postal hiccup (the delivery person tried to deliver the shoes to a house across the street), they arrived and they are amazing.

Shoes as they appeared in the box

Shoes as they appeared in the box

Shoes with sole visible

Shoes with sole visible

For the first time in my 28 years, I have a pair of shoes that fit me perfectly (you can’t see the size difference in the photos. They are also the prettiest shoes I have ever owned.

me wearing the shoes

me wearing the shoes

I can’t fully explain how good it feels to finally have a pair of pretty shoes that match my personal style, rather than a pair that fits poorly and only barely qualifies as a dress shoe.

These will be my go to shoes for formal events, job interviews or whenever runners just won’t do until they fall apart (which I imagine won’t be for a while because they are really well made) or the shoe industry clues in that disabled people want pretty shoes too and that maybe, they should start catering to our needs instead of making us constantly make do with what little is available to us.

Fashion and Disability: Why are Adapted Bras so Hideous?

My relationship to fashion is a rocky one. Mostly due being autistic. As a kid I was extremely sensitive to the texture of clothing. If I wore something that was even slightly uncomfortable, I would get so stressed out that I felt like I was physically turning inside out. Consequently, buying me clothes was a major pain for my mother. We would have to go to multiple stores just to find a single outfit. An outfit I may only wear once because its texture and feel might change after it was washed.

Did I mention that I wasn’t diagnosed on the autism spectrum until I was 18? So my mother just thought I was being unnecessarily difficult. I got a lot of lectures about clothes and how frustrated she was about my behaviour towards my wardrobe. Add to that my hemiplegic cerebral palsy which left me unable to tie my shoes until I was nine and difficulty with zippers that lasted well into my teens.

Consequently I was a very unfashionable child. It wasn’t that I was unaware of fashion, I simply had to be completely ambivalent to it in order to be comfortable enough to function. I wore a lot of oversize t-shirts and pants with elasticized waists. Any article of clothing that was even remotely restrictive was impossible. I never wore denim or anything lacking in stretch. Basically, I wore a lot of track suits of the 80s variety.

track suit

I had so many of these. This became an issue at my Christian Preparatory High School where track suits were considered unprofessional and were against the dress code. I had about 5 outfits that were comfortable that barely passed dress code muster that I just constantly recycled. I have a much more diverse wardrobe now. I’m not sure if I have better coping skills or if they just put lycra and spandex in everything now, rendering clothing generally more comfortable (I also love the trend of tagless shirts, whoever came up with those is a genius who should be sainted). One article of clothing I continue to have difficulty with however are bras. Bras cause difficulties for both my disabilities. I lack the necessary hand dexterity to actually put them on properly. Whoever invented the hook and eye system most commonly used as a bra fastening probably never has to use it and certainly didn’t have to use it one handed. I have also found that I find bra clasps against my skin to be extremely uncomfortable to the point that it impacts my ability to function socially. Yet there are so few alternatives for people with either hypersensitivity or limited dexterity. While adaptive bras so exist, they were absolutely not designed with fashion consciousness in mind. Silvert‘s has a small selection that include these,

silvert bra

silverts 2

Those two bras are pretty representative of what is marketed as adaptive bras. You can find similar products from other adaptive clothing retailers.

They are not the sort of bra that can be worn under a low cut top or even a tank top. They are also in no concievable way sexy. Pretty bras it seems are the sole domain of people with more dexterity than I have. It also just reinforces the idea that disabled people should not be sexy. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely possible to make a pretty (or at least more fashionable) accessible bra without resorting to frumpy. The problem is very few companies do. A while ago I was fortunate enough to find the Bonds Pull Over Bra (pictured below)

BONDS-Pull-Over-Bra

I bought three. They offer good support, have adjustable straps and look pretty much exactly like a normal bra you would find in a store. They also don’t have clasps of any kind so are easy to get on and are comfortable. They have also been discontinued and are no longer available. I’m not sure why, the Bond’s website was full of rave reviews for the product. So while you can’t get them anymore they do prove you can make a supportive pullover bra. I wish they would bring it back and that other lingerie retailers would start making similar products in different styles. Most other pullover styles are bralettes which have very little support. They worked okay for me in my younger days but I find I now need something a little sturdier. I am also finding that on an increasing basis even bralettes have back clasps.

Free People bralette

Free People bralette

While I wish mainstream retailers would make the effort to include accessible bras in their lines, because who doesn’t want easy comfortable bras. It’s not like they’re something that is worn all day everyday… oh wait.

So they would have consumer appeal outside the disability community. I also find it disappointing that clothing brands that are specifically marketing adaptive clothing seem to care so little for esthetic (it’s not just the bras believe me). As I have grown further away from my track suit wearing youth, I find myself less able and less willing to force myself into ambivalence about what I wear because there is so little created with people like me in mind. I no longer accept the visible otherness that being unable to wear trendy clothing or at least wearing the same few things repeatedly creates. I like to express myself through what I wear and I find it galling that I am limited now in what is considered an essential clothing item.

If anyone knows of some comfortable accessible bras that my hours of trawling google haven’t found, please share in the comments.