Designing for Disability

Three years ago, Liz Jackson, a thirty-three-year-old Harlem resident, noticed that her feet had begun doing something she describes as “plopping”: the front of her foot would hit the ground before her heel when she walked. In the beginning, it was subtle, a quirk she couldn’t reliably reproduce. One evening, about a month after the plopping first started, she and her partner were walking home from dinner when she noticed that it was happening with every step. They recorded a video to show Jackson’s parents and doctor. The following morning, when Jackson tried to get out of bed, she collapsed on the floor. After a visit to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with idiopathic neuropathy—nerve damage with no known cause. She learned that she would need eyeglasses to ease the frequent migraines that attend the damage and a cane to lean on for balance.

The cane soon became a source of self-consciousness. “My eyeglasses would get compliments,” she told me, “but my cane would get a funny tilt of the head from people, as if they were thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” For months, she was despondent. One thing that helped her recovery was finding a purple cane, while browsing online, to replace her drab, hospital-issued one. “I went from walking hunched down, wanting to hide, to actually being proud of it,” she said. Sometime afterward, she was shopping at J.Crew, her favorite store, and it occurred to her that her cane would look beautiful with the brand’s Kelly-green T-shirts. That led her to begin asking J.Crew, through e-mails, blog posts, and open letters published on Facebook and Twitter, if it would sell a fashionable cane—to broaden its customer reach and to help ease the stigma attached to assistive devices.

There are a few brands, such as Top & Derby and Sabi,* that design sleek, colorful canes with style in mind. And J.Crew has a history of working with smaller brands; over the past few years, it has collaborated with more than a hundred companies, on products ranging from jeans to notebooks to jewelry. (The retailer is barraged with packages from companies hoping to make the list.) J.Crew’s Web site currently lists dozens of such partnerships in its “In Good Company” section.

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