By Tanya Dupagne
When I got a number of serious medical diagnoses all at once, I knew I was in for a challenge medically. However, I just wasn’t prepared for all the other little challenges that would soon become big challenges, including the clothes I wore.
I’d never been a fashionista pre-disability, but buying clothes was simple. I knew my sizes, and due to an intense hate for shopping, I’d duck into and out of the shop as quickly as possible. Now I was bedridden half my days. My cardiologist threw steroids into the mix to try and keep my heart rate and blood pressure at reasonable levels, which meant 20 additional kilos stacked on quickly.
My body became good at retaining fluid, and my weight varies by up to 10 kilos from one day to the next, delivering fluctuating sizes. My feet swelled, and were housed in two custom made ankle-foot orthoses (AFOs) which were big and bulky. I had an infusaport inserted into my chest so doctors could gain quick access in emergencies, and during my twice weekly regular infusions.
And if that wasn’t enough, I gained two more accessories, a large forearm walker and a metallic orange wheelchair. I alternate between the two mobility aids depending on the day. After my long dress got caught in my wheels during the first time I wore it, I realized that I needed to make further adjustments to my clothing.
My hunt for outfits and shoes started in earnest. My first searches were online, because that’s where all the adaptive clothing companies are. I discovered that adaptive clothing is expensive. My treatment had put me into financial struggles and my NDIS plan covered only two items of adaptive clothing each year.
I can’t wear button down shirts due to my lack of fine motor skills, so I looked at tops with magnetic clasps as an alternative. But then, I remembered that it was out of question as I have medical devices on both sides of my chest and the contact with magnets would affect their efficiency. I hit gold on the Iconic website, which had Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing on sale, and does regularly. I was able to get a couple of port accessible tops, which although not perfect, did the job ok.
Next, I hit the shopping centres. My first observation was many changing rooms weren’t built for people with disabilities. Either my mobility aids wouldn’t fit into them, or they didn’t have a bench so I could sit to control my heart rate while getting changed.
To my surprise, my favourite shops became “Best & Less” and “Kmart”, places I’d never really shopped before. They had bras that were easy to get on and off and long socks that provided a layer of protection between the braces and my skin. They had track pants and dressy black pants that had elastic waists to stretch on heavy fluid days, and no cuffs on the bottoms, which meant I could get them over my AFOs. Best of all, everything was cheap, so when my braces tore holes in them after a few months, I didn’t care. I started buying baggy clothing that could fit on me no matter what the day, but also so that on days when I couldn’t lift my arms properly, I could get them on and off.
Shoes were harder. After the salesperson at a well-known shoe store told me that “we don’t make shoes for people like you”, I found brilliant support at Athlete’s Foot, who were able to perfectly fit a pair of Podiatrist approved extra wide sneakers to my feet at a reasonable price. I eventually discovered a company called Gadeon, that design wide shoes that don’t look like something my grandmother would wear and that could pass with a dressy outfit for a night out. Best of all, I learnt if I bought them when they had a sale on, I could pick them up for $60 a pair, a much-needed bargain. Through much trial and error, I’ve now managed to find both clothes and shoes that make me look presentable.
What have I learnt through the journey? You need to shop around to find what works for you. Learn when the shops have their annual sales and buy when items are heavily discounted. Be aware that not all adaptive clothing is adaptable to every person, and know that you might need to chop and change a few times until you find something appropriate. I go shopping on good days, so that I’m not as worn out by the end, and I’m a lot more patient with the rest of the world and more equipped to deal with unexpected challenges on those days.
Most importantly, do you. For me, that involves lots of baggy clothes, elastic stretchy waist bands and good staple items like black pants which can be mixed and matched to change the look fast with a different top.
I’m not winning any prizes for fashion, but I figure as long as I’m happy and comfortable, that’s what matters!
Tanya Dupagne is a disability advocate with diverse lived experience, based in Western Australia and represented by Champion Health Agency. Tanya has won many awards for her work in social impact before becoming unwell, including AgriFutures Australian Rural Woman of the Year, Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence, Australian Associated Press Who’s Who of Australian Women, Power 30 Under 30 (Australasia) and is a Westpac Social Change Fellow and Churchill Fellow.