The IFDC has arrived to make inclusive design a thing of beauty

16 Sep 2016

Liz Jackson, president and founder, IFDC, at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

As Fashion Week hit New York, a very different kind of runway show was happening in Washington.

At Inspirefest this summer, Liz Jackson teased the official launch of the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC), to follow in September.

Now, the time has come, and Jackson has enlisted Irish disability activist (and PhD student and writer) Sinéad Burke as collective chair of the world’s first fashion trade association for people with disabilities.

Inspirefest 2017

The official launch of IFDC came in tandem with a White House visit for Jackson and Burke. Both were in attendance for a special fashion show at the US president’s homestead, which put inclusive design, assistive technology and prosthetics on the catwalk.

Featured on the runway were bionic arms, hearing aids, scoliosis braces, and clothes to better fit little people.

Under the theme of ‘Design for All’, this event brought together designers, models and other individuals for discussion on the industry and how design can change lives.

It all chimes perfectly with Jackson’s own speech from the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre stage, where she declared, “I believe that products made for people with disabilities are so ugly that it’s deadly.”

Falling out of bed and finding a purpose

For Jackson, this road to becoming founder and president of the IFDC (and getting invited to the White House) began four years ago when she fell out of bed. What followed was a complex diagnosis on the chronic neuromuscular spectrum, which affects her muscle function.

Evidently a person with style, Jackson began to wonder why she could source functional yet fashionable eyewear while her now-essential cane and all other assistive products were unattractive and stigmatising.

Through her blog, she became known as The Girl with the Purple Cane and began exploring this disconnect in design that left assistive products in an ugly wasteland.

‘I believe that products made for people with disabilities are so ugly that it’s deadly’

While Jackson doesn’t claim to have any answers, the questions raised by her concerns prompted her to define a new design concept.

Universal design, devised in 1997, attempts to accommodate people of all abilities through seven principles. It has its failings, but what Jackson highlights most is that none of the principles prioritise beauty or emotional connection – the core of great design.

“We need to be inspired to use the products that we need,” she said.

The principles of neo-universal design espoused by IFDC take this into account. First, you must design for the exception, then you take that exception and create a beautiful, not bland, solution.

It’s a concept as attractive and necessary as the products it inspires. The stigmatisation of assistive products results in reluctant uptake and increased risk for those with disabilities. Additionally, Jackson claims that disability is an $8trn emerging market the size of China.

IFDC, assemble

So far, there are six brands (and one fashion academic) listed as founding members of the IFDC. Model Jillian Mercado, perhaps one of the most recognisable people living with muscular dystrophy in the world today, serves as foundation chair, while designer Carrie Hammer, whose keynote directly preceded Jackson’s at Inspirefest, has joined as a board member.

Burke’s involvement also came via the Inspirefest connection. She had presented earlier in the week on finding her voice online via social media. She is also a dedicated follower of fashion and, naturally, connected with Jackson behind the scenes.

IFDC’s mission is to increase the impact of beautiful, functional, sustainable products in our everyday lives and in the global economy. It will begin accepting new members in early 2017, offering access to mentorship and disability advisers, as well as grants, programmes and online resources.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.