Custom prosthetics and hearing aids. Button-down shirts that are fastened with strong magnets. Pants with design features for those with limited mobility.
Fashion and fashionable trends for those with disabilities is brought front and center in (dis)ABLED Beauty: the evolution of beauty, disability and ability, at the Kent State University Museum. The exhibit opened in late July in the Stager and Blum galleries.
The inspiration behind the project, said Dr. Tameka Ellington, co-curator and assistant professor of fashion design at Kent State, was a project she had worked on with co-curator Dr. Stacey Lim, assistant professor of audiology at Central Michigan University.
"She and I conducted a research study with teens and asked them about the aesthetic and functional qualities of their hearing devices," Ellington said. "We even asked them if they had the opportunity to design their own device what would it look like. From this research we discovered an entire world that we had not known before. There are manufacturers making fashionable and functional products for people with a variety of disabilities. We felt it was important to highlight how people with disabilities love to be fashionable too, and they can with these products."
The exhibition featuring more than 40 items including prostheses, hearing devices, and mobility devices aims to change the negative stigma associated with disability. The items featured in this exhibition are not for concealing, but rather, they were designed to be seen and shown off, such as a dress decorated with old hearing aid batteries, prosthetics made in vibrant colors, and hearing aids with geometric patterns.
"The most critical concept to know is that now assistive devices are being made not to necessarily be covered up like in the past," she said. "Some people are using their prosthetics, hearing devices or other devices as a way to show off their personality. They become pieces of artwork, fashion accessories and conversation starters, not something to be tucked away. This phenomenon has allowed wearers to be more open about their disability which promotes a higher level of self-esteem and self-efficacy regarding their disability. It also promotes a better understanding of this special population of people to become better accepted among the mainstream society instead of looked at as different or negative like in the past."
(dis)ABLED BEAUTY will run through March 12, 2017 at Kent State, but Ellington said that they just received a grant from the Calhoun Foundation in Akron, and the project will be extended to the Akron area with lectures and other public programs, to be announced at a later date.
Ellington called the display a "labor of love."
"This project was a three-year journey," she said. "We began by working toward the concept and trying to attain funding. Once we got sponsors on board, the funding was in place, then everything was set in motion. There was hours of planning that went into making this project come to fruition and a wonderful team of people who had a hand in its success."
The term "disability" needs to be redefined, Ellington said, "because with society's narrow way of thinking, we are missing the greatness of a wonderful group of people."
"We want the audience to see that fashion, beauty and disability do go hand in hand," she said. "Just because someone is missing their limb or has a hearing loss or other form of disability, don't dismiss that person's sense of style and the personality that comes with that style. I hope the exhibition helps to deconstruct the stigma around what society says it means to be disabled and beautiful."
About the Museum
The Kent State University Museum is at 515 Hilltop Drive, at the corner of E. Main St. and S. Lincoln St. in Kent. For details, call 330-672-3450 or visit www.kent.edu/museum.