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Deaf Fashion

Balancing Style and Accessibility

by Adam Pottle

On March 15, 2021, Vogue published an article focusing on Chella Man, a Deaf model, actor, and activist. Man had partnered with New York jeweler Private Policy to create a line of ear jewelry that "celebrates the deaf and hard of hearing communities." The intricately crafted gold-plated ear cuffs, which come in such variations as "The Arrow" and "The Hands & Moon," are meant to be worn alongside one's hearing aids or cochlear implants, or even on their own. Their purpose: to draw attention to the beauty of being Deaf and hard of hearing.

Man and Private Policy's creations are the latest addition to the Deaf community's rapidly developing presence in mainstream fashion. In 2015, Deaf model Nyle DiMarco won America's Next Top Model; each year, Gallipoli, Italy hosts International Deaf Fashion Week; Deaf tattoo conventions occur around the world; and Deaf and Tattooed, an online web series featured on YouTube, premiered in late 2020, documenting the stories of Deaf people and their tattoos.

These endeavours often face an irksome issue, an issue best summarized by the question, "How do we balance accessibility with personal style?"

This question pops up frequently in disability communities. We may want to look a certain way or acquire a certain item of clothing or a specific fashion accessory, but our choices may make it difficult for us to interact with others or occupy the same spaces as our non-disabled peers. What suits us stylistically may not help us in terms of accessibility, and what may be accessible is not often fashionable.

Artists are creating new styles while taking control of their cultural narratives.

For Deaf people, this issue has particular nuance; I have bristled against it since I was a child. I was born deaf but grew up in a hearing family, which meant I had to conform to the hearing way of doing things: listening, speaking, using hearing devices, and reading lips whenever possible. I had to wear hearing aids at home and Frequency Modulation, or FM, systems at school, and they were not at all fashionable. 

It seemed the manufacturers of these devices had endeavoured to make them as bland and galling as possible: clunky devices cased in flat tones of beige and brown, grey wires stemming from my FM unit, a fanny pack to carry my FM system. I always felt discomforted whenever I put my hearing devices on, not only because I was being forced to conform to the hearing way of doing things, but I had no means of expressing myself through these devices the way I was able to through everything else I wore. In other words, the hearing devices were a glitch in my style.

My style is eclectic, ranging from heavy metal T-shirts and Under Armor sportswear to wool sweaters and collared shirts. I have tattoos all over my body, a few of them plain to see on my left arm. I have a hearing aid, but I seldom wear it, for the reasons stated above; I used to have an earring, but it's been years since I've worn it.

When dressing up hearing devices, one must be able to access one's volume controls and ensure the device remains comfortable. Several companies sell hearing aid sleeves in different colours and patterns; these are made chiefly for protection against water and dirt, though, and are more practical than fashionable. Others, including Etsy, a prominent artistic website, sell "Cochlear Cuties," cochlear implant attachments shaped like butterflies, along with hearing aid stickers. And while it's comforting to see endeavours like Man and Private Policy's, not everyone likes golden ear cuffs, nor can everyone afford them (the least expensive cuffs are $330 USD).

I was born deaf but grew up in a hearing family, which meant I had to conform to the hearing way of doing things.

If I had to choose an accessory for my hearing aid, I'd want an attachment that makes it look like something from an Aliens movie, a black scaly piece that curls down from my ear and makes it look like a tiny xenomorph has glommed onto my head. In terms of Sign Language, one must choose one's style carefully, for one's fashion choices can create distractions. Shirts with heavily contrasting colours, patterns, or designs can cause confusion when signing. Hand tattoos are particularly contentious; I've thought many times about getting hand tattoos, but they can make it difficult for my Deaf peers to follow my signs.

A great example of balancing accessibility with fashionability arose during this year's Super Bowl when Warren "Wawa" Snipe, a Deaf rap artist, performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Sign. Snipe wore a beautiful collared magenta shirt with a matching magenta tie to ensure his expressive, animated signs were clearly visible. The result: his performance went viral, and the world experienced the beauty of Sign.

Warren "Wawa" Snipe , a Deaf rap artist, performing "The Star Spangled Banner" in Sign. credit: WAWA's World on Facebook and CBS Sports.

Fashion and visibility often go hand in hand. The ultimate goal, though, is not to simply be in fashion; it's to create a permanent cultural presence. Deaf and disabled people have been creating innovative fashion for hundreds of years; however, our contributions have only recently begun to be noticed. New ideas are bubbling up. Artists are creating new styles while taking control of their cultural narratives. As we stake a larger claim in the fashion world and become more visible in the mainstream through our artistry and our advocacy, our style will be noticed more and more, providing us new opportunities to display our talent and create lasting change, so keeping accessibility and style in balance is paramount to forging an ongoing cultural presence that ensures our full humanity is seen.

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