Friday, December 8, 2023

Why The Sustainability Conversation Is Failing To Consider The Needs Of the Disabled Community

Care, dignity and the value of “Everybody deserves nice things” are the backbone of Kiwi company Brolly Sheets, whose new product Texi are designed for adults with incontinence. When it comes to the varied needs of the disabled community, we may be getting better at representation but we need to be better at talking about ‘the messy bits’, say disability advocate Grace Stratton and creator of Brolly Sheets, Diane Hurford.

The conversation around climate change and sustainability has picked up pace rapidly in the past few years, with both brands and society at large making big leaps to replace single-use items with reusable ones. But there is a large swath of the population who rely on disposable items in order to bring a little bit of ease or a little bit of dignity to their daily lives and all too often, their needs aren’t even considered.

Take straws, for instance. “A lot of people with different disabilities, when they go out to restaurants, they rely on having a straw to be able to independently drink a drink at a restaurant. But often restaurants don’t have them anymore,” says Grace Stratton, Director of Inclusive Fashion Company and Marketing Agency All Is For All. When this point was raised, she says, people “had no time for this conversation, that for a percentage of the population, disposable items are necessary. And until you’ve dealt with an adult who needs those products, or until you know the disability community, you really don’t have any right to comment or to judge them.”

When Diane Hurford, creator of the Kiwi company Brolly Sheets, first mentioned the idea of producing disposable nappies for adults living with a disability, the push-back was immediate, she says; her advisors and even her friends couldn’t reconcile the idea that throwaway products fit with the brand’s ethos. “I said to them, ‘Did you use disposables for your babies?… If you wouldn’t use cloth for a baby, why would you expect someone to use cloth for an adult.’ People are fine with using disposables for babies, without stigma, but then there’s kick back when it comes to using them for adults. I don’t understand it at all.”

All photos supplied

Diane created Brolly Sheets in 2006 when she designed a reusable bed pad with wings, to help save parents time when their children wet their bed in the middle of the night. The range expanded to create products for adult incontinence and special needs as well, with the brand’s belief of ‘care and dignity’ prioritised in every item. This new addition to the range, Texi, (sold through sister brand Independently You), are disposable nappies that are meant for youth and adults. Brolly Sheets were the first of their kind when they designed a waterproof top sheet for ease of use but also because they were comfortable and didn’t crinkle, meaning that they were not only practical but pleasant to use.

This very simple value – that everyone deserves nice things – is paramount to everything that comes out of the Brolly Sheets stable. Diane references a mum she’s close to, who has an 11-year-old son with disabilities that mean he’s in a gravity chair and he also has up to five seizures a night. This is hard – it’s hard for the boy, and it’s hard for his mum. Disposable items can make life that little bit quicker and easier for those who need convenience the most. “It’s about having conversations with the people out there who have these issues, and giving them a voice to say, ‘Hey, we care about the planet as much as everyone else but there are some things we need to make life a little easier,’” says Diane.

Diane and her team at Texi know disposables aren’t great for the planet, but they are a necessity of life for some.  Texi are sourced with over 30% sustainable components, and they plant a tree in New South Wales for every four packs sold.  This is early days in the product life of Texi, but the team has plenty of ideas on how they can improve the footprint.   

 “It’s really about broadening the sustainability conversation to say that just because you have these needs, it doesn’t mean your ability to advocate for the planet is any less,” Grace adds. “We have to be responsible for the lives that we lead and this is just the reality.”

Photography by Becki Moss, styling by Tori Ambler, Make-Up by Fiona Goodard

Grace has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, so advocating for the disability community is not just her professional life, it’s part of her personal life as well. She and the All is For All team work with a range of inclusive fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands and starting working with Brolly Sheets when they launched their Independently You products. The imagery that advertises the Texi product was done with tremendous care and attention. (Grace jokes that it’s the first advertisement for adult nappies that also includes a Gucci necklace). The models, model Mamie Rose and Paralympian Rebecca Dubber both live with disabilities and the photographer, Becki Moss, is a visual storyteller and invisible chronic illness advocate. The photos are glossy and glamorous, showing stylish and independent women meeting up for a coffee. All of this is a deliberate leap away from the kinds of photos usually used to demonstrate incontinence-related products, which normally feature an aesthetic that Grace describes as “sad-looking people with disabilities or products with cartoons all over them!”

“When we were thinking about what we wanted to do with the photos, what we really wanted to do was figure out a way to break through that shame and stigma. Because there’s so much,” Grace says. “People hate talking about the realities of disability and the messy bits – and there are so many messy bits when it comes to disability, whether you’re talking about toileting or dealing with your period. There are so many bits that are so much harder but until we’re able to break through that shame and stigma, we won’t be able to have an accessible society where people are able to have equal opportunities.”

“We wanted these images to show that you can be a successful person, going to work or going out to dinner with your friends, and wear Texi – these two things can go together,” she continues. “But the fact is, we live in a society that just assumes that everyone who is disabled or needs to use this kind of product has a lower expectation for the products that they buy – and for their lives.”

Diane recalls a conversation she had with the mother of the 11-year-old in the gravity chair. Her son needed to use a bib, due to excessive saliva, but the only option available to him at the time, was something meant for a small child. It prompted Diane to add youth and adult bibs, plus bandanas to the Brolly Sheets range, but there was a particular line the mother said that Diane still finds moving to this day. “She said, ‘When he goes out, I want him to look nice, so that people know he’s loved.’ And she’s right, you don’t want to put a baby bib on an 11-year-old, with ducks on it or something. But it’s really stuck with me: ‘I want people to know that he’s loved.’”

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