In some circles, I think being fashionable and stylish means more than just wearing the hottest trend or one-of-a-kind outfit that only celebrities have access to and can afford. Personally, I don’t believe these kinds of status symbols truly represent the definition of fashion. To me, the true meaning of fashion goes down to a much deeper level. The circle I am referring to is the world of disabilities, and the significant facet of self-worth and confidence gained by clothing, garments, shoes, and accessories.
My name is Kendra Gottsleben and on November 3, 1984, I was born strong and healthy without any signs of impending health complications. Similar to other new parents, my mom and dad were excited for my life—full of limitless possibilities. However, unexpectedly a few months later, they would learn about my condition and their lives would change, beginning with endless doctor appointments that still continue today. Finally at the age of four, I was diagnosed with a very rare enzyme disorder called Mucopolysaccararidosis Type VI (MPS VI) also known as Maroteaux-Lamy. One in 215,000 people are diagnosed with this condition. In essence, my body is missing the enzyme needed to cleanse my cells, which results in a buildup of a gluey-like substance that affects my heart, eyes, connective tissue, and other vital organs.
Now an adult, my parents’ hope for my achieving success in life has become a reality anyway, despite my diagnosis. This is largely due to the positive attitude and determination my parents instilled in me at a very young age. I was taught worthy achievements required hard work and persistence. Although I cannot choose my obstacles, I can choose my attitude.
Regarding fashion, as an individual with a disability, I’ve always strived to wear clothing like my friends and peers, but the truth is, it hasn’t always been easy for me. Due to my short stature, it has been hard to find clothing that not only fits me, but also is representative of my age, especially as I’ve gotten older. One example that is forever ingrained in my memory was the frustration I felt when searching for age-appropriate dresses to wear to school dances and prom. In addition, finding a dress with zippers that I could manage myself was nearly impossible.
Despite these challenges, I haven’t let it stop me from attempting to be as fashionable as possible with what little options I can find. This motivation comes from the feeling of confidence I possess when I’m wearing a sophisticated outfit that accurately portrays my personality, outlook and professional success.
Terms like “dress for success,” “fashionista,” and “style” are common words and phrases we regularly hear in today’s society, but unfortunately, they can be harder to achieve for those of us within the community of disabilities. The reality is that when I am able to put together an outfit similar to the style of a fellow peer, I believe it substantially helps improve my self-worth and confidence level. It even creates a commonality for me, too. Therefore, when I stumble upon a dress or outfit that I love—one that I’m even able to put on myself—I can’t help but to feel empowered. I’ll think to myself, “I’ll just throw on a necklace, a bracelet, and maybe some rings or earrings, and this outfit will be perfect!” It does not escape me that most people take something like that for granted.
As a female professional in my thirties (whose career and personal mission has much to do with advocating and educating others about rare diseases and disabilities), first impressions are everything. Being taken seriously is an important concern of mine. While an outfit may not define me, it is undeniable that it enhances me.
As both a lover of being fashionable and as an avid shopper, the idea of having other brands with adaptive clothing lines, available online and in stores, would be the most incredible answer to so many of my challenges. Personally, I prefer to shop in store, as I like the process of actually seeing how items fit before purchasing them. I haven’t been very successful ordering clothing online due to styles and cuts each fitting differently. For me, the idea of being able to go to any store and head to an adaptive clothing department is thrilling.
Dressing myself independently or with minimal assistance would be more likely if adaptive fashions were mainstreamed. That is why Runway of Dreams is such a phenomenal organization! It can sometimes be an uncomfortable situation for me when I require assistance getting dressed. To finally have more options for clothing (with magnets used in place of difficult zippers and buttons) means an immense feeling of inclusivity, newfound independence, and belonging, rather than experiencing a wall of inferiority. Selecting clothing and then looking and feeling great is part of how I am able to show the world who I am—much more than my disability.
My dream is finally becoming a reality because of Runway of Dreams—that dressing independently and being trendy will become a given instead of a goal. I am looking forward to a new chapter in my life, where fashion options are endless and accessible and where my own sense of independence and dignity is finally a constant, not an occasional luxury.