Beauty And Disability Inclusivity - Are We Really Doing Enough?

Charlotte Bitmead
·8-min read
Photo credit: Issy Muir - Getty Images
Photo credit: Issy Muir - Getty Images

From ELLE

There are approximately 13.9 million people in the UK who are living with a disability. It's an incredibly high number when you stop to consider how often you actually see it represented within the media. The answer is, sadly, too little.

However, the beauty industry is starting to change the conversation, beginning with Gucci Beauty. The brand launched its new L’Obscur mascara in June but what was really game-changing were the images that accompanied it. Featuring Ellie Goldstein – an 18-year-old model from Essex with Down’s Syndrome – as one of the faces, the campaign sparked praise for its inclusivity and became the brand's most-liked Instagram post ever.

But, considering the wave of positive responses, why exactly did it take so long for a luxury beauty brand to make a statement of disability inclusivity? And, more to the point, why should it still be considered a 'bold move' to make beauty products that can be used by everyone, not just the non-disabled?

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

According to the BBC, there are some seven million people in the UK of working age with a disability. Despite the fact that living in the UK costs you £550 more money per month if you’ve got a disability, the ‘purple pound’ (money spent by those with a disability) is worth roughly £249 billion to the UK economy per year. If not from a moral standpoint, it seems financially illogical to exclude or discourage such a large demographic of the population from the beauty industry.

More than just optics, disability inclusivity should span everything from representation within campaigns, to conscientious shopping experiences, to brands designing products that specifically cater to certain disabilities. Thankfully, in the past few years, there has been a surge of independent brands hoping to bridge this gap and make it easier for people living with a disability to enjoy the power of make-up.

It’s naive, and frankly more than a little insulting, to think that just because you have a disability, you don't enjoy the process of applying make-up. ‘Disabled people are like everyone else and enjoy the same things,' says Emma Muldoon, owner of Simply Emma, the UK’s leading Disability and Travel blog. 'I think many people don’t realise, or forget that about disabled people. We lead great lives and want the same things and, for many disabled people, like myself, that includes a love of make-up and beauty.'

Emma has a progressive muscle-wasting condition, which limits her strength and means she’s unable to lift her arms up to apply make-up: ‘It makes doing my make-up feel like a workout. My back, neck and arms would hurt and tire so much from doing my make-up. Muscle weakness affects my ability to hold a brush.'

Luckily, beauty brand Kohl Kreatives has made the process a lot easier. It's famous for its flexible make-up brushes that bend to make applying make-up easier and a whole lot more comfortable. The vegan brushes feature an easy-to-grip base in a variety of shapes that allow you to get into those hard-to-reach places. A percentage of the proceeds is also donated to its charity Kohl Kares, which focuses on empowering people through make-up.

Another beauty brand specialising in precision and encouraging diversity inclusivity is Guide Beauty. Founded by Terri Bryant, a former Dior make-up artist, Guide Beauty was created after Bryant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

‘Make-up artistry often requires a high level of precision and fine motor skills,' Bryan told ELLE. 'Drawing a straight line of eyeliner and defining symmetrical brows are just a few examples of techniques that many make-up users find challenging and time-consuming.

'Five years ago, after noticing some struggles of my own, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. My personal experience and that shift in my ability has allowed me to actually feel where traditional tools and products can fall short in achieving great results.'

Through observing how users with a range of disabilities struggled with current make-up products, Guide Beauty has created eyeliner, mascara and a brow gel that are designed to provide comfortability and precision when applying make-up.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

‘When it comes to make-up and different abilities, there has long been a misconception that you either create products for those that are non-disabled or for some niche market with a specific disability and physical limitation. These are not mutually exclusive,' says Bryant.

'I was able to discover a better way for all, as a result of having Parkinson’s and how it began to affect my own ability to apply make-up with precision and ease. The ultimate goal is not accommodation, but inclusion.'

If you're a winged eyeliner fan, then you'll know that perfecting that sharp pointed cat eye is hard at the best of times. Add to that a physical disability and it can turn a difficult make-up look into something that's near-impossible to achieve. Celebrity make-up artist Veronica Lorenz decided to make the impossible possible when she created The Vamp Stamp, after developing a benign cervical spinal cord tumour that left her with little feeling in her hands.

As the name suggests, the product features a pointed stamp that – when lined up with the corner of your eye – can create a flawless cat eye, cutting out a lot of frustration and time. ‘It’s very important to feel good about yourself and the way you look and have that self-confidence,' Lorenz told IPSY. 'Make-up gives that to women and men. If you feel good, you look good. I don’t regret getting sick because I’ve learned a lot and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for it.'

Disabilities don't all fit into one box either. In fact, in many cases, it's what you can't see, rather than what you can.

According to the NHS, there are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss. When it comes to being visually impaired, more brands than ever are including braille on their packaging to make the process of using beauty products easier, but it’s still nowhere near common enough.

Skincare and body brand, L’Occitane has braille on approximately 70% of its product lines, with the rest being smaller objects such as soaps, where it’s more challenging to implement. Skincare brand Bioderma and body care brand BECO feature braille on the external packaging of their products. Where the industry's efforts with braille fall short is with make-up. But, if make-up brands are under the assumption that those who are visually impaired don't want to wear mascara, then they're sorely mistaken.

Photo credit: L'Occitane
Photo credit: L'Occitane

Unless the brand has distinctive packaging (hello, Too Faced) it can be frustrating trying to tell beauty products apart. Beauty and Fashion YouTuber Molly Burke has created her own braille labels for her make-up products with no distinctive qualities, such as single eyeshadows. ‘One of the benefits of being a blind girl is that I can walk out of the house and be as confident with no make-up on as I am with make-up on but, nonetheless, I still enjoy wearing make-up,' she explains in one video.

Through mirrorless make-up tutorials, Burke tries and tests new products, as well as showing her followers how she goes about applying them. ‘For me, being able to use my hands ensures I cover every inch of my face, then I’ll go in with a brush after,' she explains.

There is no ‘one way suits all’ when it comes to disabilities. Everyone’s experiences and conditions are different, as is their relationship with beauty. Adapting routines to suit individual needs is an immense skill and one that the beauty world needs to address and make easier, rather than ignore.

‘There definitely isn't a big enough conversation happening around this topic and more should be done,' Emma Muldoon believes. 'I think a reason for this is fear. Brands fear saying or doing the wrong things that may offend disabled people. But through knowledge and use of correct language, brands could remove that fear and have inclusive marketing and products that cater to everyone.'

When beauty brands will only gain from becoming disability inclusive – not just through tokenistic campaign images, but through meaningful changes to product packaging, design and user experience – there's no excuse for exclusion.

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