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How accessible is the beauty world to those with disabilities?

Disability campaigner Sam Renke, beauty YouTuber Kaitlyn Dobrow, and the charity Scope share their thoughts on how the industry can do better

For Sam Renke, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bones disease, make-up is not a mask but a way to express herself. “Fashion and beauty have given me confidence when, from a very young age, I felt like I was discriminated against,” Renke says. “Growing up, I struggled with not being able to do much aesthetically about how I looked. I’ve got scars on my body and during my teenage years felt very different from everybody else – at one point, I found it quite difficult to look in the mirror.” 

Renke remembers when she was out shopping with her family and noticed more people staring than usual. She burst into tears, and her sister turned to her. “‘Have you ever thought people stare at you because you look incredible?’ she asked. Since then I try to think people are looking at me because I look shit hot… because I’ve got my red lipstick on and because I’ve got my hair done nicely.”

However, while make-up has been empowering for Renke, in many ways, the world of beauty – from appointments at the hairdressers and going shopping for make-up, to serving the looks that she wants to – can feel inaccessible to someone like her. “I have heard a lot of stories of people in wheelchairs being turned away from nail bars,” Renke explains. “Generally, I know which places have access, but even just little things can be tricky – like if you want to get make-up done as a trial, a lot of the seats or stools are very high and they don’t have many provisions for someone in a wheelchair. I tend to go to Westfield Centre because the shops are all accessible – I don’t go to the high street,” she says. 

“I have heard a lot of stories of people in wheelchairs being turned away from nail bars. Generally, I know which places have access, but even just little things can be tricky – like if you want to get make-up done as a trial, a lot of the seats or stools are very high and they don’t have many provisions for someone in a wheelchair” – Sam Renke 

Due to this lack of accessibility, Renke is often forced to buy online and gets all of her treatments done at home, mostly through apps. “I use Blow for my waxing, eyebrow shaping, and eyelashes – someone always comes to me and their face drops when they see me at the door. There is often a bit of an awkward moment,” she says. “It’s a different person each time usually. Now that I’ve used it so regularly, I get a regular person to do my eyelashes but for other things, like a bikini wax, I don’t always get the same person. I like to transfer to the bed and I’ve got a fracture in my leg that’s constantly there so I have to constantly say, ‘we’ve got to do it like this’. No-one’s ever been overtly discriminatory towards me, but I feel like it shocks them.” Renke points out that these specialist treatments can rack up financially. “People should know that we’re paying a premium,” she says. 

According to Warren Kirwan, head of communications at disability equality charity Scope, Renke’s experience is not unique. “Disabled people deserve the same chance as everyone else to look and feel good,” he says. “But inaccessible products, shops, and websites – along with a lack of representation – mean disabled people can end up forgotten by the fashion and beauty industry.” Scope has identified that the extra cost of someone with a disability is £570 a month extra, on average. But the total spending power of families with at least one disabled person is estimated at £249 billion a year. Kirwan would like to see high streets become more accessible because “accessible shopping is business-savvy and makes our society more beautiful for everyone.”

While Renke orders treatments or only visits places that she knows are accessible, many disabled people shop online. Kaitlyn Dobrow, a 25-year-old beauty YouTuber from Lake Tahoe, California, says she finds most of her products over the internet, which is useful when she’s not in the mood to go out shopping. If she does, people can be curious or questioning about her condition. “I’ve had similar (inaccessibility) experiences to Sam,” she explains. “But not always with make-up stores, they seem to be pretty good with accessibility. In smaller areas, there are a lot of places where they have stairs and they won’t have elevators, so then I’m kind of like, ‘hmm’. But other than that, it’s not really a huge problem in the US. I do buy a lot of from Ulta or Sephora – if I’m near one I would have to go in!”

On YouTube, there’s a whole world of people like Dobrow who are creating beautiful make-up tutorials while talking about their disabilities. While some of Dobrow’s videos are straight-up product reviews, others – like What Happened To Me? No Arms! No Legs! (with almost 10 million views) – are about her disability and elsewhere, she’s opened up about her mental health. After she suffered from bacterial meningitis aged 18, she now applies her make-up with her prosthetic arm, something that in no way limits her creativity. She got into YouTubing after she came out of the hospital three years ago, and started watching YouTube tutorials by people like Jaclyn Hill and Jeffree Star. “I felt as if I couldn’t do much for myself anymore and doing my make-up helped me become independent again,” she explains. “It made me feel as if I have some sort of control over my face.” 

One bonus from vlogging that Kaitlyn has found is a make-up community online, when it can sometimes be hard to connect with people in real life. “It’s given me a lot of people to talk to, a community,” Dobrow explains. “I don’t go out very much, partly because I’m just constantly working on the videos, keeping up with the editing which takes longer than you think!” She continues on to say that comments are mostly positive: “There are of course random ones where you can tell they have a problem that has nothing to do with you, you think, ‘OK, you’re going through some stuff’, but my subscribers are very nice. Some people have said that I’ve helped them with getting out of bed if they’re depressed, I helped cheer them up.”

Dobrow points out that, as well as seeing an improvement in the accessibility of beauty shops in recent years, some beauty brands are also going to lengths to create accessible products. UK-based brand Grace has created add-ons for their mascara including a ring grip and square grip for those who might find it hard to handle the product when applying. “It’s a great idea,” says Dobrow effusively. “Although I’m not one for help so I wouldn’t want to see the majority of brands doing this but for this brand, I think it could be very very helpful!” 

As for improving IRL beauty retailers, Renke currently runs a project called Don’t Want Our Cash, which campaigns for the high street to become more accessible for people with disabilities – both in terms of physical barriers like steps that block wheelchairs and also emotional ones, like training staff to treat people with disabilities fairly, or guide the blind. “The Don’t Want Our Cash campaign encourages brands to get on board with identifying that there are disabled consumers out there, and serving them better can help them profit.” Renke stresses that everyone can do their bit to call out retailers that aren’t accessible: “My campaign encourages people on Facebook and Twitter to post pictures of places that aren’t accessible to highlight the fact that we do live in a disabled world.” 

In addition to this, Renke says we need better disabilities training for staff at beauty retailers: “All shops should have inclusion and equality training, just to make staff more aware. For example, if someone is autistic, they go into a shop and if they are not quote-on-quote ‘acting normal’, whatever that is, at least then maybe the shop assistant won’t automatically assume that they’re being weird or aggressive,” she says. A lot of her friends with cerebral palsy get told consistently that they are confused for being drunk, and there’s an assumption that people with learning disabilities are going to be violent, she tells us. “Just starting to look at the world differently is the best thing, changing attitudes… and we can only do that by having training, which needs to be delivered by someone with a disability.” 

The Scope Helpline suggests locating accessible beauty businesses here.