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Disability and Professional Dress: A Lawyer’s Perspective

Joy Moonan


  • Persons with a disability may lack dexterity and muscle coordination to wear certain types of clothing or footwear.
  • Clothing and foot apparel for persons with a disability can be difficult to find even with online shopping options.
  • A variety of factors should be considered regarding the clothing a person wears due to sensory perspectives.
  • Outdated norms of professional attire need to be adjusted.
Disability and Professional Dress: A Lawyer’s Perspective
Kinga Krzeminska via Getty Images

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We have tons of labels that describe the “vibe” or “look” associated with dressbusiness casual, formal attire, smart casual, or just regular clothing. Before law school, the concept of courtroom attire was foreign to me. I grew up as a first-generation American, and clothing wasn’t so strictly defined—my grandmother was a farmer who lived off her land, as did the women before her. Dressing up for us implied some kind of big event, and jeans were treasured as luxuries from what I remember.

Before I went to law school, I didn’t own a single piece of business or courtroom wear. Dressing professionally as a female was complicated in a conservative profession such as mine. My classmates and I didn’t always have the means to afford outfits representing conservative professional ideals. I still remember conversations with other women about dress—some were concerned about the ability to look professional while going through a pregnancy, a recent health event, and other things that impacted how they dressed.

Our school held a fashion show of sorts to showcase what was and was not acceptable in the classroom or a courtroom. Granted, most people did their best to adhere to this dress code for the first few weeks—as time went on, most students showed up mostly in what the fashion show deemed as casual wear.

I know for a fact that I regularly showed up to class in jeans—not because I wanted to, but because my disability just isn’t accommodating to buttons and zippers. I have Cerebral Palsy, so elastic pants were easier to manipulate in the bathroom because I lack the dexterity and muscle coordination to independently button or zip. When I did manage to find a pair of elastic pants, I would buy the same pants in multiple colors. Jeans became my go-to option because elasticity features were much more common. They also tended to be more readily available at the stores I had available in my area.

Online shopping was an option that I had as a teenager and now as an adult, but I couldn’t always easily tell if the clothing advertised would be suitable for me. Clothing that seemed feasible based on the photo alone rarely was a reality. Every woman has curves and proportions that don’t always align with cookie-cutter dimensions of what is factory-standard. Often, I would order something online only to need to return it because the material was too long or short in some places rather than others. Additionally, the fabric itself could impact me from a sensory perspective—denim was a happy medium because my sensation isn’t consistent across my body. Denim is not perfect, but it’s doable given the need to be covered, and it’s durable across frequent hygiene needs. The fabric doesn’t easily break or tear, and that’s important when using a reacher tool. My reacher tool or grab stick helps me to dress independently so that I can loop the material onto my legs. This tool also helps to bunch up more lengthy material so that I can pull it up as I hold onto the bathroom handrails.

If I’m not wearing jeans, I need assistance dressing, and I can’t go to the bathroom afterward. To maintain a “professional look,” I would need to carefully monitor my fluid intake and time it around the bathroom assistance that I could get. This would mean I couldn’t drink anything or use the bathroom until I got home.

The shoes I wore and still utilize can come across as casual tennis shoes in appearance, but they have a secret disability function. My shoes have additional grips since I am prone to falling. Shoes have always been an issue for me because I needed grip support and the ability to fit my orthotics or foot braces. My disability often means that functionality is a much bigger priority than fashion, style, or even cost.

Growing up, I required foot braces that went all the way up to my knees. The foot braces added extra bulk to my pants and shoe width. The nature of the orthotic caused a wider toe than I had naturally without it. Furthermore, my feet aren’t the same size, and the proportions of my feet differ. My weaker leg needed more support, so the orthotic for that foot had more structural support than the orthotic for my better leg. Wearing the brace would cause my pant leg to become too tight. Heat to my legs and feet increased because the braces are made of plastic. I had to wear full-length socks that had to be changed often because I would sweat. The sweating would then cause athlete’s foot, an intense burning itch.

My struggles with footwear eventually led me to stop wearing my foot braces completely. It was risky, but shopping was never fun. The sweating made me self-conscious, and the itchiness never seemed to abate itself, even with recommended foot sprays or foot creams. My mobility and fall risks mean that flats, scandals, and heels are out of the question.

I have always had issues with my shoes falling off, but wearing flats or heels was a sure guarantee that it would happen. I would try to keep my feet rigid even when spasms would cause movement. But, hey, I looked like a real lawyer—a modern businesswoman!

Professional dress has taken on a significance in my profession because some people tie it to respect for the law or court in general. Signage outside the courtroom now gives public notice as to what is and is not proper attire. I have seen judges reschedule a court appearance because they took offense at a party’s clothing. I control what I can by making sure to stick to solid-color clothes with minimal logos.

I would like to see greater diversity within clothing types for all genders and for people of various abilities. I am asking people to re-evaluate what they consider to be “professional” dress and the reasons that cause them to feel that way. Many people will point to history or tradition, but social views and norms are rapidly changing as people move further from the past. Innovation requires a willingness to be bold in breaking barriers that limited other generations. I do worry about the commodity aspect associated with a particular style or brand because it could cause products designed for those with disabilities to become out of reach both financially and in terms of availability. This happened with Nike’s FlyEase laceless shoe, which was designed for those with limited mobility; the company’s intentionally limited supply of the product made it more of a collector’s item. Resellers quickly capitalized on this, and auction sites listed the product for thousands of dollars over its original shelf price of $120. Consequently, very few people in the disability community were able to benefit from the FlyEase, despite the company’s original intent for the product.

Shoes are just one element of dress as people look to match or convey a theme of sorts with what they wear. It is true that a person’s dress can reflect a sense of personal style or individuality. However, the cultural connotations of what it means to be professionally dressed largely stem from outdated norms of what a man or woman should be.

Dress can also be used to send a personal message. These days, people with a stake in the outcome of a court case will try to influence jurors through clothing, accessories, and other items that advocate their position—for example, friends and family of the victim might wear “Justice for John Doe” shirts along with a photo of the aggrieved person. I have also seen posters and bracelets advocating a position brought into the courtroom and passed around there for inevitable view by the jury. In all these instances, I do agree that policing must occur to a certain extent to prevent improperly influencing jury members. While some people may view this as a form of censorship, I would argue that the issue is the manner in which the message is communicated, given the orderliness of trials and the importance of ensuring fairness. Those wishing to advocate on behalf of a loved one can still do so through letters and victim-impact statements. Witnesses in a case are often permitted to opine as to a person’s character and give further insight into the personal impact that a case or incident has had on their lives. Attorneys who are skillful in their questioning of a witness can shed light on the impact of a case through their examination of the relationship between the witness and the person being discussed. Clothing advocating for a position in a case should not be worn in a courtroom.

However, I disagree with the notion that my “casual” clothing reflects a lack of respect for the court or the law. I don’t think judgments of my ability to be a professional should be based on my clothing—whether I am at a job interview or otherwise. As a former officer of the court, I believe my level of professionalism should be judged based on my behavior and how I treat others.

Many factors can influence dress: culture, socioeconomics, and personal taste—but also disability considerations. Today, I am grateful that designers are making clothing that factors in accessibility and disability needs despite higher costs. Still, I hope that workforce participants in the office, courtroom, and beyond will reconsider what it truly means to be professionally dressed.